The SILF sure knows how to speak to our sordid history lovin’ hearts. This time, the juicy tidbits comes from Andrew Field, who gave chatted Saturday morning about his book, “Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954.”
Drawing from narratives straight from the socialites and journalists of the time, Field painted a vivid picture of the cabaret-and-ballroom-filled world of 1930’s Shanghai, complete with jazz,”taxi girls,” (beautiful women hired to entertain paying customers at the presentation of a ticket – hence, “taxi girls”) and the powerful gangsters who loved them. Shanghai was the Chinese front for the jazz revolution. Guys like Whitey Smith and Buck Clayton (who went on to play for Count Basie) fused Chinese folk melodies to jazz beats, inducing young Chinese to swamp the dance halls.
Fun things we learned:
1. The extravagant Shanghai ballrooms, perhaps, were the antecedents of disco studios. One featured a floor made up of glass plates fitted over colored lights.
2. The Nationalist government banned cabarets in 1927, but because Shanghai was divided up in foreign concessions and separate from Nationalist control, ballrooms and dancing halls continued to flourish in the city.
3. Shanghai-based gangster Big Eared Du ran the opium trade, owned the police, worked with the Nationalist government, and loved dance halls. When he entered a venue, he was “like the pope.” Why aren’t there 1000 Martin Scorsese films about him already?!
Separate from its historical context, though, the first-hand accounts described the exhilaration of late nights, heavy drinking, beautiful girls (Chinese and otherwise), and finding the best music amongst the 23-or-so venues around the city. It struck us as a very familiar story.
So, next time you go on a late night bender in Shanghai — remember — you are following the finest of traditions that characterized the city and revolutionized its culture.
And if you haven’t been to SILF, what are you waiting for?!