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A walk through the nightlife of old Shanghai
2014-12-15
By Joshua Cartwright

DESPITE Shanghai’s sizable (and growing) international population, foreigners still get their fair share of curious stares, as much or maybe even more so than in smaller Chinese cities and towns.

In 1988, when Dr Andrew Field first made his way to China, foreigners were few and far between.

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“I did a 5-day river cruise on the Yangtze River where I was pretty much the only foreigner on a boat full of Chinese,” Field says. “That was pretty interesting ... a real eye-opener, and it kind of turned me on to China as being such a fast-moving place of contradictions.”

He still feels that way even after spending the better part of a decade making Shanghai his work and home, though he resorts less to this self-identified cliché.

“The term I like to use these days is ‘colorful chaos.’ Every time I return to China (from a trip abroad), I’m always floored by the variety of types and sheer numbers of people who flood the streets of Shanghai on a daily basis,” he says.

Field first turned his attention to China in 1987 as a freshman at Dartmouth. After four years and a couple of trips to the country, he graduated in 1991 with a bachelor of arts in Asian Studies, then completed a PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University in 1998.

During the first two years of that program, he learned Japanese and spent the summer of 1993 in Sapporo working as a bartender in a hostess bar. That experience, Field says, gave him a new perspective on nightlife, allowing him to see the customer from a different angle while also getting to know the backgrounds of the hostesses. He says they “mostly were Japanese, and they tended to be very well-educated. Some were from other countries, including England and America.”

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This interest in nightlife, along with his fascination for China and enthusiasm for old-style jazz and pop music, converged in Shanghai. Field ended up writing his dissertation on Shanghai’s nightlife during the Republic of China period, which turned into his first book, “Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Modernity in Old Shanghai, 1919-1954.”

He moved back to Shanghai with his wife in 2007, and further devoted himself to studying the city’s culture, both past and present. This research has led to two more books — “Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist” (2014) and “Shanghai Nightscapes: A Nocturnal Biography of a Global City” (to be published in June 2015). The latter is a joint effort by Field and fellow academic Dr James Farrer.

When he manages to find time between his academic writing and administrative duties as associate dean of Hult International Business School in Shanghai, Field leads guided tours of the city every month, focusing on the musical and revolutionary history of the former French concession area.

The Jazz Tour of the Bund begins at the Astor House. If you’ve never been there, walking into the lobby is a shock; not only does it feel like you’ve been geographically displaced, but there’s also a sense of having slipped through time.

It was known previously as “one of the famous hotels of the world,” and rightfully so.

“This is the place where China first learned how to dance,” Field informs the tour’s participants as he motions to the ballroom, which unfortunately is locked. It’s where the first Tango Tea in Shanghai was held. He leads the group upstairs to a small, Tudor-style museum.

Photos of notable people who have graced the hotel over the years line the perimeter. The faces of Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and others stare out from the wall.

Dr Field proceeds to share a short history of the Astor House as a host of jazz, beginning with Whitey Smith in 1922, then moving on to Teddy Weatherford, considered to be “the first jazz ambassador to Asia.”

Weatherford is also credited with “discovering and bringing over the best US jazz band, headed by none other than Buck Clayton.” Actually, Field says, “it was Clayton who exclaimed to Whitey, ‘You taught China how to dance’!”

The next stop is the Fairmont Peace Hotel, arguably the most well-known jazz landmark in Shanghai. The ballroom is a bit narrower than it appears in pictures, but just as grand, and everyone sits down and listens to Field recap some of Sir Victor Sassoon’s accomplishments and eccentricities.

After Field has saturated the group with stories from the heyday of the Peace Hotel and the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund (the third destination), he steers everyone toward the final stop — the House of Blues and Jazz.

It seems that the tour has come full circle back to the here and now — until the band breaks into an old blues number. Heads nod in approval, feet keep the beat, and a couple of the patrons even start dancing to the magnetic tones of the night’s chanteuse.

“This is one of the few clubs where people actually dance,” Field shouts over the commotion.

Smiling, he sits back and sips his beer, surveying the scene that serves as a fitting reminder that, in Shanghai, the past is never too far from the present.


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