GOING underground in Shanghai is akin to entering another world. There are subway tunnels, restaurants and cafes, hair salons and glitzy retail outlets.
But at night, underground bars bring the city’s music scene to another level. No matter how well hidden they are, those with a nose for good music will sniff them out.
Gary Wang works as a DJ at The Shelter, perhaps the most famous underground music clubs in the city.
Every Wednesday to Saturday, this bomb shelter-turned-nightclub on Yongfu Road becomes packed with people of different nationalities who crave great dance music.
“People coming to The Shelter are open-minded — real music lovers who care about the music scene and are willing to support it,” Wang says.
“It has a unique layout with a labyrinth of low tunnels. It’s simple, minimal and matches the music we play here,” he adds. “It also makes people feel comfortable to dance.”
Both local and international electronic artists and DJs lay down the beats and rhythms to get everyone up on their feet. New international alternative dance acts are introduced weekly.
“It’s dark and loud,” Wang says. “It’s a haven for local independent promoters to present their shows. You can find a wide range of music, from reggae to techno to electro to rock to hip-hop.
Zhao Xiaomin, a local nightlife enthusiast, says The Shelter is unlike other clubs.
“It’s a club that most expats love. Unlike many others, it has no dizzying lights. The biggest attraction is the music.
“I have met people from all over the world at this underground venue. We chat, drink and dance freely in the dark. Maybe you can see my wild side here around midnight,” Zhao laughs.
Mural Bar is another underground venue that combines a mix of live bands, theme parties and DJs depending on the night.
The decor harks back to ancient China with its murals and Buddha statues.
Mural is also favored by many party-goers for its open bar every Friday night. Women get in for free before 10:30pm for the event known as Sugar Rush while men will be charged 100 yuan (US$16.10). The bar serves up a free flow of standard beers and drinks from 10pm-2am.
Saturday is Latin night and Monday is reserved for salsa lovers.
Also very popular is Shanghai Studio, where you can chill, quaff a cocktail and check out a few art installations. This underground labyrinth may just be one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
Party animals often head to clubs like The Shelter and Arkham for the music and dancing “because the dance floors are bigger and better,” says Apple He, 25, a veteran club-goer who is called “party queen” by her friends.
“But not many Chinese people feel like going subterranean,” she is quick to add, “because few people in these venues play dice games, which young Chinese like the most.”
DJ Max Shen is the manager at Arkham, 10 meters below ground on Wulumuqi Road. It hosts various bands and DJ parties.
Music ranges from techno, tech house and nu disco to hip-hop, trap and UK bass.
“We don’t do any marketing. We don’t spend much on furnishings and decor. It’s a club for dancing and music,” Shen says.
“We do pursue the quality of the experience, the music and the community embracing this. To take the scene that has been bubbling up here and driving it as far forward as possible,” he adds.
The club has just celebrated its first anniversary.
Arkham opens every Friday and Saturday from 10pm. It endeavors to add a new flavor to Shanghai’s weekend palette.
“All roads in the underground seem to wind up to this. We’d like to make it a one-stop club always ready to host the world’s top alternative musicians of all styles and backgrounds,” Shen says. “We hope it is a place where people that enjoy music for music’s sake can gather and watch this city’s underground fulfill the potential it’s always had.”
The main dance floor is the center point of a labyrinth of rooms and tunnels that wrap around it.
There are four bars within the club, downstairs and upstairs. Beyond this, there are VIP sections for those wanting to bling it up. Listening booths will be set up to preview music of upcoming shows.
Shen also plans to add a shop selling CDs, band T-shirts and other merchandise.
“We believe music is of importance and we’re not kidding,” Shen says. They have invited electro and techno legend Tiga and other artists such as Coldcut, Yuksek, Breakbot, Surki and Strip Steve.
“If this is any indication of what’s to come, you know you’re in for a good ride. Expect much more of the same in the future with addition to top live bands passing through regularly,” he says.
Expats account for the majority of Arkham’s clients and Shen attributes this mostly to lifestyle preferences.
“Chinese are less likely to stand around while drinking or go dancing,” he adds. “The international artists and shows we bring here are our connection with the party crowd.”