The Shanghai music scene is one of the most active in the world. From the numerous jazz venues to some of the world’s largest techno dance-floors, there are many possibilities to listen to live music in Shanghai. Even in the city’s parks, Chinese will setup choirs and dance every single day of the year. Let alone karaoke clubs that are most popular among Chinese young people. So what are the reasons that make music so popular in Shanghai?
To understand the relations between Shanghai and music, we could well go back to the origins of the city. The Kunshan Opera for instance belongs to the oldest traditions of entertainment and it all started a few kilometers from Shanghai. Later it spread in all of China. Not surprisingly, the famous « Peony Pavilion » Kunshan Opera (Mudan Ting, photo left) is now regularly performed in the very modern Shanghai Oriental Art Center of Pudong in a new adaptation by Taiwan director Bai Xianyong. Actually, there had always been operas performed in Shanghai, even during the Cultural Revolution time, even if the later were written by Mao's wife!
The main specificity of Shanghai music however came with the unprecedented confrontation with Western culture when the Concessions were established, especially during the 1920's and 30's. At that time masses of White Russian refugees made the city a melting pot of world music influences. Along Avenue Joffre (Huaihai Road today), where the largest number of the Russian community settled, Russian musicians performed in restaurants, night clubs and dancing halls. The section between Route du Père Robert and Route Pichon (Ruijin Road and Fenyang Road today) was called « Little Russia » and the corner of Route Paul Henry and Route Doumer (Xinle Road and Donghu Road today) was even nicknamed « Little Moscow ».
Cabarets like « DD’s » or « Arcadia » were among the most popular venues for the Russian community but there were dozens of places where you could listen to Russian musicians. At the corner of Rue du Cardinal Mercier and Rue Bourgeat (Maoming Road and Changle Road today), the Lyceum Theatre was the home for the first Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra with its Russian conductor. Western style operas as « Rigoletto » was performed there in the 30’s. The famous British ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn was raised in Shanghai for several years during which time she studied ballet under a Russian ballet master in the Lyceum Theatre. In hotels like the Astor (photo), next to the Bund, or the Majestic on today’s Nanjing Road, all the musicians were Russians. When the city got richer under the regime of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Russian musicians would play Jazz or charleston to entertain the bourgeois and upper classes.
At the end of the 20’s, the dancing culture was at its height similar to Europe’s “Crazy Years”. The city created its own style called « haipai » (Shanghai Style in Chinese). Among the best known symbols of these years is the « qipao » (flag-dress) that « wunü » (dancing hostesses) would wear. This specific dress comes from the Manchu dress worn during the Qing dynasty but it has been modified to fit the feminine figure showing legs and the high collar. Eileen Chang or Mu Shiying’s novels would portray these « Modeng » (modern) women curling their hair and smoking Chesterfield cigarettes.
This the time of "taxi-dancing", new way for modern women to make a living. Many Chinese movie actresses would indeed make end’s meet with dancing in addition to acting and appear in advertisements for soap or cigarettes. With regard to European women, there were many Russian women who danced or had a wealthy sponsor. The most popular dance halls were the Cercle Sportif Français and the Canidrome (dog race track). Today’s People Square area was even called the « Entertainment District » on maps of the period as it represented more than half of all bars and dancing venues in Shanghai !
A most dangerous place was probably the infamous " « Blood Alley » (Xikou Road today), near the Quai de France. There, sailors from different countries would drink and dance away their money and have knife fights in the early morning before returning to their ships.
Shanghai singing culture also comes from those « haipai » years. One of the most famous singers of the period was Yao Li who sang « Rose, Rose, I Love You » at the Yantze Hotel, near the Race Course. Very famous too was Zhou Xuan (photo right) singer of « Ye Shanghai » which almost became Shanghai’s anthem (« Shanghai nights »). The lyrics tell about lightness and insouciance, core spirit of the 30’s clubbing world. As the rest of China was undergoing constant wars and trouble, the Shanghainese saying "Ma zhao pao, wu zhao tiao" (horses still run and dancing goes on) shows how the city residents would ignore them!