The modern jazz scene
Many places of the 30’s still exist in Shanghai. One of them is the Paramount in Jing An district, an area which used to be called « Badlands » as it was dangerous to be there after nightfall. Among the places connected with jazz, the Peace Hotel is one of the most famous. This building erected in 1928 by tycoon Victor Sassoon still harbours the oldest jazz orchestra in the world: The « Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band ». In the movie, « As Time Goes By In Shanghai », Jibin Sun, the 80 years old and still handsome saxophonist of the band, says he learnt music with the American jazzmen playing along the Race Course (People Square) in the late 40’s. « It was a way to seduce girls », he adds how during the performances he used to wink at his numerous admirers. During the Cultural Revolution, Jibin Sun had to listen in secret to his favourite tunes on magnetic tapes. Only when Chairman Mao died could he play again the classics of the 40’s like « Ye Lai Xiang » or more recent American songs!
For jazz lovers, the Shanghai music scene is not limited to the Peace Hotel and its classics, far from it. There is indeed a whole group of talented young musicians in town who would play and even compose a brand new type of jazz, a new haipai type. Shanghai based composers like Alec Haavik and his friends for instance will play in the new jazz meccas like JZ Club, Cotton’s or House of Blues and Jazz all year long. This brand new generation of Chinese and foreign musicians is celebrated every year in the most renowned Shanghai JZ Music Festival.
In a different but close type of music, the Shanghai rock scene is very vibrant too. Places like Mao Live House and some other « indie » music bars regularly give the opportunity to a large number of Chinese and foreign artists to perform. All year, jam sessions bring together the Chinese culture with some very varied world influences. Mongolian singers sometimes share the scene with percussionists from the West Indies or African rap singers. Some of the venues are the “Wooden Box”, the “Limbo” or the “Kharma”. But there is a long list of them!
What has come out of the dancing world of the 30’s? In 1947, the Chiang Kai-Shek regime, in the name of a certain moral order, decided to close down most of the entertainment places including dancings and music bars. Two years later, the Mao communists took over power and never reopened any of the once famous places we mentioned, this time for the sake of fighting the capitalist way of life. However during the Cultural Revolution, most of the political messages were carried out in the form of revolutionary ballets, sometimes performed by the young Red Guards in factories or in the countryside to « educate » the working masses.
Since the « Renaissance » (Fuxing) with Deng Xiaoping, Shanghai actually started again to entertain. Best DJs in the world now all come to Shanghai at least to animate some of the biggest parties you could imagine. Chinese House, Hip Hop, Mashup, Electro DJs also perform in dance temples such as « Mint » or « M2 » (photo left) for the golden boys and girls of the new Shanghai generation. The rhythm of the 30’s seems to be back again with this particular mix of Westerners and locals getting together.
It is hardly possible to talk about music in China without mentioning karaoke. They are legion of them in Shanghai. As bars tend to be expensive or too western in style, karaoke proposes an intimate space to young people willing to date or have fun with friends. For companies, karaoke is an excellent way for managers to get closer to the employees. In the business world, Japanese or Korean way of closing deals while taking out clients for heavy drinking is frequent in China too. As Shanghai is a major economic centre, “business-type” karaoke halls are all over the place. They would be quite luxurious and provide “hostesses” as well. Definitely not too different from the 30’s!
Shanghai music has far deeper roots than we generally believe. To a large extent, the historical background explains why Shanghai’s music scene is so vivid. As an international city, it keeps evolving, integrating influences from the whole world with a rare flexibility and ability to generate its own personality.
- Andrew David Field, « Shanghai’s Dancing World, Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954 », Ed The Chinese University Press, 2010
- Guy Brossolet, « Les Français de Shanghai – 1819-1949 “, Ed Belin, 1996
- Katya Knyazeva, « Hidden History: Shanghai’s Russian Roots », Shanghai City Weekend, 3rd July 2013
- Andrew David Field, « Mushiying, the last modernist », Hong Kong University Press, 2014
- Uli Gaulke, « As Time Goes by in Shanghai », 90 mn movie, 2013
- Tess Johnston & Deke Her, « Frenchtown Shanghai: Western Architecture in Shanghai's Old French Concession», Old China Hand Press, Oct 2000
- Bai Xianyong , « Peony Pavilion » adaptation of the 1598 play by Tang Xianzu, 2004
- Tess Johnston for her extensive knowledge of Old Shanghai and useful conversations about the 30’s
- Peace Hotel Public Relation Belle BAI
- My friend Gilles who entertained me night after night with Shanghai music scene and mywife who bears with me
- Liliane Willens, author of “Stateless in Shanghai” and Shanghailander with whom I had many discussions on the Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s