Shanghai’s Jazz Age. A Lecture by Andrew David Field
The event meant to evoke Shanghai’s golden age turned into a night to remember, a magical night. More than two hundred members and friends were welcomed by The Cool Cats & Docs Jazz Band, their melodies enwrapping the HK Maritime Museum in its new dramatic setting at the waterfront. People came in a festive mood, a few wittily dressed for the occasion, while some couples danced gracefully the old-time tunes. The music programme notes by Maurice J. Chan, handed out at the entrance, helped to refresh the names and scores that made great the Jazz Age: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong…, and late Li Xianglan. The programme, a truly learned guide to the genre with useful tips on performances, is worth keeping.
An atmosphere entirely in tune with the speaker, research scholar Andrew David Field, the author of two fundamental books, Shanghai’s Dancing World and Mu Shiying: China’s Lost Modernist. Dr. Field’s enthusiasm for his subject was contagious from the start. The legendary Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s, the main subject of the conference, the Jazz Age, had its origin in the International Settlement and the French Concession, but soon sprawled out of bounds. That was a time of uncertainty, the city riven by political corruption, gangland, and the Japanese threat that would later turn into a nightmarish reality. Those who could afford it would escape into a world of fantasy dancing the night away. But this entertainment culture also contributed to a new social awareness and the awakening into modernity.
While the new mores would fascinate the Western community first, “dancing that way and that music didn’t make sense to the Chinese”, who felt awkward. It took a while for them to get used to this strange music and environment. Bandleader Whitey Smith, hailing from San Francisco, can be credited with bridging the gap by finding some new tunes and blending the original African-American rhythms with Chinese popular and folk music. A new sort of hybrid music was born. In his biography, I Didn’t Make a Million, Smith claimed he taught China to dance, which is not a complete exaggeration. Ushering a new era, Chiang Kai-shek married Soon Mei-ling at the Majestic, Whitey Smith and his orchestra performing at the event.
The younger generations of the Chinese elite, with a novel outlook, led the way; they wanted to learn, first Foxtrot. But other factors would contribute to the transformation, like the movies. Andrew D. Field showed a track of mythic film, Shanghai Jazz, whose delightful song “Night time in Old Shanghai” filled the air and even reached Hollywood. Some remarkable personalities also played a role. Li Junhui, godfather of modern Chinese pop music, absorbed Jazz rhythms and incorporated them into Chinese music, turning out, together with his daughter Li Minghui, a truly Chinese Jazz. African-Americans also came to Shanghai, like Teddy Weatherford, pianist as good as any.
The dance hostesses or “taxi dancers” were conspicuous protagonists of this era. Drawn at the beginning from the world of film and courtesans, these young girls wearing the qipao sat like on display and would usually dance for a ticket. Some reached fame, like the sisters Liang Saizhu and Liang Saizhen, earning thousands of dollars a month, much sought after by the rich men in the city. Many were Russians, as a perceptive member of the audience pointed out after seeing a slide photograph, which Dr. Field confirmed.
Andrew D. Field spoke of cosmopolitan Shanghai as a “metropolis of stimulations”, an otherwise civilized world that opened the way to dance manuals, magazines and, crucially, a revolution in architecture and interior design around elaborate dancing halls. The Paramount nightclub, the most expensive, had a main wooden dance floor enlivened with colour-play reflections, and a dance floor made of glass on the upper story. The Paramount still stands, just behind the Jing’an Temple, but other famous venues have disappeared, like the Canidrome and the Casanova ballrooms, or the Metropole, which set the scene for the romance between Green Gang gangster Du Yuesheng and dancer Beiping Li Li.
During the war, the carefree and light mood turned somber; although the music went on, the glitter would gradually fade. The Nationalists, trying to control an industry that gave work to thousands further weakened it, and eventually the Communist revolution would give it the final blow. Here, for a night, echoes of old Shanghai soared above the cheerful conversations, and an air of nostalgia streamed out of the window over the splendid Hong Kong harbour.
Review of the lecture given by Andrew David Field for the Royal Asiatic Society at the HK Maritime Museum on 19 September 2014.