She was the Paris of the East. And the Whore of Asia. Shanghai in the 1930s was a dizzying mix of glamour, seediness, decadence, intrigue, and political turmoil. A city divided up by conquering countries, where her own people were relegated to third class citizens. A city would-be adventurers and femme fatales came to make their mark or destroy themselves in those opulent dens of vice. Spies, warlords, gangsters, gamblers. And drifting through it all was the sound of Shanghai music driven by the voices of its divas. Vamps. Coquettes. The voices of a city whose name was synonymous with vice. The city, the country, the entire world was about to go to war. But in her smoky nightclubs and dancehalls, the sirens of Shanghai enchanted everyone.
In 1839, what would become known as the first Opium War broke out between China and Great Britain. In 1842, at the wrap of the conflict, the Treaty of Nanjing forced the Chinese government to open the traditionally closed ports of its country to foreign merchants. The jewel among these ports was Shanghai. In an effort to heap insult upon injury, the 1843 Treaty of the Bogue and 1844’s Sino-American Treaty of Wanghia expanded the influence of Western nations in China, basically ceding to them, if unofficially, control of territory surrounding Shanghai. The city was frequently the focus of attacks and rebellions in the latter half of the 1800s, which further weakened the native Chinese hold on the city, making it easier for the foreign powers in the area to sieze more and more control. By the 1930s, Shanghai was essentially a foreign territory, with Chinese natives being confined to the old city. In this environment, Triads thrived, many of them a combination of criminal organization (after all, what was left?) and political action groups largely aligned against the post-Revolution Kuomintang government — China’s listless, corrupt, capitulating version of post-WWI Germany’s Weimar Republic.
And just as Weimar era Berlin became renown the world over as a steamy den of vice and decadence, so too did the international enclaves of Shanghai become that country’s sordid, glorious, doomed mecca. With the world ramping up for another war, and with China and Japan already at each other’s throats — to say nothing of the internal strife that was ripping China apart in the wake of the overthrow of the last dynasty — the foreign enclaves of Shanghai attracted a teeming horde of spies, killers, hustlers, charlatans, drug peddlers, con artists, proverbial doomed souls, and would-be adventurers. The city’s bars, hotels, gambling parlors, and nightclubs saw countless spy games and criminal deals played out amid a throng of foreigners who seemed all too happy to surrender themselves to the city’s sultry siren song.
In the midst of this tumultuous time, a group of Chinese singers and songwriters built an entertainment empire. The “Seven Great Singing Stars” as they were known — Bai Guang, Bai Hong, Gong Qiuxia, Li Xianglan, Wu Yingyin, Yao Lee, and Zhou Xuan — dominated the pop music of the day, with songs that were a blend of traditional Chinese and Western influences. My obsession with the music of Shanghai from this period started primarily because I’ve been a fan of music from the early 1900s through the 1950s for a long time, and my tastes have never been local to just my own country. Not being able to speak or read Chinese however (surprising, not really, how little you learn in one year of Mandarin in college), and with most of the readily accessible market being dedicated to current pop music, my desire to poke around in the annals of Chinese music yielded few results. Forays into Chinatown, once I moved to New York, would leave me talking to puzzled store clerks who couldn’t understand what I was looking for, leaving them with nothing to do but try and sell me Huangmei opera CDs or the latest from Candy Lo.
One day, however, I was in my favorite DVD store on Bowery (sadly now gone), when the guy who owned the place — and had set it up to be as friendly as possible to the many non-Chinese film fans who had started looking for Hong Kong films — told me he had a couple CDs he thought might be what I was looking for. The covers were promising — sepia toned illustrations of gorgeously coiffed women in glammed up cheongsams. For the couple bucks he was charging, I added them to the pile of whatever it was I was buying that day and anxiously headed home to give them a listen. There were no English liner notes, of course, and even the song and artist names had no English translation. All I knew was that the CDs were part of a series called “Songs of the Chinese Age.”
It turned I had not been steered down the wrong path. The music was exactly what I’d been hoping to find — the sort of eastern traditional meets western jazz you’d expect to hear, if you have an imagination like mine, drifting out of a tinny speaker in some 1930s bar where you’re making a deal to smuggle secret documents past Japanese blockades and deliver them to Churchill or Roosevelt or whoever might need them. The packaging didn’t do much to give me names, but I could at least go back tot he store and say, “This is it. Give me more.” I was able to piece together a little bit of a back story. I figured out, for example, that the songs were a combination of hits from the 30s-60s from both Hong Kong and Shanghai. A few I even recognized from movies like The Blue and the Black starring Lin Dai and a couple from Grace Chang films, all of which were just beginning to find their way onto DVD after decades of being inaccessible. Around the same time, Wong Kar-wai made In the Mood for Love, in which he was able to flex his own love affair with the Chinese music of yesteryear. And since the soundtrack to that was packaged to pander to Wong’s many Western fans, the names and song titles were in English. Zhou Xuan — so that was one of the women to whom I’d been listening. Eventually, the Web caught up, and English language sites about the music of Shanghai and Hong Kong in the days before and during World War II began to pop up. The mother lode, and the thing that gobbled up a substantial portion of my paycheck when it was released, was a series of CDs from Pathe 100 chronicling the history of exactly the music for which I’d been searching for so long.
Then earlier this year, one of Teleport City’s most beloved burlesque performer, Calamity Chang, announced that she was putting together a show dedicated to celebrating the music of Shanghai from the same era, at a supper club called Duane Park — which happens to be one of Teleport City’s favorite spots, and the closest you are likely to get on a Teleport City budget to finding a Jess Franco style lounge/restaurant/cabaret/jazz club. She was calling the show, appropriately enough, Les Fleurs de Shanghai.
Needless to say, we were there opening night. Calamity is very serious about promoting and learning more about the same music in which I was so interested, so it was fantastic to find a kindred spirit — let alone one who would take her clothes off to the music, as befits the tunes of a time when decadence was the order of the day. Singer Shien Lee was spot on and absolutely looked and sounded the part of a 1930s Shanghai chanteuse. Besides Calamity, the show featured performers DeeDee Luxe and special guest dancer/contortionist Ekaterina. The show is fantastic. Great, familiar tunes and lovely, talented ladies with a playful sense of humor — not to mention good food and drinks. It gets Teleport City’s very highest recommendation, so if you are in New York and want to feel like some well-heeled gadabout (without having to spend well-helled amounts of cash), see this show. Impress a man or woman with your world-wise taste in cheeky culture and old time Shanghai tunes.