In an admission that will surprise no one, I’m a big fan of the website Atlas Obscura. And not too long ago, worlds collided when my job working for vice beat for Alcohol Professor led me to the streets of Chinatown after dark to cover Atlas Obscura’s Cheater’s Party: A School for Scoundrels. What follows is a twisted tale of secret casinos, cardsharps, con men, scantily clad dames, and nearly two centuries of bad behavior in the neighborhood once known as Five Points.
Here’s a shock: Teleport City is a strong supporter of the burlesque arts and any other form of performance during which women and/or men find themselves increasingly deprived of their vetements. New York, of course, has a long and storied history of burlesque performance beginning as early as 1840 but really catching fire with the first visit to America of Victorian era burlesque troupe British Blondes, led by dancer, comedian, actress, and theatrical producer Lydia Thompson. The shows were a combination of acts, including comedians, singers, acrobats, dancers, wrestlers, strongmen — whatever you could come up with, really. Although burlesque fell out of favor in England near the turn of the century, Americans — especially in New York — picked up the ball and ran with it, with early pioneers like the Minksy Brothers pushing the shows as far as moral crusaders would allow them — and then a little further, including the introduction of “coochy” dances that would evolve into the striptease that came to dominate the burlesque performance (and frequently get them shut down).
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.