Shanghai International Literary Festival Preview: Andrew Field

Travel | by Dan Shapiro
Posted: March 8th, 2010 | Updated: October 13th, 2010 | Comments
Shanghai Literary Festival An independent scholar of Chinese history and culture, Andrew Field has been living in Shanghai off and on since 1996. After receiving his PhD in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University in 2001, Field became a guest lecturer and professor at the University of New South Wales and the University of Puget Sound and has most recently been stationed at New York University's Shanghai affiliate, East China Normal University. Aside from his academic career, Field has taken up as an author, recently publishing his debut book, Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954. In anticipation of his March 13th presentation at the 2010 Shanghai International Literary Festival, Dr. Field sat down with's Dan Shapiro for a quick Q & A about Shanghai, China, the city's dancing grannies and his next project. What inspired you to write Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954? I dunno, I think I was drunk at the time. But seriously, I was inspired at first by the music of 1930s Shanghai, which I was hearing in Taiwan in the early '90s. It was being revived by singers like Deng Lijun and Cai Qin, and I thought, "where did this come from?" Do you personally have a favorite anecdote from the book? It's hard for me to condense a 40-year period into an anecdote, but one of my favorite stories is that told by Whitey Smith, an American jazz musician who worked in the city's ballrooms in the 1920s. He tells in his memoir how he taught China to dance by simplifying the complex harmonies and rhythms of American jazz and incorporating folk melodies from China's tradition. A good lesson in localization for folks from abroad who want to sell things to the people here. How long did the research for the book take? How many people did you have to interview? Was it difficult to research pre-communist China? I didn't interview many people. Mostly I relied on newspapers, magazines, and archival documents from the 1920s-50s. It was easy to access these at the Shanghai Municipal Library, but the Shanghai Archives were a bit tougher, since many of the archives were bukaifang, not open. But I used my personal charms to gain access to some of the more sensitive ones. Oh the sacrifices that I made for this book. I recently read another piece about your book, and you mention that most of the old dance halls and cabarets have been torn down (I believe only the Paramount still remains). Another Shanghai relic, Wujiang Lu, which actually used to be jazz / brothel / hip Shanghai central, was also just torn down. What are your thoughts on the effects of urban development on Shanghai? Is the city losing too much of its classic culture and architecture? Shanghai Literary Festival, Canidrome, Andrew Fields Yes and no; many though certainly not all of the best buildings from that era are being preserved. A lot of the old neighborhoods have gone under the bulldozer, but that's inevitable for a growing city. Still, what really matters is the people who are affected by these changes, not so much the buildings themselves. What are your thoughts on Shanghai's modern dance culture? By modern do you mean contemporary? Yes. Pardon my ignorance . . . I think it's disappearing. Drinking expensive liquor is replacing dancing as the main activity in these clubs, and tables are squeezing dance floors down to nothing. But it's nice to see all those old folks still dancing in the parks. Wow, you just made the perfect segue for my next question . . . Everyone in Shanghai has seen people in their 50s-70s dancing in groups in public spaces. These people mainly come from the generation that experienced the shift from the KMT to the CPC, which seems to parallel the demise of the cabaret culture. Did you research these dance groups? Where do they factor in to China's greater dance culture? Most of the people you are talking about here were just born during that transition so they wouldn't remember much about the KMT. I didn't research these groups but my colleague James Farrer did and wrote about them in articles and in his book Opening Up. He basically argues that many of these gatherings allowed aging Shanghainese men and women trapped in loveless marriages to get out there and find more passionate romantic partners. But ostensibly it's just good exercise. Either way, can't be a bad thing. While the cabaret days, as you explain, featured venues for all socio-economic groups and demographics, modern Shanghai nightclubbing is really a thing for the upper class. Even some foreigners can't afford to go to the elite Shanghai clubs. Why was the cabaret culture of the 20s-40s so inviting of all people? What made it so appealing for people from all walks of like to participate in the dance culture? And how did that shift to a point where today 普通人 (regular folk) prefer to sip baijiu at restaurants and have very little interest in going out to dance venues? Andrew Field, Shanghai International Literary Festival As I discuss in my book, the city's cabaret culture that arose in the 1920s was originally just for elite Westerners and Chinese, but in the early 1930s it opened up to the Chinese middle classes of the city as well. It never really catered to the lower classes who didn't have the money or leisure time, but now and again gangs of street youths did show up at these places and not pay. But there was a huge bifurcation between the high and low-class cabarets in the city, at least until the war years which had a leveling effect on the city's ballrooms, turning them all into taxi-dance halls. As for today, I think there are still a range of clubs in Shanghai that cater to different classes and types of people. Sure, your average foreign exchange student or English teacher can't afford to club it up at M1nt or Muse, but they can go to Windows or Shelter and still have a damn good time. Would you say that karaoke then is the new cabaret culture of China? Not at all. Certainly not your Partyworlds or Cashboxes. The only resemblance is KTV hostess clubs, where the women are paid to drink and entertain the male customers (and more if they go home with them). But those places bear little resemblance to the ballrooms and cabarets of old Shanghai. I'd say the clubbing scene today is more closely related to the cabarets of pre-Liberation Shanghai, except that in today's clubs, barring the girlie bars on Julu and Tongren Lu that were shut down recently, women aren't hired by management to drink and dance with men (although I was told once by a bartender working there that Muse hired young men and women to attend the club just to make it seem like it was a happening place). Also, people in today's clubs dance to recorded music spun by DJs rather than live jazz orchestras. And, of course, the dancing is very different--back then the dances were more formalized and rigorous. But these were changes that took place worldwide soon after the end of WWII. In addition to the book, you live a second life as the director of Notes from the Chinese underground: Indie rock in the PRC (well I guess that's your fourth life because you've got the whole family man thing first and your academic career second). How do your roles as an author differ from that of a film director? What can you tell us about the documentary? And when is it coming out? That's what I've been asking myself. It all depends on how quickly my Beijing last fall, including some people who were in the film. Mostly it got good feedback, and whatever criticism we got has hopefully been incorporated into changes for the final cut. I'm hoping we'll have that cut ready to show a larger audience in Shanghai sometime this spring, but I don't want to say which month and have to end up disappointing people, so it's best to announce the date when it's actually finished. I think that being a writer and a filmmaker take a lot of similar skills, above all the ability to gather and sift through huge amounts of data and come up with a coherent and lively core narrative or story that people can relate to. In my book I only use around 5 percent of the materials I gathered; for my film on rock in China I use roughly one hour out of 40 hours of filming I did, which is closer to 2 percent. Then you have to sit in a dim, dusty office, library or study room somewhere for hundreds if not thousands of hours and produce the damn thing. It's tough work but there are those of us who love it. For more information on how to purchase tickets to hear Andrew Field's March 13th presentation, or any of the other lectures at the SILF, click here. For more of's coverage of this year's Literary Festivals in China, click the links below: China Literary Festivals in March: Programs, ticket info, and travel-related highlights Writing a guidebook to China: An interview with Rough Guide author David Leffman Queer Culture in China: An interview with Professor John Erni New speaker at Shanghai Lit Fest: Paul French Foreign memoirs of China: An interview with Amy Sommers The History of Photography in China: An interview with Terry Bennett
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