SHANGHAI LADIES: Music for a global world


For me, listening to music may provide a glimpse into other realms of existence. The first meeting with a specific tune, or even an entire genre, may be like the beginning of a journey. A few years ago I encountered mandopop and became aware of the unique, globalized world of Shanghai. Let me take you with me along a fraction of that long and winding journey leading us to the shady entertainment industry of the Far East and the revolutionary chaos of Southeast Siberia. I will write about how Afro-American artists who had experienced the racism in their homeland conquering the appreciation of the rootless people in Shanghai and were enabled to change their musical taste. It is also a story about the fate of refugees, war, crime and terrifying political persecution. In short, a picture of the global world we now are living in.


My story begins and ends in Paris, where I a gloomy evening passed by one of those small antiquarian  bookstores that still can be found along the streets. While roaming through boxes with books and CDs I found an interesting item Shanghai Lounge Divas: Original 1930 's Sessions, since it was modestly priced at three euros I bought the CD. After I had returned home and listened to the music a new world had opened. I played it again and again and could soon hum along with some of the incomprehensible songs. The vocalists sang with clear voices in Mandarin to an orchestral accompaniment that blended Chinese popular tunes with swing and jazz.


This was my first encounter with shídàiqǔ, or as the genre also is called ‒ mandopop, an abbreviation for “Mandarin popular music”. This genre developed in Shanghai where people spoke Shang Chinese, though since the Chinese Government at the time made a concerted effort to introduce Mandarin as the national language it was decreed that all popular music had to be sung in that language, which soon became the preferred way of speaking for those who wanted to appear as members of the fashionable classes.


I had glimpsed Shanghai in movies like Indiana Jones, Empire of the Sun, The Shanghai Triad and Lust, Caution, but had not noticed the music of that exotic city. The image of Shanghai projected in the thirties was that of a meeting place for all nations, with opium dens and recurrent bloody clashes. Such notions have been condensed in the film Footlight Parade from 1933 where James Cagney gave his best in a scene directed by Busby Berkeley, Shanghai Lil

undeniably one of the film history's most stunning displays of showmanship. It is also in a nightmarish Shanghai that the young Communist murderer Tchen rambles around in André Malraux's novel Man's Fate.


Since the city after the Opium Wars in 1843 had been divided into international "concessions", which in reality meant that foreign powers controlled certain town districts, Shanghai counted with a motley crew of people from the thirteen concession countries, including millions of Chinese who were engaged in various  forms of trade, among them trafficking and drugs. On its wide boulevards and in shady alleys pimps and prostitutes mixed with missionaries, mafiosi, millionaires, refugees, gamblers, musicians, fascist , film directors, smugglers, poets, communists, sailors, artists, farmers and merchants.


Intense trading created, mainly within the concessions, an ever growing wealth and a privileged upper class which did everything in its power to ensure a comfortable life for its members, an existence removed from the poor and discriminated masses from which a considerable serving staff was recruited. As in any society celebrating wealth and making a difference between people, Shanghai was a breeding ground for corruption, violence and crime. There existed an unholy alliance between the concession management, politicians, mainly the conservative wing of Kuomintang led by the ruthless Chiang Kai -shek and a powerful mafia empire that in China was constituted by so-called triads.


As in Chicago and New York the booze flowed, opium smoke was dense and entertainment flourished, all accompanied by jazz and local popular songs. In The Bund, Shanghai's port area and especially along its wide promenade Zhonshan Road sumptuous concession buildings, consulates, embassies and lavish banks rose side by side with  huge entertainment palaces equipped with impressive dance floors and orchestras  ‒ The New World, Carlton Cafe and Theatre, The Del Monte, Maxim's, Winter Garden, Ciró, Casanova, Paramount, the Palermo and a bit further away the mighty Canidrom, the dog racing course with neighboring casinos and a sprawling dance floor. 


During the twenties and thirties people danced to the music of more than forty big big bands with musicians from China, Manila, New Orleans, New York, London and especially Russia. Revelers danced with their table company or "number girls”, beautiful, young ladies who sat lined up along the extensive, parquet laid dance floors, all with small hand held signs that indicated the numbers that dance eager men had to state when they paid for the dances they wanted to enjoy together with a chosen partner. It was this kind of business that made dance music being labelled as "yellow music", meaning "brothel music", although number girls were generally not involved in any call girl commerce, at least not within the more fashionable establishments. Many of these number girls had on their own, or with their families, fled the chaos of the Russian revolution and so had several of the musicians, many of whom had been educated in Tsarist musical academies.


Several ballrooms were not just gigantic ‒ seize was key in Shanghai where, for example, the exclusive Shanghai Club boasted the longest bar in the world , the thirty-five metres long Baron of solid wood - the luxurious dance palaces also had an overwhelming exotic décor, generally a mixture of French flair and oriental luxuriance.


The most extravagant dance palaces were owned and administered by the Tong Vang Company, which was largely controlled by the triad Qing Bang, “The Green Gang”, which boss Du Yuesheng ( Du With The Big Ears) while being a poor street vendor had ended  up under the patronage of the Green Gang´s capo di tutti capi, Huang Jinyong. In addition to being the supreme leader of the Green Gang, Huang Jinyon was heading the Chinese Section of Criminal Investigation within the French concession´s police force.


Du Yuesheng soon outmaneuvered his patron and found himself at the tip of an iceberg, which above the surface displayed Shanghai´s largest shipping company and two of its most solid commercial banks, though below surface was a thriving network of brothels and opium dens, protected and administered by The Green Gang's more than 100 000 sworn members.


Du Yuesheng was a sharp dresser only wearing clothes made of the finest, available silk. He was constantly protected by sturdy Russian bodyguards and lived with his four wives, six sons and dozens of concubines in a luxurious palace within the French Concession. Yuesheng was closely associated with the police, the board of concessions and especially Chiang Kai -shek, who appointed him major general in the Chinese National Army, in gratitude for the Green Gang´s thugs´ services whenGeneralissimo Chiang in 1926 ordered a purge of Communists and labor activists and an estimated 300 people were executed, while nearly 5,000 "disappeared". Du Yuesheng was a bon vivant who frequented the city's dance halls, though he had unfortunately fallen victim to his own most lucrative commodity ‒ opium.


The dangerous and globalized city sheltered a large amount of uprooted individuals. Being “shanghaied” still indicates that a person has been forced to join the mercantile fleet or involuntarily ended up in situations that he or she wants to escape from. The term originated on the American West Coast where strong, gullible men who had been knocked down or drunk into a stupor found themselves waking up on a ship bound for a distant destination.


Until 1915, the U.S. did not consider shanghaiing to be a criminal act, though it was illegal for a sailor to leave his ship without the captain´s consent, before it had reached its final destination. It was difficult to recruit people to sailing ships, which required a large crew and where life on board was very tough. The practice of shanghaiing became particularly common during the Californian Great Gold Rush when sailors who jumped ship on the U.S. West Coast had to be replaced. In the ports plenty of young men could be found who could easily be drugged, inebriated or struck down. A similar fate could befall young women as well and is still occurring all over the world, when youngsters are enticed with fair promises or drugged down only to end up in brothels, or in the streets, of countries that hitherto have been unknown to them. Nepalese girls are kidnapped and sold to brothels in India, while teen-agers from Eastern Europe are forced into prostitution in the West. The same phenomenon was in Shanghai known as "white slavery ".


Torrents of refugees ended up in Shanghai, even from far-away Europe. During the late thirties and the first half of the forties, there was in Japanese-occupied Shanghai a ghetto that went by the name the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees, containing 23,000 Jews who had fled the Nazi terror. Although there were restrictions to the freedom of movement of its inhabitants the area was not guarded or fenced. Jewish refugees had arrived in Shanghai even before the Japanese occupation in 1937, this since citizens of the fourteen countries included in the concession agreements did not need a passport to enter and settle in the city.


In addition to the Jews and millions of Chinese internal refugees desperate Russians were pouring into the town, escaping war and starvation caused by the Russian revolution. Oleg Lundström and his family arrived in China from Chita, a city with 15 000 inhabitants of whom most had settled there due to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Oleg's grandfather, Franz Lundström, was born in Northern Sweden and as an expert in forestry he had ended up as director of Zabaykalye´s (Trans-Baikal) timber industry, which had its centre in Chita. It was the railroad that brought people to Chita, but it was also the railroad that forced many of them to leave.


As part of their quest for a nation of their own Czechoslovak legionaries had joined the Entente in its battle against Germans and Austrians. When the Bolsheviks in 1917 made ​​peace with Germany 50,000 Czechoslovak Legionnaires found themselves stranded deep inside Russia. As Germany had not made ​​peace with the Entente they could not return home through Poland and Ukraine, but were instead forced to follow the Trans-Siberian Railway towards the Pacific. Protected by huge armored trains their marching columns slowly approached Vladovistok constantly fighting the Bolsheviks and occasionally also the White armies.


However, the Whites were generally allied with the Czechoslovak Legion, due to the fact that the victorious nations of 1918 were ill-disposed towards the Bolshevik regime that had made ​​peace with the Germans behind their back. The Czechoslovak legionnaires constituted the only effective fighting unit left in a disintegrating Russia. The White forces were generally difficult to control and it took time before Trotsky 's Red Army had become powerful enough  to conquer territory from its opponents, therefore the Western powers hoped that the disciplined Czechoslovaks could energize the White armies, which fought the Bolsheviks to gain control over the Trans-Siberian Railway.


To assist the Czechoslovaks and possibly contribute to the Whites´ victory an international army gathered in Vladivostok, composed of  U.S., Canadian, French, British and Italian forces. Accordingly, two armies approached each other while fighting a motley crew of aggressors along the Trans-Siberian Railway; Bolsheviks and bandit hordes, as well as Cossacks , Mongols and Tibetans fighting for the "Mad Baron" Ungarn von Sternberg, a German- Baltic aristocrat who with Mongolian and Japanese support tried to turn himself into a new Genghis Khan.


It was not until 70,000 Japanese soldiers had been thrown into the battle that the Czechoslovaks finally reached Vladivostok in 1920 and could be evacuated, soon followed by the entire international army, with the exception of the Japanese who stayed on until 1922. However, tranquility did not return to the war-ravaged towns along the Trans-Siberian Railroad and when an opportunity arose a multitude of refugees tried to make their escape to China, hopefully to Harbin, a prosperous town on the Trans- Manchurian Railway, which was connected with the Trans-Siberian Railway east of Chita. Even if it was situated inside China, Harbin was dominated by Russians. Of its 200,000 inhabitants in 1921, 140 000 were Russians and 100,000 of them had arrived in recent years, among them the Lundström family. Unlike many other refugees Oleg´s father was neither desperate, nor destitute, he had a job waiting for him as a middle school physics teacher.


While living with his family in Harbin and studying the violin at its conservatory the 17 years old Oleg found Duke Ellington's Dear Old Southland in a record store and from then on he was lost to jazz. Oleg and five of his comrades formed The Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra and three years later they found employment in Shanghai. Already in 1936, The Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra was performing at the big dance palaces Majestic and Paramount

Oleg came to Shanghai just in time to meet with Buck Clayton, an admired jazz trumpeter who in cooperation with Li Jinhui, leader of the largest Chinese jazz band at the time, had created a unique mandopop sound. The Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra that now counted fourteen members changed its name to Young Hearts Players and became the house band of The Paramount dance hall where they succeeded Serge Ermoll's Russian Jazz Orchestra. To accompany their music Oleg´s band also offered a dance routine by The Anderson Girls. Maybe these girls had a Swedish origin as well? Young Hearts Players survived the repressive Japanese occupation, which nevertheless to a certain extent favoured Shanghai´s entertainment industry, partly used as a propaganda tool in an effort to gain acceptance from a generally hostile population.


It was after an extremely brutal battle, during which 200,000 Chinese and 40,000 Japanese soldiers died that the Imperial Japanese Army in 1937 had succeeded in conquering Shanghai. Much of the town had been scorched and bombed, in one incident thousands of people had died after seeking protection from the bombardment in a dance palace called The New World

Du Yuesheng and his gangsters fled the city and settled in Hong Kong, but they returned when the Japanese in 1945 left Shanghai and the entertainment industry exploded in a final convulsion, before the Communists finally took over in 1949.


Young Hearts Players were active throughout the Japanese occupation and so were many other jazz bands. But in late 1947 Oleg Lundström his orchestra realized that Shanghai was becoming a dangerous place and they decided to travel back to the Soviet Union. However, the Communist Central Committee had decided that “jazz was not necessary for the people of the Soviet Union”, so Oleg had to work nine years as a violinist at the Opera House in Kazan before he could put his band back together again, but then it became an immediate success and Oleg led it until he became 89 years old.


The band had left Shanghai at the right moment, if they had stayed a year longer they had probably ended up in deep trouble. In May 1949, The People's Liberation Army entered Shanghai, the preceeding fighting had been very fierce and more than 150,000 Nationalist soldiers had lost their lives. Show trials commenced soon after the Communists gained control of the city. The most comprehensive and popular trials were staged within the vast Canidrome where Buck Clayton and Li Jinhuis big bands once had been performing to great acclaim. The processes were called The Shanghai Enlarged Joint Meeting of People's Representatives' Conference.  After the court rulings public executions took place on the dog- and horse racing tracks. Over several months hundreds of people were executed every day. The willing executioners were selected by a twenty-four member committee, which in the name of the people also passed the sentences. The Chinese state owned press agency reported how high school students marched beside the condemned prisoners, beating drums and gongs while chanting: "Kill them nicely! Kill them well! Kill them all!" Strangely enough Li Jinhui was spared, in spite of the fact that he was the decadent mandopop´s foremost representative. For many years he wrote music for Shanghai's studio for animated movies, but during the Cultural Revolution he was finally so ferociously attacked by the press and popular slogans that he collapsed and died in 1967.


Li Jinhui´s brightest star was Zhou Xuan, who featured prominently on the CD I had bought in Paris. Born to a Buddhist nun who was forced to giveu her child Zhou Xuan ended up under the tutelage of an opium addicted foster father and was saved from being sold to a brothel by becoming part of Jinhui´s dance company Bright Moonlight Song and Dance Troupe.  Zhou Xuan was called “China's Golden Voice" and during her heyday she participated in several movies that all became huge successes. Like so many other female artists, then and now, Zhou Xuan had a complicated and unhappy life marked by failed marriages, several illegitimate children and repeated suicide attempts. For longer periods she lived in Hong Kong, but after the revolution Zhou Xuan decided to settle down in her beloved Shanghai. However, her life took an even more tragic turn and she went in and out of mental institutions. During the so-called "Anti-Right Campaign" in 1957, society's condemnation struck her with full force, she had a massive, nervous breakdown and died 39 years old. Here she sings about Shanghai: ”Shanghai by night. Shanghai by night. When you are in love night turns into day and day into night. Time flies threw the window and all turns into a dream”.

"The Anti-Right Campaign" was launched by Mao Zedong shortly after another campaign. Officially to support "artistic freedom" Mao had announced "Let One Hundred Flowers Blossom", but that opening for liberty and personal articulation was barred by the following  “Anti-Right Campaign”. It is estimated that 550 000 persons, mostly intellectuals and artists were subjected to political persecution. Sentences could be loss of employment, be forced to offer public apologies, be humiliated by collective criticism, sent to re-education camps, or executed.


Let us return to Shanghai in the thirties, to the open city, globalized for better or worse. Buck Clayton's two -year stay in Shanghai gave its entertainment industry an injection that changed a great deal of Shanghai´s contribution to popular music in the East. How had one twenty-three years old African-American trumpet player from Kansas ended up in Shanghai and how could he after his relatively brief sojourn leave behind such an important legacy?


It was Teddy Weatherford who brought Buck to Shanghai. Weatherford was originally from Virginia, but had already as a teenager made ​​a name for himself as a skilled piano player in New Orleans´ Storyville. Twenty-three years old Weatherford left Chicago, where he had played with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, and travelled to the Far East with the orchestra of the African-American percussionist Jack Carter. Jack Carter's Orchestra played in Shanghai between 1926 and 1928, featuring among others Valaida Snow, an African-American female trumpet player from Chattanooga Tenessee. 

Jack Carter and his orchestra left, but Weaterford stayed on. Apart from 1934, when he visited Paris and the summer of 1937, when he made a recording in Paris and then spent a couple of months in Sweden, Weatherford stayed for the rest of his life in the Orient, where he led jazz bands in Singapore, Manila, Jakarta, Colombo , Mumbai, Shanghai and finally Calcutta where he contracted cholera and died in 1944, forty-one years old.


While in Shanghai, Weatherford had been approached by the Tong Vang Company that paid him for travelling to the U.S. to recruit a "black" jazz band. In Los Angeles Weatherford managed contracting Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen. The handsome Buck and his twelve band members soon became very popular among the audience in Canidorm´s huge dance hall. 

One drawback was that they occasionally were subjected to racist taunts from American sailors and marines. One night was worse than usual. An unusually blunt and bulky American, dressed as a Marine, behaved in an extremely disturbing manner. He screamed and shouted and apparently threw a brick on stage. Some band members lost patience and hurled themselves at the offender. A violent brawl broke out. After a while Buck Clayton became involved as well and was soon engaged in a boxing match with the offensive marine soldier. The fighters ended up inside the men's room where an American newspaper correspondent managed to avert a continuation of the melee. The day after the journalist made a big affair of the incident and Tong Vang Company sacked Buck and his entiere band.


They soon found a new employment, but this time with significantly less pay. The Casanova Ballroom had a predominantly Chinese middle class clientele and it was here that Buck Clayton seriously began cooperating with Li Jinhui, meaning that they jazzed up Jinhuis own music as well as Chinese popular songs. This had been done before by another, “all white” dance band led by Whitey Smith, who following the advice of one of Ching- Kai-shek's generals, with an exam from the Catholic University of Notre Dame in Indiana. However, Clayton´s and Jinhui´s orchestrations were considerably bolder and Shanghai was taken by storm.


Unfortunately, Buck Clayton soon that discovered that Tong Vang Company  were the actual owners of Casanova Ballroom and realized that he had been taken for a ride. Du Yueshengs bandits had realized that Buck Clayton´s band was somewhat too expensive. However Buck flatly refused to negotiate any payment cuts, the contract could not be terminated, the orchestra was immensely popular and the Green Gang thus decided to contact a U.S. hoodlum named Jack Rile and paid him for starting a violent argument with the impulsive Buck and have it all  documented by an international journalist. Infuriated by this information Buck left Shanghai and took his band with him. He later made a career with Count Basie´s orchestra.


I have written about Buck Clayton, Oleg Lundström and Lin Jinhui without knowing what their orchestras sounded like, but I can at any time put on my Shanghai CD and listen to the Shanhai Divas´ modulating voices, oddly moving, bright and sensitive. Sensual, smooth and poignant performances that contradict all the silly nonsense that nowadays is aired concerning the disintegrating dangers of multi-culturalism. The art of the Shanghai Divas is one of countless examples of enriching meetings between different cultures, provided that they are made with a keen appreciation of  the nuances and positive feelings enshrined in other cultural expressions than those we are confronted with on a daily bases. If anything, mandopop proves that music is an international language that may enrich everyone who makes an effort to listen attentively to it. Music is a plant that grows and flourishes everywhere on the planet, despite the fact that various debased interest groups, capitalist as well as political, are trying to chastise it, modify it and even stifle it. Nevertheless, we meet one another in and trough music; people from north and south, east and west, from all kinds of groups and cultures. In music we are strong, in the music we are together.


The vocalists gathered on my CD are in China called "The Seven Great Singing Stars "; Zhou Xuan, Li Xianglan, Gong Quixia , Bai Hong, Bai Guang, Yao Lee and Wy Yingyin. They encountered different destinies, some tragic, others more or less fortunate. The most fascinating fate was possibly the one of Li Xianglan. She was born in 1920 by Japanese parents in Manchuria and her original name was Yoshiko Otaka. Her unique voice was  recognized quite early and she obtained a training in classical Chinese song, while learning perfect Mandarin, something that made many assume she was Chinese .


The Japanese occupation forces knew about her Japanese ancestry and realized that a beautiful Japanese young lady who sang in exquisite Mandarin and generally was assumed to be Chinese could be a great asset to their propaganda machinery. The ruthless brutality of the Japanese occupation could not be easily forgotten by the Chinese and the common disapproval of the foreign invaders could be worsened even more if their propaganda was made from a Japanese point of view. The Japanese tried to engage skilled Chinese artists, but in spite of the general misery few of them were willing to sell any of their services to the enemy. In that situation Li Xianglan fitted like a glove, a Japanese, attractive and talented singer who most Chinese believed to be from their own midst. Li Xianglan was launched as the pretty, but still ordinary girl next door. Xianglan sang at Shanghai's dance halls and acted in several movies, always as her Chinese persona. Shanghai Nights from 1940, produced by the Japanese- controlled Manchuria Film Productions may be considered as most typical of these propaganda movies. In it Japanese soldiers are portrayed with warts and all. Li Xianglan portrays a young Chinese lady who, despite her extreme anti-Japanese sentiments, cannot avoid falling in love with a handsome Japanese man. In a key scene the man slaps the girl in the face, but instead of displaying a legitimate anger she reacts with submission and gratitude. The Chinese audience was furious with the movie's message, but Li Xianglan maintained her popularity and the Chinese continued to appreciate her art and bought tickets to her movies and concerts.


After the war Li Xianglan was arrested, charged with high treason and threatened with execution, but when it without any doubt was proven that she actually was Japanese Xianglan was acquitted and reluctantly handed over to the Japanese. When she performed in Japan Xianglan was criticized for her Chinese “mannerisms” and was initially far more popular among the Chinese populations in places like Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. She eventually settled in Japan, calling herself Yoshiko Yamaguchi and acted in several movies, among them some directed by the great Akira Kurosawa .


In the fifties, Xianglan moved to the U.S. and began a new career under the name of Shirley Yamaguchi. Although she obtained leading roles both in Hollywood and on Broadway her career did not take off. She chose to move to Hong Kong and under her Chinese name she acted in several Mandarin-language mavies. Eventually she returned to Japan and as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party she was  in 1974 elected to the Parliament where she sat for 18 years.


In Paris brought with me my CD to work and through the head phones I used to listen to it while working by the computer. At first, I had from my office a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower, but after a year I was transferred to another room with a more boring view. However, below me was an exquisite Japanese garden with stone sculptures, fish ponds and cherry trees (Fig. 9). The entire facility had in 1958 been donated to UNESCO by the Japanese Government. It had been created by the great Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi. The gift had been accompanied by a motivation provided by the donor:


“Ancient beliefs still expressed in Japanese Shintoism assume that divine powers are manifest in nature; mountains, waterfalls and trees have a soul. A garden is thus an integrated part of an animated universe, while being enclosed by it we may perceive ourselves as being placed far away from human relations and oppressive domination.  Through a humble attitude towards nature's mysteries we may acquire some of the power and energy that imbue any garden and thus learn to respect the cosmic rhythm which streams through it and any other animated organisms.”


While watching the garden I listened to how Li Xianglan sang about cherry blossoms and tranquil natural breathing. During her time in the U.S., between 1951 and 1956, she was married to Isamu Noguchi and the year after their divorce, he began planning the UNESCO garden.


Shanghai was the final destination for refugees, for the uprooted and abducted, its dance halls, brothels and opium dens offered oblivion and dreams. Shanghai was also a slaughterhouse where armies, militias, mafia and political repression reaped hundreds of thousands victims. However, Shanghai was also a refuge, a meeting place where music and song gave comfort and rest , like the garden that lush and green rests between UNESCO concrete structures.


Shanghai dance hall culture is described in: Field, Andrew (2010) Shanghai 's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press. An excellent, albeit romanticized, depiction of the revolutionary chaos in southern Siberia is provided in an Italian comic book about the adventurer Corto Maltese. Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese stories are also available as animated French movies: Pratt Hugo (1989) Corto Maltese in Siberia, New York: Nbm Publishing Company.



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In Spite Of It All, Trots Allt