The Revolution is in Good Hands
I can picture an austere, wizened curator with long, white, wispy facial growth and a shuffling gait peering curiously at the glass case that holds Chairman Mao’s embalmed body in the Memorial Hall in Tiananmen Square. He cocks his head to the left trying to measure the angles. Something just isn’t quite right. It’s like someone has tipped the case and the Chairman has rolled a fraction; or maybe he did it of his own volition.
The demon of the Cultural Revolution has risen again. The title ‘Capitalist’ would bring pariah status and/or death to any man, woman or child thirty-five years ago. This demon now manifests itself in many ways but few more obvious and accessible to a foreigner than the Shanghai clubbing scene where the young, beautiful and wealthy meet to cavort and celebrate their prosperity.
The music thumps to a four by four beat. The bass vibrates through your body, reverberating around your skull. Light and sound merge and oscillate. The top of your head tingles. Percussive waves thread themselves through your consciousness and then you are moving. Everyone else is as well. No one can help themselves. Red laser lights pierce the smoke, reflecting in mirrors, warping the visual senses in time with the music and everyone is smiling and laughing. Immaculate hostesses guide you to a tall, round table right up in front of the D.J. The lasers change to green and beside the D.J, the tech-girl grooving in front of a laptop is smiling right at you. Half a dozen Chinese are bobbing and swaying around each of the surrounding tables. The energy is tangible. The People are in the zone; guys with ties loosened, cigarettes close at hand and girls that are so girly that it they weren’t so damn cute you’d die either laughing or puking. Like most, you order a bottle of Scotch and some Iced Green Tea and get warmly greeted by one table and while you wait for your order they invite you into a drinking game using cups of dice and hand signals to communicate above the noise. The clattering of dice and slamming of cups on the table add another layer within the pounding music and everyone is moving to a beat.
The bottle of Black Label appears and two silky young women mix it with green tea, pour it out for you and smile. They pour for themselves also and suddenly you have dates for the night. The small glasses clink and refill in a daze of hospitality as every table wants drink with you. Once that bottle goes down, you’re up on the dance floor grooving with the cuties and every one is still smiling and laughing. When you return to your table, the guys behind you have bought a big bottle of champagne and insist you help them drink it. It arrives in a pyrotechnic ice bucket with flares sticking out of the ice, shooting fountains of silver sparks into the air. A fire display leaps into action with a flaming brandy pyramid and lines of alcohol fueled fire racing each other around the bar with eyebrow threatening ferocity. You stay out of the way, note the nearest exit but keep on drinking and dancing with those who are partying their way into a new revolutionary paradigm. Tomorrow morning you’ll wake up with a killer hangover, sore hips and half a dozen new numbers in your phone.
There is nothing subtle about Chinese clubs. Everything is garrulously over-the-top. This is where the exploding Chinese middle class are flocking to have fun, get smashed and flash the cash. It is not for the light of wallet. But these customers are not of a demographic that is short of disposable income. Guys in their thirties and forties with money to burn attract the girls in their twenties, looking for husbands. A fascinating clubbing culture has been born and it is highlighting and reflecting aspects of Chinese social behavior that have been buried deeply by the repression of the Cultural Revolution. Much damage was done to the collective psyche in these years and the hangover is hanging on. Fear of authority is still deeply engrained but with the rising middle class we are seeing the re-birth of individuality and self-expression. It is not the young who are driving this revolution. Men closing in on middle age are hitting the dance floors and partying like mad. Their frivolous expenditure has created a clubbing culture like no other.
My first experiences in Shanghai nightclubs were mind-blowing. My first night out was at the famous ‘Bar Rouge’ club on The Bund. Spectacular views of the Huangpi River and the ultra modern Pudong skyline paled in comparison to what was on offer inside the club. I’d accidently come on a night where there was a fashion launch and my knees wobbled as I stepped out of the elevator and onto the red carpet where I stumbled past the photographers snapping away at the glamorous European models posing with lipstick rimmed flutes of champagne. I managed to make it to the bar but not before I’d trembled past the next two dozen or so of the world’s most beautiful women; Chinese and European. A glass of bubbly appeared before me as I panned the club feeling like I was in a movie. I’d never seen so many beautiful, elegant, classy and self-assured people before. I am from New Zealand, you see. I met various people that night but what stuck in my mind was the fact that I didn’t come across any Chinese speakers without near perfect English. Many were from Taiwan or Hong Kong, but I met a few Shanghainese also. All were eager to meet and chat, drink and dance. The only European model who deigned to talk to me apparently mistook me for someone famous and scurried away when I told her that I’d bought my shirt at MBK in Bangkok. Of the nights out I’ve had, this wasn’t a particularly Chinese experience.
As I went to more and more clubs I observed the differences in atmosphere of clubs almost exclusively patronized by the locals and those frequented by the international set. The clubs are numerically dominated by the Chinese, of course, but there are shifting proportions of Foreigners to Chinese as different clubs target different groups and then wax and wane in popularity with both. A favorite club of mine which catered almost exclusively to locals has now become popular with foreigners. Now it is no longer so popular amongst the Chinese. They have moved on somewhere else away from the intrusion of an entirely different drinking and clubbing culture.
But everyone turns up together when the big European DJs come to play. They are in Shanghai every other week now. Non-existent health and safety regulations are routinely exposed as the promoters make fist-loads playing sardines with real live humans. It must be interesting for the big names to play in China and witness the clubbing experience. Of course on these big nights the ex-patriot population descends in a flurry of Cocaine and a hail storm of Ecstacy, so there will be some familiarity. Annoyingly the young teenage drunks also turn up and stand in the middle of the dance floor not knowing what to do besides snapping photos and shouting “this is so cool, dude,” in thick French and German accents. Added to this are hundreds of very excited Chinese leaping around spilling expensive drinks every where. It must be quite a view from high up front. With so many people and generally only one single entry and exit point to the dance area, I don’t much fancy these high profile club nights anymore. If there was a fire, which is risked with every fire display on the bar and every pyrotechnic ice bucket of bubbly served, everyone would be fucked. I generally head off to somewhere a little less manic and crowded; somewhere more Chinese.
I love the smaller ‘local’ clubs because they are distinctly Chinese. They are a unique entertainment experience. The West has definitely influenced the club scene but the experience itself is like nothing you will be exposed to in any other part of the world. The music can vary but mostly it is fairly close to cutting edge on the international scene. I often go to the local clubs with a good friend of mine from Korea. Like me, he loves the beat, the lights, the dancers and the reckless abandon of whiskey and green tea. Because he looks like a Korean Love God he does get frustrated with the way the ladies focus more on me than him. “They think I am a Chinese,” he says again and again with exasperation. No novelty. The girls (and guys) will look at us both and then start talking to him assuming that he can understand and translate for me. When I don’t understand someone speaking at me in rapid Chinese, I get this blank look on my face and momentarily look like a dumb-struck yokel. The same happens to Hyuk Sang. “See!” he says. “Now they think I am a stupid Chinese.” I then get some girl’s phone thrust into my hand and am asked to enter my phone number. Not so bad really. Better than a kick in the balls.
Despite the attention we receive, the odds of picking a girl up on the night are slim. Handing over cash and picking up a girl is easy enough, but beyond these girls the Chinese are quite conservative in the sexual promiscuity stakes. They don’t want to sleep with you, they want to marry you. But only after a lengthy courtship during which time your financial assets are scrutinized closely by the father and your background picked over by the mother and the grandmother. All of this for a nightclub hottie you traded phone numbers with, and then kept romancing with expensive dinners in the forlorn hope that you could get her drunk and into a taxi home. But the chances of even getting to this point are not good. The vast majority of paying customers are male. The girls, even if single, are obliged to stick with the guys they came along with. Eye candy is no good if it is wandering all over the place. The girls are there to show off their tight bodies, their fashion and their pigtails and in doing so, boost the egos of the men they are with. It is best to accept an invitation to join their table for a few drinking games. The guys will try to play matchmaker if there is no Chinese rival. Very good of them.
The lines of intimacy become very blurry in clubs. Just knowing who is in the club and acting accordingly is a minefield. Sometimes it is difficult to tell who is there to work and who is there to party. Everyone who works in the club is immaculately groomed and dressed and the women are always very easy on the eye. You don’t see too many with a face like a dropped mince pie. Males have the money and girls want a husband. Rich guys get good looking girls. Some of the girls wear suits and silk; some wear high fashion and knee-high ‘fuck me boots.’ Some of them have name tags and numbers. Women in slick and sexy evening gowns greet you at the door. Other hostesses are dressed in the tight and frilly fashions of the time with fake eyelashes, carefully coifed hair, stylized make-up and padded bras. They have no name tags or numbers and congregate in a corner of the club until they are beckoned to walk in single file to one of the VIP rooms to do a beauty parade line-up. Some are selected to sit with the guys, pour their drinks, play dice games and generally be a good hostess and make the man feel like a man. Some mild cuddling and squeezing is permissible. Beyond that I am sure that private arrangements can be made for later in the evening if the girl is desperate enough. Many are. Then there are the dancing girls who will come out and drink with the patrons between routines. I fall in love three or four times a night when the dancing girls come out and perform themed and costumed dance routines. There is nothing sexier than a woman who can really move with sensuality and supreme confidence. Especially when she doesn’t have much on. These places are just so much fun and if you go for this reason alone rather than to pick-up then the night will be a good one. Otherwise you look like far too many desperate and drunk foreigners lurching around in a sweep for potential prey to leer at.
Trouble is very rare in Chinese nightclubs. The aggression levels are low. The girls are gorgeous, the guys are generous and the atmosphere friendly. Occasionally alcohol, lust, and cultural confusion conspire to create a little tension when a guy hits on the wrong girl in the wrong way. The people are pretty forgiving unless you are a complete twat. Usually a smile and the ritual clinking of glasses and rapid consumption will defuse any tension. If the tension does rise then it is best to get the hell away from the drunk Westerner. If any kind of fight ensues it will turn into a brawl as the Chinese will go in mob-handed. Everyone will take a swing and if a foreigner is involved then the next closest foreigner is fair game for a punch in the head. It’s all or nothing with the Chinese. I’ve been involved in ugly football brawls where Chinese guys with no involvement whatsoever will sprint sixty yards to take a wild swing. Sometimes they’ll bring a rock, a stick or a chair with them. It all turns ugly when a foreigner makes a local lose face in a culturally humiliating way. China: One Nation. As with anywhere, a little cultural sensitivity can go a long way in keeping you safe and happy.
As far as sensory overload goes, you can’t do much better than an evening in a Chinese nightclub. I’ve met so many good, funny Chinese people. They are more open than the foreigners who all appear ‘too cool for school’ and operate aloofly in cliques reflecting the fundamental difference; foreigners have seen it all before while the Chinese are virgin clubbers. They are very excited to be there and are out to have a good time no matter what. If you are in the vicinity then you are part of that good time too. Inhibitions and cultural barriers are lowered and you are genuinely welcomed to participate with equal joy and exuberance.
And then everyone gets hammered and has a really good time… Gun Bei!
The Revolution is in good hands.
It sounds like it could be a lot of fun and oh, those lovely white-skinned Chinese ladies…