Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 31, December 2012

From Interzone to Transzone:
Race and Sex in the Contact Zones
of Shanghai's Global Nightlife

James Farrer and Andrew David Field

    Introduction: Nightlife as contact zone
  1. Nightlife has served as a space of interracial sexual encounter since its advent. Indeed, 'slumming' by middle-class urbanites in the working class underworlds of major western cities is one of the origins of modern nightlife practices. This was the case for Chicago, Paris and New York in the nineteenth century, and most famously for Harlem in the 1920s, when affluent whites went on 'safaris' to the clubs of this largely African American district in New York City.[1] Even now, the nightscapes of global cities can be conceptualised as 'ethnosexual contact zones,'[2] spaces in which boundary crossing sexual encounters are facilitated by commercial nightlife entrepreneurs catering to a transient and diverse urban population. Since its inception then, nightlife adventuring has often involved interracial, interethnic and inter-class sexual encounters and other forms of exotic sexual consumption. The simple question that emerges is, 'what has changed?' Are the erotic worlds of nightlife now still a form of postcolonial 'slumming,' reinforcing racial and gender hierarchies, or have new forms of postmodern interracial exoticism taken over? How do we compare the postmodern sexual contact zones of today with the colonial spaces of nearly a century ago? In this paper we focus on the global nightscapes of Shanghai to create a narrative involving both postcolonial continuities and neoliberal transformations of urban ethnosexual contact zones.
  2. The paper represents collaboration between a historian of Shanghai and a sociologist studying contemporary Shanghai. Previous ethnographic studies, including several by the authors of this paper, have described the development of Shanghai nightlife in both of its periods of expansion and globalisation—in the 1920s to 1930s[3] and in the past thirty years.[4] Based upon our previous and new study of Shanghai nightlife spaces, we consider what has changed between these two periods. Our ethnographic research in Shanghai includes participant observation and hundreds of interviews with clubbers and club owners conducted between 1993 and 2011. Our library and archival research was conducted in the Shanghai Municipal Library and Archives.[5] Although we studied contemporary gay venues, this essay focuses on heterosexually oriented mainstream dance clubs.
  3. In order to develop a comparative historical perspective on nightlife, we first provide a brief description of the place of nightlife studies in global history followed by a more detailed historical overview of the development of nightlife in Shanghai in the Republican era (1911–1949) and the Reform era (1979–present). Then we focus on nightlife as a racial and sexual contact zone. In order to better contrast the worlds of Shanghai nightlife in the Republican era and the Reform era, we develop two heuristic concepts, or 'ideal types' as overarching descriptions of the nature of social interactions in the nightlife space. First we borrow from Kevin Mumford the idea of 'interzone,' a term which he used to describe asymmetric social exchanges across racial boundaries in American nightlife spaces in the interwar era.[6] Although, the interzones of American mixed-race nightlife were spaces of great cultural creativity and social mixing, they ultimately did little to challenge existing racial and gender hierarchies, and may even have served to reinforce or clarify the boundaries between blacks and whites.[7] In contrast to this idea of the 'interzone,' we develop our own idea of 'transzone' as a space in which people more fluidly cross racial boundaries, transgress gendered norms of sexual behaviour, and acquire forms of transnational cultural capital. As described below the transzone of Shanghai is a space of transnational flows of people, cultural transfers, transcultural relationships, and transnational subcultures, all brought about by intercultural agents capable of rapid shifts in their scripts of sociability and the spaces of interaction. These ideas are developed in empirical examples below, based on our contemporary and historical ethnographic research.

    Nightlife in global history
  4. Shanghai's first nightlife revolution in the 1920s and 30s was part of a global trend, centred in the world metropolises of the first great wave of economic and cultural globalisation from 1840 up to 1929. The great worldwide revolution in nightlife began in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of gas lighting, which lit up both city streets and indoor establishments to an unprecedented level, making it possible for extended forays into the otherwise dangerous urban nightscape.[8] At the same time, the industrial revolution promoted a more rigid division between daytime and night-time activities, with daytime reserved for 'work' and night-time (particularly weekends) for 'play.' In large metropolises such as Paris, Berlin and New York, nightlife also became deeply intertwined with newly emerging patterns of commerce, advertising and consumption, which connected images of fantasy and leisure life exemplified by the cabaret with modern institutions such as the department store, and the 'Great White Way' of Broadway.[9] In the West, nightlife also became associated with the liberation of the body from Victorian-era morality, as upper-class men and women 'stepped out' to dance and play in nightclubs, cabarets and bars and other spaces formerly considered low-class and out of bounds for urban elites, especially women.[10] Meanwhile, by the fin-de-siècle era, as epitomised by the district of Montmartre in Paris, the advent of new forms of advertising such as lithographs, specialised newspapers and magazines, and eventually radio and film, brought alluring sounds and images of nightlife to the urban masses, who consumed the nightlife of their metropolis vicariously if not in reality.[11] By the end of the First World War, western nightlife cultures spread to Asian cities, including Tokyo, Manila and Shanghai. Nightlife became deeply embedded in both the image and the nocturnal realities of modern metropolitan life in Asia, in the West.

    A short history of Shanghai nightlife
    Shanghai learns to dance, late 1800s to early 1900s
  5. During the early twentieth century, Shanghai became part of the nexus of emerging transnational modernity centred on these global cities. As Shanghai gained gas and electric lighting, modern department stores, advertising agencies and other forms of modern mass consumption,[12] the commercial possibilities for nightlife also expanded. Dance was the focus of this new nightlife scene, though its roots in Shanghai were older.[13] The British held one of the first recorded dances in Shanghai in November 1850. By the late nineteenth century there were regular dances at the British-run Shanghai Club, and social dance (jiaoyiwu) was also part of diplomatic activities for western representatives in China.[14] Yet these dances were limited in scope and season, and were not part of a commercial enterprise but rather private, invitation-only affairs for the city's western elites.
  6. Dancing in Shanghai did not become a regular commercial pastime until after the First World War (1914–1918). This happened in two successive waves, the first led by westerners (Europeans and Americans) and the second by Chinese. In the early 1920s, international hotels in the city began operating commercial ballrooms that catered to the city's western residents, often known as the Shanghailanders. As the Shanghailanders began to learn to dance the fox-trot and the Charleston, western hotel and café owners imported jazz musicians from America or hired 'White Russian' musicians and dancers exiled from their mother country by the revolution of 1917 to perform in these ballrooms. Chinese elite society avoided these ballrooms at first, since dancing at close quarters with a female partner was considered un-Confucian, but slowly small groups of Chinese aesthetes and self-styled bohemians began to infiltrate these western spaces with their exotic dancing cultures. The Nationalist Revolution of 1927, which brought Chiang Kai-shek to power over the country and ushered in a new era of modernisation for the country, was a watershed event that also led young Chinese elites to embrace the Jazz Age, perhaps as a way of joining the modern world, but also in protest to the outdated mores of their parents' generation.[15]

    Dance madness and the Chinese Jazz Age, 1928–1954
  7. In the spring of 1928, the city experienced its first wave of Chinese 'dance madness' (tiaowure).[16] One of the key features of the Chinese adaptation of western jazz-age nightlife culture was the employment of taxi-dancers, or dance hostesses. The first female dance partners working in the city's bars and cabarets in the late 1910s and early 1920s were Russian and Japanese.[17] In 1928, the first crop of Chinese 'dance hostesses' (wunu) began to appear on the scene.[18] By the 1930s, Chinese dance hostesses greatly outnumbered their Russian and Japanese competitors, and tens of thousands of young Chinese women, mostly recruited from the hinterlands surrounding the city, worked in this profession between the 1930s and 1940s.[19] The number of Chinese-run and patronised dancehalls continued to grow rapidly through the 1930s, and dancing quickly became one of the paramount pastimes for Chinese urbanites living in or visiting Shanghai, as well as one of the hallmarks of Chinese modernity both in Shanghai and abroad.[20] Though young Chinese men and women did frequent dance halls as customers during this era, the great majority of women in the city's nightlife scene were paid entertainers and performers, mainly taxi dancers but also professional singers and stage dancers, rather than customers. Even so, these women, drawn from the vast hinterlands of rural and small-town China, were pioneers of a new culture of urban modernity for China that allowed these women unprecedented spatial mobility and a broader range of sexual relations within the burgeoning sphere of urban public sociability and leisure life. Many of the women who embraced the Jazz Age and danced in the city's dance halls became the lovers and sometimes even the wives or concubines of male dance-hall patrons.[21]

    The abolition of nightlife in Shanghai, 1945–1978
  8. By the late 1940s, the cabaret industry of Shanghai was in crisis. The Nationalist government, which returned to power in Nanjing after the end of WWII, enacted a campaign to ban the city's cabarets, viewing them as a frivolous and corrupting vice industry.[22] While a mass protest movement by the industry prevented the ban, the Communist revolution of 1949 signalled the death knell for the city's dance halls. Between 1949 and 1954, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) undertook an extensive campaign to clean up the city and build a new society, which included taxing and licensing the city's cabarets out of existence. In 1954, the last taxi-dance halls shut their doors and by 1957 with the onset of the 'Anti-Rightist Movement,' nearly all forms of western-style nightlife had disappeared or been driven deep underground in the city.[23] From the inception of the 'Great Leap Forward' (1958–1961) and through the 'Cultural Revolution' (1966–1976), western-style social dancing became a highly suspect and illegal activity and elite Shanghainese only held dance parties behind closed doors in their private households.[24] Commercial nightlife of the sort that had flourished between the 1920s and 1940s ceased altogether, and westerners were certainly no longer present in the city. Sexual play outside of marriage was considered decadent, bourgeois, and even grounds for punishment and incarceration. Those who had engaged in such activities often ended up writing lengthy self-confessions (ziwo piping) about their sordid pasts.[25] Nevertheless, during this period, government policies and campaigns beginning with the New Marriage Laws of 1950 attempted to raise the status of women in China and put women more on a par with men in terms of their social and economic status. This in turn would have a deep impact on the re-emergence of commercial nightlife in Shanghai and other cities in China after the end of the Mao years.

    Shanghai's nightlife revival since the 1980s
  9. Under the policies of 'opening and reform' that began in 1978, the Deng Xiaoping regime rehabilitated social dancing as a healthy Chinese pastime. Quickly thereafter, nightlife in Shanghai re-emerged. It did so first in the guise of 'social dance halls,' featuring the classic ballroom steps of the previous era, though without the use of taxi-dancers, who by this time had virtually disappeared in the western world as well. Instead, middle- to lower-class Shanghainese men and women frequented these ballroom dances as customers, often with the goal of meeting potential friends and lovers.[26] By the 1990s, western-style discos and dance clubs were becoming more popular and attracting larger segments of Shanghai's local and foreign sojourner population. The first crop of discos opened up in the city's international hotels, with independent nightclubs beginning to flourish in the mid-1990s. As the number of foreigners and overseas Chinese living in the city rose dramatically, and as young Shanghainese and out-of-town Chinese became more integrated into the city's nightlife scene, the late 1990s to early 2000s saw the rise of dozens of more specialised nightlife establishments including lounge bars and nightclubs that catered to specific crowds and musical tastes.[27]
  10. Some aspects of Shanghai nightlife resembled the pre-revolution cabarets. By the early 1990s, when the authors of this paper first began to research the nightlife cultures of the city, bars and dance clubs once again became key venues for intercultural interactions among international travellers, sojourners, settlers and the increasingly mobile citizens of the People's Republic of China.[28] As in the Republican era, nightlife often involved commercial and paid female (and less frequently male) companionship. By the 1990s, hundreds of 'KTV' clubs (karaoke clubs with private rooms) offered female companionship for male customers in semi-private rooms fitted with karaoke boxes (KTV hostesses were often available for more intimate sex work off premises).[29] Some dance clubs in the city also hired PR girls, young women, often college students, who were paid to pose as guests in the club, or to drink and dance with male customers at their tables (but usually with no expectations of further sexual intimacy). Nevertheless, despite the continued tradition of paid female companionship, between the 1930s and 1990s, the city's nightlife sphere experienced great changes in inter-gender and inter-racial relations. As will be discussed below, for the most part the mainstream bar and clubbing scene in Shanghai put male and female customers on a more socially equal footing than in the 1930s. In other words, both men and women frequented bars and clubs as customers and consumers of the scene, rather than as paid entertainers. Moreover, as will be explained further below, men and women of many different nationalities and ethnicities were mixing and mingling on a far more regular and intimate basis as the city's nightlife transformed from an 'interzone' to a 'transzone' of social and sexual relations.

    Shanghai nightlife as ethnosexual contact zone
  11. During both periods discussed in this essay, the population of foreigners living in and visiting Shanghai fuelled the development of Shanghai's nightlife. By the early 1930s, 70,000 foreigners resided in Shanghai. With Shanghai already rivalling Chicago as the fifth largest city in the world, and with a polyglot population drawn from all over the globe, no other city in Asia could lay claim to such a cosmopolitan population or culture.[30] The Communist revolution reduced the resident foreign population to a few dozen by the 1960s, but the opening and reform period of the 1980s and beyond saw the return of foreign businessmen, students and tourists to Shanghai. By 2007, over 200,000 foreigners were staying in the city, with Japanese, North Americans, Koreans and Europeans forming the largest groups.[31] Increasingly, this population found itself in the same labour markets, housing markets, and consumer spaces as a fast growing Chinese population of 'returnees' (haigui) with foreign degrees, and upwardly mobile Chinese from Shanghai, other provinces, Taiwan and Hong Kong,[32] competing to join and define what Leslie Sklair has called the 'transnational capitalist class.'[33] As in the 1930s, western, Asian and overseas Chinese expatriates were only a small portion of this geographically and socially mobile population, but they were a highly visible portion. As described below, expatriates have long been consumer market leaders in Shanghai nightlife scenes, and even served as attractions for Chinese patrons, even in establishments catering mostly to Chinese.[34]
  12. By the 1990s, nightlife venues in Shanghai once again had become an important 'contact zone' in which Chinese interacted with expatriates and foreign cultures to produce what may be described as the 'wild side' of transnational urban culture.[35] Borrowing a term from Joan Nagel,[36] nightscapes are 'ethnosexual contact zones' in which individuals find solidarity within their ethnic groups, but also seek contact across ethnic boundaries, with one major form of cross-ethnic contact being sexual interaction.[37] Nightlife is a sexualised space which both enhances and structures erotic possibilities, calling for a specialised analysis of sexual interactions in nightlife spaces.[38]
  13. This understanding of nightlife as 'wild side' and 'ethnosexual contact zone' is not only applicable to China. In the US, modern nightlife emerged as a contact zone during the first decade of the twentieth century, in clubs in which strangers, rich and poor, male and female, interacted on the dance floor. Young immigrant women, in particular, were swept up in the 'dance madness' that created diverse possibilities for sexual encounters.[39] Dance halls also were ethnosexual contact zones in which Asian and African American men danced with normally off-limits white women, while in some of the ballrooms and nightclubs of Harlem it was also possible for white men to dance with African or mixed-race women.[40] In the 1920s 'Black and Tan' clubs in largely black areas of the city became interracial 'interzones' featuring an asymmetric form of urban cosmopolitanism in which white patrons 'slummed' in dance clubs in black neighbourhoods, while white establishments (including many featuring black performers) remained closed to blacks.[41] As will be elaborated more in the next section, in the 1920s Shanghai's nightscapes also included urban 'interzones' of interracial and intercultural contact that represented an alternative world to the more racially segregated social worlds of Chinese and Western elites in the city, while at the same time generating heated discussions about their morality and legitimacy.
  14. Shanghai's 'second coming' as a global city[42] since the 1990s has been characterised by a re-emergence of some of the same forms of sexual interaction, commerce, mingling, segregation and conflict characteristic of its first phase of globalisation. Yet the transnational flows of peoples, practices and cultures involved in these nightlife contact zones are larger in scale and more dynamic than those of the interwar era. Modern global nightscapes are transnational in terms of their cultural forms, their mobile participants, and also their spatial organisation.[43] This does not mean that these transnational nightlife zones are constructed identically in all neighbourhoods of global cities. These global nightscapes involve the mapping of transnational leisure geographies onto distinct local spaces. However, as discussed below, they are also transnational spaces in which globe-trotting elites—or aspiring globetrotters— entertain and train themselves in the ways of global living. In order to discuss how global nightscapes in Shanghai have shifted from a colonial interzone to a post-colonial transzone between the beginning and end of the Mao years, it is important that we go back to the 1920s and '30s to discuss patterns of inter-racial sexual interactions that occurred within the city's nightlife sphere, before returning to the present era.

    Interwar Shanghai nightscapes as interzones
  15. Since the late nineteenth century, certain areas of Shanghai had been designated as contact zones for foreigners and Chinese to mix and mingle, usually in the context of commercial sex. In particular, an area in the district of Hongkou around North Sichuan Road became known as 'the Trenches' during WWI, owing to the constant presence of soldiers and sailors. Since the 1860s this area had been known for its hotels, drinking holes and brothels. By the 1920s, it had become a notorious nightlife zone in which white men could fraternise with white or Asian women in bars that featured female dancing and drinking partners. These women earned their salaries through the number of drinks they encouraged male customers to buy. It was here on the margins of the international city that the cabaret industry that made Shanghai the 'Paris of the East' was born.[44] The influx of white Russian women who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 catalysed the emergence of the cabaret industry in Shanghai, which coincided with the rise of the Jazz Age. While white men of various nationalities and occupational or status backgrounds could flagrantly mingle with these Russian women as well as a variety of Asian women from Korea, Japan, China or South Asia, it was also possible for Asian men (Chinese and Japanese mainly, but also Filipinos and Southeast Asians) to seek the company of Russian women.[45]
  16. The visible fraternisation of 'Asiatic' men with white women directly challenged the imperial racial order of Rule Britannia. During the early 1920s, the Shanghai-based North China Herald and North China Daily News, Britain's leading newspaper in the Far East, ran editorials decrying the shaming of the white race perpetrated by these women.[46] Some other westerners, especially the handful of bohemian intellectuals in the city, were somewhat more sanguine about the situation, and indeed by the 1930s there were blatant cases—most notoriously that of New Yorker journalist Emily Hahn—of white women openly consorting with Chinese men.[47]
  17. Journalist and advertising executive Carl Crow in his memoir about his twenty-five years in Shanghai described how the once strict social barriers between Chinese and westerners seemed to crumble at the end of the First World War. He describes the night clubs that emerged at the same time as a space in which his male western compatriots also first encountered the new modern Chinese women:

      We discovered all at once that when the Chinese girls prettied themselves after the fashion of their western sisters they were a delight to the eye and, dear me, what exquisite dancing partners they were. The idea of 'going native' began to present intriguing rather than sinister possibilities.[48]

    Shanghai nightlife during the interwar period thus became a space in which racial mixing and social mobility were both imaginable, and to a limited degree, a reality. Even socially marginalised black musicians from the USA and equally marginalised dance hostesses from small towns in China could become shining stars of the dance world.[49]
  18. In its basic structure, however, Shanghai cosmopolitan nightlife zones in the Republican era showed similarities to the racially and economically stratified nightscapes of the early twentieth century American cities. As described by Kevin Mumford, the interzones of American cities offered asymmetric possibilities of interracial sociability. Whites slummed freely in black neighbourhoods, while a few blacks attempted 'passing' in the white world, at great personal risk.[50] In racially stratified semi-colonial Shanghai, white foreign tourists and resident Shanghailanders slummed in the interzones of the Trenches and Blood Alley in the 1930s, gawking at the interracial sexual scenes. Chinese with money had more access to elite commercial nightlife than blacks did in American cities; however, they widely practiced a type of passing or cultural assimilation in patronising the elite nightlife venues of western Shanghai. Writing in the 1930s, American sociologist Herbert Lamson described the 'alienward cosmopolitanism' of Shanghai in which Chinese assimilated themselves to the culture of the West, while westerners largely avoided adaptation of local Chinese cultural practices.[51] Lamson emphasised that racial separation, especially bars on intermarriage, remained a feature of Shanghai life throughout this period.[52] Nightlife thus formed an asymmetric and stratified contact zone in which Chinese encountered, mimicked and eventually absorbed elements of western culture that would become hallmarks of a Chinese modernity. White Shanghailanders throughout this period defended their status as culturally and ethnically superior to Chinese, and rarely associated with Chinese as social equals, intimate friends or potential marriage partners. In sum, both whites and some wealthy Chinese men slummed in spaces in which interracial sex was both spectacle and forbidden pleasure, but these ephemeral relationships did little to challenge the colonial racial order.
  19. That is not to say that these spaces had no lasting consequences. The cosmopolitan zone of Shanghai nightlife was also a sexual contact zone, in which men and women enacted and encountered the new sexual subjects of the twentieth century: the 'modern girls' and 'modern boys' who practiced free love and treated sexuality as a sphere apart from the traditional realm of family and reproduction.[53] To some extent, this transformation was more imaginary than real, especially for respectable middle-class women still bound by Confucian expectations regarding marriage and family, including heavy parental influence on marriage choices. But in the dancehalls, as in film and fiction, men could experience the thrill of dancing with a sexually liberated 'modern girl' while in the arms of a paid dance hostess. Although these images lived on the popular imagination, war and revolution closed the curtain on the physical spaces of Shanghai's nightlife interzones.

    Twenty-first century nightscapes as transzones
  20. The 'opening and reform' policies beginning in 1978 re-established Shanghai nightlife as a space of interethnic contact, but in a radically altered social environment. State-sponsored policies of 'opening up' China to the outside world weakened social boundaries between Chinese and the steadily increasing foreign population. Moreover, as a consequence of social and political developments in the western world, interracial sexual relations were far less taboo in the 1980s and beyond than they were in the era of high colonialism. The re-emergence of nightlife as a space of highly visible interracial interactions in the 1990s represents a rebirth of the ethnosexual contact zone within the matrix of neoliberal, state-sponsored globalisation, including massive flows of transnational economic migrants both from abroad and within China.[54]
  21. Even by the early 1980s Shanghai's nightlife scene had emerged as a sexual contact zone in which foreigners and Chinese could meet up and hook up. Although on a small scale, small privately run bars for foreigners first appeared near international hotels in the mid-1980s. Expatriate businessmen who visited these bars described meeting Shanghai women interested in international marriage, more immediate material rewards, or simply a good time.[55] The first discotheque for foreigners opened in the Jinjiang Hotel in 1988, followed by a string of hotel discos. JJ's disco, opening in 1992, inaugurated an era of giant 'disco plazas' in which up to 2000 Shanghainese and western expats mixed on the dance floor. Judy's, an owner-operated restaurant and dance club appeared in 1994, created a model for small independent bars with dancing that appealed to both expatriates and a growing population of white-collar Shanghainese. DD's which opened in 1995 is sometimes credited as the first real 'club,' playing house music imported from New York.[56] Although most customers in Shanghai clubs were Chinese and most flirtations occurred among Chinese, racially distinct foreigners were part of the sexualised glamour and exotic atmosphere Shanghai youth consumed at the discotheque in the 1990s. Dancing with a 'foreigner' (westerner) was a novelty and thrill. Therefore, foreigners were often given free passes, or let in for free.[57] 'Foreign' (usually white) customers were also part of the staged spectacle in some clubs. To some extent foreigners remain part of the attraction of Shanghai clubs. A manager at the Phebe 3D Club, interviewed in January 2011, explained why she made a special point of attracting foreign customers:

      You want foreigners because when foreigners get drunk, they get happy, they get up dancing on the stage, and give the place an atmosphere. Chinese people will just get drunk and go home. Chinese people will dance, but they will just dance around their own tables, they won't get out on the dance floor.

    Sexy floor shows involving professional non-Chinese dancers also regularly featured at Phebe 3D.
  22. In addition to exotic spectacles, sexual interactions across racial/national lines were common in clubs; some brief flirtations, others leading to dates outside the club. In the 1990s 'playing with foreigners' became fashionable among some Shanghai women clubbers. In a conversation in 1999, one Shanghai woman who frequented the bars explained her curiosity:

      I don't want anything from them, but I just want to play with a foreigner. I have never played with one before and I think it must be interesting. Who says that only men can play with women? I can play with men too.

  23. In the 1930s, when Chinese women in the nightlife sphere 'played' with foreigners, it was most often in the commercial context of taxi-dancing where the women were paid to work in the dance club or bar, and there were also expectations of financial rewards for sexual involvement. By contrast, in the sexual climate of the 2000s, respectable women increasingly possessed, negotiated, or fought for the freedom to make sexual choices, even the choice to date or just 'play' with a western man. Beginning in the 1990s the advent of a population of highly educated, English-speaking and self-supporting white-collar women changed the demography of Shanghai nightlife. In particular, nightlife offered a space of mobility and sociability for the thousands of university-educated women who moved to the city from other provinces and found relatively high paid white collar jobs allowing them to live independently in the city. One such woman from the North China city of Dalian described going out 'every night' of the week to different nightlife venues. When asked in an interview in 2008 why she liked clubs, she replied:

      I love dancing … that's why I go out – I love dancing…. You feel beautiful. You feel the centre of attention. You feel like you are letting yourself go. It's like expressing yourself.

    As she explained in the interview, her adventures included occasional romantic encounters with western men, whom she preferred over Chinese men. Clubbing spaces normalised these previously taboo ethnosexual preferences. As described by Karen Kelsky in Japan,[58] western men could represent an imagined escape from patriarchal sexual norms for Chinese women. Hanging out in the nightlife transzones provided forms of cultural, sexual and social capital that further enabled the autonomous sexual choices of some Shanghai women. As some Chinese woman informants said, 'playing' with foreigners was not only exotic and chic, but implied less moral responsibility than playing with a Chinese man. Although not the focus of this paper, by the late 1990s Shanghai had also developed a gay clubbing scene that also served as a contact zone between westerners and Chinese men (with a smaller scene attracting lesbian women, sometimes in the same establishments as gay men). In some venues, Chinese male sex workers known as 'money boys' offered their sexual companionship for a price, similar to the role of female sex workers in the largely heterosexual mainstream nightlife scenes.[59]
  24. In sum, clubs in the 1990s and 2000s represented to both Chinese and international patrons a space for sexual consumption that celebrated racial and cultural difference as a feature of erotic fantasy and play. At the same time the clubs can also be seen as spaces of sexual normalisation in which certain forms of sexual exchange and sexual sociability were normalised and conventionalised. Needless to say, nightlife contact zones created possibilities for mistranslation and unmet expectations—for example, confusion over the meaning of shared drink, a dance or a kiss—but the conventional practices and expectations of nightlife sociability also were easily learned by young people from different backgrounds. These included mainstream practices such as heterosexual dating, buying drinks and exchanging numbers, but also more eroticised nightlife practices such as making-out with a stranger on the dance floor (with no further expectations). Shanghai nightlife thus presented the thrill of encountering difference within a familiar global nightscape of commercial leisure spaces and standardised forms of erotic sociability. Some differences in the branding of venues were merely 'local colour'—for example, a Shanghai rickshaw from the colonial era used as a seating space in the iconic Shanghai bar, Judy's Too. Others were predictable variations in a global brand—for example, a Shanghai branch of 'Hooters' with Chinese waitresses. In the cosmopolitan transzone, racial preferences in partners, or in interracial flirting, could be described as an ethically neutral 'brand preference' or a positive desire for novel cultural experiences. Interracial sex retained the sensation of an exotic novelty, while at the same time being fashionable and a positive expression of cosmopolitanism, in ways that weren't possible or plausible in the 1930s.
  25. This is not to suggest that Shanghai's nightlife transzones are devoid of politics and conflict. At the same time that developments in Shanghai nightlife reflect cultural hybridity, they also show the seemingly contradictory mix of cosmopolitan and nationalist sentiments which Jeroen de Kloet describes as 'cosmopatriotism,'[60] or the expression of nationalist sentiments through cosmopolitan cultural forms. We see this tendency, for example, in the creation of more exclusively Chinese clubs such as Babyface, which in the early 2000s had a reputation for being hostile to non-Asian customers. Since then, many more clubs have arisen in the city that cater to common Chinese clubbing practices, involving groups of men reserving tables for conspicuously consuming expensive and high-status bottles of liquor while playing dice and finger drinking games with Chinese women, whom they either invite to the club or find there. In these chain clubs, such as Phebe 3D, Muse and Babyface (now Rich Baby), westerners (who often come in smaller groups without table reservations) cluster at the bar, on stage, or on the central dance floor where they appear as exotic guests who provide a colourful contrast to the Chinese customers more accustomed to reserving a table and spending their evening seated among a group of friends. Even in these clubs, however, there are zones of free and mixed interaction around bars, dance floors and walkways. The development of Shanghai clubbing spaces between the late 1990s and early 2000s is thus characterised by zones segmented by ethnicity and nationality, but intersected with more fluid zones of intense ethnic mingling and interracial sexual interaction.
  26. Finally, local governments around the world actively shape urban nightscapes as stages for consumption and sociability among middle-class elites.[61] Shanghai's contemporary nightscapes, quite unlike those in the 1930s, reflect not only policies of state repression and policing of nightlife, but also state-led projects to promote world-class nightlife through flashy developments such as Xintiandi, The Bund and Tianzifang in Shanghai. Such developments can themselves be described as a form of state-sponsored 'cosmopatriotism' or the public use of western-style modernity as symbol of urban ascendancy. Nightlife districts, like art districts, are used by the city to promote itself as a 'creative city,' to attract foreign investors and members of the transnational 'creative class' who populate Shanghai's bars and clubs.[62] The state thus plays an indirect role in promoting nightlife spaces as a contact zone among the elite sectors of the population.

    Conclusion: from interzone to transzone
  27. We began this paper by suggesting that the nightlife spaces in the 1920s represented a pattern of asymmetric interracial interactions, borrowing the term 'interzone' from Kevin Mumford's study of interracial sex zones in the 1920s in US cities. Elites, both foreign and Chinese, slummed in Shanghai's seedy out-of-Settlement interzones of the Trenches and Blood Alley, but among elites themselves, interracial interactions remained limited. In contrast, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Shanghai nightlife adventuring has a more socially horizontal, ethnically mixed face, with far less clear hierarchies of race. Social differences now are coded much more in terms of class than race, with the emergence of a transnational class of mobile educated elites celebrating cultural cosmopolitanism and interracial sociability.
  28. The excitement of nightlife adventure still has to do with sexual and social boundary crossing, whether those boundaries are racial, ethnic, class-based or moral. Yet, whereas in the colonial era these boundary-crossing interactions tended to highlight the asymmetric relations between Chinese and westerners, the nightlife of more recent years has shown two marked distinctions: the increased interactions between Chinese and westerners (foreigners/waiguoren) as social equals and the growing presence and sexual power of female Chinese customers in the city's nightlife. The transzone of urban nightlife is most certainly not a space of social or even sexual equality, but it is a space in which racial and gender differences have been largely recoded in neo-liberal market-oriented terms—as differential access to symbolic, cultural, economic and sexual capital. In this neoliberal transzone, transfers of resources, ideas and even sentiments are accelerated by increased cultural familiarity, linguistic competence and a shared cultural orientation toward consumer cosmopolitanism and individual choice. One is not excluded from participation on racial or gender grounds, but might be for lacking money, style, linguistic skills or sex appeal.
  29. The geographically mobile and well-paid men—both western and Chinese—who book tables and buy the drinks at elite Shanghai bars and clubs often describe Shanghai nightlife as a 'sexual paradise' in which they can easily avail themselves of the sexual attention of the vast numbers of mobile and unattached young women eager for a night out in the big city.[63] Clearly, prostitution, concubinage, compensated dating and other conventional ways of trading economic resources for sexual companionship are a commonplace in these nightscapes occupied by men and women with vastly different resources. We would argue, however, that young Chinese women themselves have experienced the greatest mobility in the transition from interzones to transzones in Shanghai nightlife. The interzones of Republican era nightlife were stratified by gender as well as race, and men in general enjoyed far more mobility across these spaces than women. Bourgeois Chinese playboys and young western adventurers also caroused through elite cabarets and slummed in the Trenches. Women in contrast had fewer options, especially in pursuing sexual adventures. Unmarried Chinese women from good families barely dipped into the interzones of Shanghai's inter-war nightscapes, unless they were taxi-dancers themselves. While young women from affluent Chinese families did attend ballrooms, they did so largely as guests of Chinese men and not as women looking to casually 'hook up' with a Chinese man let alone a foreigner. If such casual 'hook-ups' did take place in the 1930s, they did so more in the fantasy world of fiction than in reality.[64] In the new transzones of Shanghai nightlife after 2000, in contrast, the situation is reversed. Young, single and educated Chinese women were the most welcome patrons in nearly all spheres (with the exception of male-oriented hostess clubs and brothels or venues for gay men). More than men of any ethnicity, Shanghai women (including New Shanghainese women, or Chinese women from other provinces living in Shanghai) used the nightlife as a space to learn and enjoy both western and Chinese forms of sociability. Many Shanghai women we interviewed or encountered in the nightlife vastly improved their English ability through their nightlife experiences, including, but not limited to, dating foreign men. Others who already possessed high education and a command of English were able to parlay those skills into romantic and sexual encounters with foreign men on the dance floors of the city. Of course, this sexual adventuring also extended to relationships with socially mobile Chinese men. Shanghai nightlife was a culturally hybrid social space in which the heterosexual premarital experimentation of Shanghai women across racial and class boundaries was normalised and even celebrated.
  30. In sum, Shanghai nightscapes now serve as unpredictable and creative transfer zones, or transzones, within which Chinese and non-Chinese interact deeply on many levels, both as producers and consumers of nightlife subcultures. Although increasingly marked by economic inequalities, the nightlife as a consumer-oriented transzone allows for an open-endedness and multiplicity of social and sexual strategies. While most encounters between strangers in the nightlife scenes are brief and intense, people sometimes do discover long-term social and sexual companions in the city's diverse nightscape. Even when there is just a 'playing with difference,' such play is not always inconsequential, and can be one of the ways in which people come to terms with transnational social and cultural trends at a time of rapid social and economic change.


    [1] Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885–1940, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009; Kevin Mumford, Interzones, New York: Columbia University Press, date; William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff, New York Modern: The Arts and the City, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

    [2] James Farrer, 'Global nightscapes in Shanghai as ethnosexual contact zones,' in The Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 37, no. 5 (2011):747–64.

    [3] Andrew Field, 'Selling souls in sin city: Shanghai singing and dancing girls in print, film, and politics, 1920-1949,' in Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-1943, ed. Yingjin Zhang, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, pp. 99–127; Andrew Field, Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919–1954, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2010.

    [4] James Farrer, 'Disco "super-culture": consuming foreign sex in the Chinese disco,' in Sexualities, vol. 2, no. 2 (1999):147–66; James Farrer, 'Dancing through the market transition: disco and dancehall sociability in Shanghai,' in The Consumer Revolution in Urban China, ed. Deborah Davis, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, pp. 226–49; James Farrer, Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002; Andrew Field, 'From D.D's to Y.Y. to Park 97 to Muse: dance club spaces and the construction of class in Shanghai 1997–2001,' in China: An International Journal, vol. 6, no. 1 (2008):18–43; James Farrer, 'Play and power in Chinese nightlife spaces,' in China – An International Journal, vol. 6, no. 1 (2008):1–16; Matthew Chew, 'Research on Chinese nightlife cultures and night-time economies,' in Chinese Sociology & Anthropology, vol. 42, no. 2 (2010):3–21; James Farrer, 'Shanghai bars: patchwork globalization and flexible cosmopolitanism in reform-era urban leisure spaces,' in Chinese Sociology and Anthropology vol. 42, no. 2, (2010):22–38.

    [5] For details on methodology see citations in previous footnote.

    [6] Mumford, Interzones.

    [7] Heap, Slumming.

    [8] Wolfgang Shivelbush, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; Joachim Schlör, Nights in the Big City, London: Reaktion Books, 1998.

    [9] Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993; Gabriel Weisberg, Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

    [10] Lewis Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890–1930 ,Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984; David Nasaw, Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements, New York: Basic Books, 1993.

    [11] Charles Rearick, Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985; Richard Thomson et al. (eds), Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2005; Gabriel Weisberg, Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

    [12] Sherman Cochran (ed.), Inventing Nanjing Road: Commercial Culture in Shanghai, 1900–1945, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999; Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    [13] Ma Jun, Wuting shizheng [Dance halls, city government], Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 2008. This book quotes several first-hand accounts in Chinese of balls held by British and expatriate societies in Shanghai during the late nineteenth century.

    [14] Li Shaobing, Minguoshiqi de xishi fengsuwenhua [Western customs and culture in the Republican Period], Beijing: Beijing Normal University Press, 1994, p. 174.

    [15] John Pal, Shanghai Saga, London: Jerrolds, 1963, especially pp. 85–87 and 112.

    [16] See Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, Chapter 2. This term is mentioned in Beiyang Huabao March 28, 1928.

    [17] Pal, Shanghai Saga, pp. 85–87.

    [18] Zhou Shoujuan (ed.), Wulü [Dance partner], Shanghai: Dadong shuju, 1928; Anonymous, Wuxing Yanying [Beautiful images of dancing stars], Shanghai: Dahua yishushe, 1928.

    [19] See Edna Lee Booker, News is My Job: A Correspondent in War-torn China, New York: Macmillan, 1940, pp. 236–38, for a discussion of recruitment patterns of taxi dancers in Shanghai based on her own interviews with Chinese taxi dancers.

    [20] See Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, for a detailed analysis of the rise of the city's Chinese cabaret industry in the 1920s and 1930s.

    [21] Sun Yaodong, Fushi wanxiang [Shanghai panorama], Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe, 2004. This is a personal memoir by an elite Chinese man who lived through the era and frequented the city's cabarets. See pages 35–38 for his discussion of the early Chinese hostesses and their relationships and marriages with wealthy male cabaret patrons.

    [22] Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, chapter 8; See also Ma Jun, Shanghai wuchao an [the case of the Shanghai Dancers' Uprising], Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2005.

    [23] Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, especially chapter 9.

    [24] Interview with Er Dongqiang (Deke Erh), who grew up in an elite Shanghai family household during the Cultural Revolution era.

    [25] Shanghai Municipal Archives files B105-5-1974, B105-5-1798, B105-5-1075. See also Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, pp. 280–81.

    [26] Farrer, Opening Up, chapter 9.

    [27] Field, 'From D.D's to Y.Y.'; Farrer, 'Shanghai bars.'

    [28] Farrer, 'Global nightscapes.'

    [29] Tiantian Zheng, Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

    [30] All About Shanghai and Environs: The 1934-35 Standard Guide Book, Hong Kong: Earnshaw Books, 2008 [1934], pp. 38–43.

    [31] Farrer, 'New Shanghailanders or new Shanghainese?'

    [32] Katie Willis and Brenda S.A Yeoh, 'Gendering transnational communities: a comparison of Singaporean and British migrants in China,' in Geoforum, vol. 33, no. 4 (2002):553–65; Brenda S.A. Yeoh and Katie Willis, 'Singaporean and British transmigrants in China and the cultural politics of 'contact zones,' in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 31, no. 5 (2005):269–85.

    [33] Leslie Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

    [34] Farrer, 'Disco super-culture.'

    [35] Building on Mary Louise Pratt, Masakazu Tanaka uses the term the 'wild side' to describe the urban sexual contact zone. Tanaka, Masakazu, 'Kontakuto-zōn no bunka jinruigaku e: teikoku no manazashi o yomu' (Towards a cultural anthropology of contact zones: a reading of Imperial Eyes), in Contact Zone, vol. 1 (2007):31–43.

    [36] Joan Nagel, Race, Ethnicity and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Fruits, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    [37] Farrer, 'Global nightscapes.'

    [38] Adam Isaiah Green, Mike Follert, Kathy Osterlund and Jamie Paquin, 'Space, place and sexual sociality: towards an "atmospheric analysis",' in Gender, Work and Organization, vol. 17, no. 1 (2010):7–27.

    [39] Kathy Peiss, '"Charity Girls" and city pleasures: historical notes on working class sexuality, 1880–1920,' in Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, ed. Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons, Philadelphia: Temple, 1989, pp. 57–69.

    [40] Paul G. Cressey, The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study of Commercialized Recreation and City Life, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1932.

    [41] Mumford, Interzones.

    [42] Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Global Shanghai, 1850–2010: A History in Fragments, London: Routledge, 2008.

    [43] Farrer, 'Global nightscapes.' See also Roman Cybriwksy, Roppongi Crossing: The Passing of a Notorious Tokyo Nightclub District and the Reshaping of a Global City, Athens GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011; and Katie Walsh, '"It got very debauched, very Dubai!" Heterosexual intimacy amongst single British expatriates,' in Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 8, no. 4 (2007):507–33.

    [44] Pal, Shanghai Saga, pp. 85–87; Booker, News is My Job, pp. 25–26.

    [45] Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, pp. 39–43.

    [46] North China Daily News, 1 February 1921; North China Herald, 12 March 1921. See Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, pp. 39–43, for an account of the controversy over White Russian women in the Trenches and the origins of the city's cabaret industry.

    [47] Emily Hahn documents her affair in 1930s Shanghai with Chinese poet and publisher Shao Xunmei ('Sinmay') in her book China to Me,, 1999.

    [48] Carl Crow, Foreign Devils in the Flowery Kingdom, Hong Kong: Earnshaw Books, 2007 [1940], p. 181.

    [49] Field, Shanghai's Dancing World, p. 92; Buck Clayton, Buck Clayton's Jazz World, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    [50] Mumford, Interzones, p. 143.

    [51] Herbert D. Lamson, 'Sino-American miscegenation in Shanghai,' in Social Forces, vol. 14, no. 4 (1936):573–81.

    [52] Robert Bickers, Britain in China, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.

    [53] For a discussion of the idea of the 'modern girl' in Chinese popular culture and the association with dance and dance halls, see Sarah E. Stevens, 'Figuring modernity: the New Woman and the modern girl in Republican China,' in NWSA Journal, vol. 15, no. 3 (2004):82–103. The courtesans of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai could be said to be the immediate precursors of these 'modern girls' in Shanghai, but this is beyond the scope of this paper. See Catherine Vance Yeh, Shanghai Love, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

    [54] Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty, Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

    [55] Farrer, 'Shanghai bars.'

    [56] Field, 'From D.D's to Y.Y.'

    [57] Farrer, 'Disco super-culture.'

    [58] Karen Kelsky, Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

    [59] Travis Kong, Chinese Homosexualities: Memba, Tongzhi and Golden Boy, London: Routledge, 2010.

    [60] Jeroen De Kloet, China with a Cut: Globalisation, Urban Youth and Popular Music, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

    [61] Paul Chatterton and Robert Hollands, Urban Nightscapes: Youth Cultures, Pleasure Spaces and Corporate Power, New York: Routledge, 2003.

    [62] Chew, 'Research on Chinese nightlife cultures and night-time economies.'

    [63] James Farrer, 'A foreign adventurer's paradise? Interracial sexuality and alien sexual capital in reform era Shanghai,' in Sexualities, vol. 13, no. 1 (2010):69–95.

    [64] In the short story Shanghai Fox-trot (Shanghai de hubuwu) by famed author Mu Shiying, published in 1934, a young concubine of a wealthy Chinese man meets a Belgian jeweller on the dance floor of a Shanghai cabaret and later has a secret rendez-vous with him in a hotel. Andrew Field has posted a translation of this story on his blog:


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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