I walk through two thick black curtains. The muffled music becomes immersive. A thick crowd shakes and jives in time to DJ Chari Chari’s cracking four-to-the-floor house and disco tunes. Smoke shoots from beside the DJ booth. Tubes of coloured light stream through the smoke and the grooving silhouettes.
You can feel the smiles. The club is only small but there must be 150 people of all different origins crammed in here. Europeans, Asians, South and North Americans, everyone’s having a good time. The bartenders are flat out shaking cocktails and popping open beers. Dancing by the booth I get talking to an American, Sam Maurey. He owns the place.
The crowd doesn’t thin. I dance and dance until I walk out into the lobby for a cigarette.
The sun’s up. Hello Shanghai.
House music was born in Chicago in the early 1980s. Pioneers took elements and samples from disco and put them to a repetitive rhythm created by drum machines and hi-hats. From gay and/or African American clubs it quickly spread across the world.
Techno emerged from nearby Detroit in the mid-late 1980s. It was harder, less melodic but still used the Chicago house sound with influence from early electronic music artists. It’s often said futuristic literature inspired the genre. Today there are countless subgenres of both house and techno; the lines between have become blurry.
Shanghai has its very own underground house and techno scene. It’s relatively young and it’s growing. I spent five days exploring it. The scene’s ready to flourish, there’s just one little thing missing.
I’ve arranged to meet Maurey at Elevator. It’s 80s night. The club is dark. Neon pink, black, blue and orange lights fan across the room. I spot Maurey walking through the crowd towards the bar and say hello. He grabs me a beer and asks me to wait 15 minutes until 12am when he’ll turn the music up.
“Why are you waiting?” I ask.
“There’s a massage parlour beneath us that’s open until midnight, we have noise regulations,” he answers.
It’s way too loud inside and too hot in the lobby so we move to a garden retaining wall on the street. Maurey’s a calm, pleasant 30-year-old from Maine.
He sits with his legs crossed and shoulders hunched, sipping a cold Chinese rice wine. In the 12 years since he first came to Shanghai he’s watched the scene grow from a couple of expatriate-run dive bars playing trance or progressive house, to a fledgling underground scene with 10-12 regular venues and a bag of promotion companies run by both foreigners and locals.
House and techno has been playing in Shanghai for 15 years. Not long when you compare it to places like Chicago, Berlin, London, Detroit and New York that have been playing house and techno for more than 30 years. Maurey tells me that because the scene is relatively young, it hasn’t evolved an original sound,
“Shanghai’s a city that hasn’t really had a sound come out of it that people identify with the place, which I think goes a long way to putting a place on the map in terms of clubbing and a scene,” he says.
“That’s starting to change.
“Other places in the world that have relatively strong dance scenes, people’s parents were going out to clubs and partying and you don’t find that here. This is really the first generation of people.”
The Chinese government has a strong influence on its people; at times making it difficult for the underground scene to progress. It’s taken sacrifice and dedication from many people to get the scene to where it is.
Late last year the government shut down two mainstay venues, Arkham and Shelter, because the owners couldn’t satisfy new permit requirements.
They operated in basements and suddenly that became illegal. According to Maurey, it was the first time in the scene’s 15 year history there was a reduction in the number of venues.
Arkham and Shelter have recently opened new venues and things seem to have steadied again.
Back in the club, Maurey introduces me to two Australian guys Matt Hildebrandt and Phil James. They’ve been in Shanghai for six and seven years respectively and together opened a bar, SMASH, three years ago. Hildebrandt will be at SMASH tomorrow night. They’ve got some DJs from a Shanghai record label playing soul and hip hop.
SMASH’s walls are white, covered in a Basquiat-style paint job by Dutch artist Merijn Kavelaars. There are two levels. The bar and dancefloor are on the bottom floor; upstairs are the toilets, a pool table and a seating area.
Hildebrandt and I sit at a table out the front and talk shop. He’s wearing a classic Melbourne outfit: black t-shirt, navy blue pants and black Doc Martens. He provides a series of articulate, thoughtful and slightly cynical insights.
Hildebrandt connects the dots between the lack of Chinese people’s impact on the scene and their musical ignorance, saying much of it is down to government control.
“The Chinese crowds aren’t very educated,” he says.
“They don’t have nostalgia in music; they never grew up with any foreign music.
“They missed the 80s, they missed the 90s. All they knew was Cèline Dion and George Michael. That’s what they listened to, they didn’t know anything.”
Young people have pirated music or bought cassettes for years but music has always been heavily monitored. Until very recently streaming music wasn’t possible.
“China just hasn’t been open for long enough. There’s access to the outside world but still there is the China bubble, you only get the news you read because everything’s blocked,” Hildebrandt says.
“It seriously affects the music scene. Everything’s censored. I think with more time, people just have to keep pushing the scene.”
In the early afternoon I meet Rhiannon Florence, head of marketing and public relations at Arkham, one of Shanghai’s most successful underground clubs. She speaks at length about what it’s like running events in Shanghai, particularly the trouble she has getting young locals to come to the underground parties.
She says because Chinese young people have only recently been exposed to music from Western countries, they are following what’s cool rather than having a deep enough understanding to ignore trends and follow what they actually like.
Florence’s intern Bebe Xhang, a kid herself, echoes the sentiment but adds some optimism.
“We have a good scene here but it’s still really young which is also very exciting because we have a lot of chances,” she says.
“Kids here are more open to things they don’t know or things they first hear unlike cities like LA or New York, where they’ve seen everything so they don’t really get excited for music.”
I’m looking forward to tonight. C’s Bar is my first destination. It was the first place to consistently play house and techno in Shanghai.
Descending dimly lit stairs into the labyrinth of corridors the first thing I notice is the smell of mould. Next is the graffiti that covers the wall in historical layers.
Founder and current owner Jessie Jiang is busy pouring drinks behind the bar but we talk between customers. Jiang and her sister have been running C’s since the early 2000s. She says it’s been hard to juggle playing decent house and techno music with getting locals in the door.
Two local DJs play funky techouse (a blend between techno and house) to an older crowd. Time to find these locals I keep hearing about. I’ve seen a few groups at Elevator but not enough to constitute any sort of representation. Arkham is a popular haunt for the new generation and there’s an Italian techno DJ playing there tonight so I head there.
Locals are smoking cigarettes out the front. There’s a short line to get in. The place is warehouse size, a network of metal pipes hang from the roof. It feels like it has been converted from an electrical supplies factory. Nearly the whole crowd is young, Chinese and wearing all black street-wear. They dance with minimal movement but not without energy. Most seem to be paying attention to the music.
The crowd at Arkham seems quite subdued. They behave like the crowds at underground clubs in Perth.
Arkham’s crowd is attentive and collected, not raucous and attention seeking.
To kick things off I head to SMASH. I’m chatting to Phil James when a big hairy guy, tattoos on his limbs, walks up in a short red dress. His name is Morgan Short and he’s the creator of Shanghai’s premiere nightlife/culture magazine Smart Shanghai. He’s wearing the dress because today is ‘The Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever’. It’s a worldwide event where groups gather to replicate the dance from the film clip to Kate Bush’s 1978 song, Wuthering Heights.
Short tells me young people from Shanghai are finally starting to get into the scene.
“Word has gotten out to young kids that there are alternative venues for clubbing and music,” he says.
I head to the famous Shelter’s reopened venue, All, to get more of a sense of what Chinese locals at underground venues are like.
There are some creative outfits here. A kid wearing a bubble wrap vest, overalls and a weird homemade helmet introduces himself to me as Charity. He says he runs a clothing label.
I meet a girl, Shi Jiawen, who is from Shanghai but is on exchange at RMIT in Melbourne. She’s bubbly, takes a photo of me on her Contax T2 – an expensive film camera. She doesn’t drink alcohol, dancing to the music is enough for her, but she makes me promise to tell her next time I’m in Melbourne so she can take me out partying.
Jiawen introduces me to a group of her friends who are all eager to talk but they’re shy and having a hard time speaking English. One of them signals for me to open my mouth so I do. He pulls out a bottle of whiskey with a shot pourer on top and tips it into my throat, then into his own. I guess there’s no need for words.
I’ve been in contact with – according to Maurey – the best local techno DJ, Xue Jin (DJ Misloop). She tells me to meet her at a hotpot restaurant where she says she’ll be with a group of the best local DJs.
A group of ten sit around a big table with a boiling pot of broth in the middle surrounded by small dishes.
I meet everyone then Jin’s partner Franz Grüber invites me to eat. Everyone else has pretty much finished. I’ve never eaten hotpot before, a tantalising earthy steam wafts around the table. I drop tofu and Chinese yam into the broth and wait.
The company is very hospitable. After half an hour of conversation and the consumption of a pig’s brain it feels like we’ve been friends for months.
I ask Jin the best thing about playing techno in Shanghai and she says it’s all about getting people who’ve never heard anything like it to walk away with an education, especially locals.
My experience of the Shanghai house and techno scene has been great. I had a better time partying here than I usually would in Perth, but the people I’ve spoken to have all said the same thing. The scene needs young locals producing their own house and techno music, then playing and promoting it themselves.
Before it can have its own sound, attract attention or leave a mark on the international dance club culture it needs locals to first become musically educated, then involved. The government is gradually opening up access to the outside world, but it will all take time.
All photos by Hugh Forward.