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By Leksa Chmielewski

Shanghainese, coffee and the generational divide

As I chat with the librarian-cum-barista, a Shanghainese family comes in and starts looking over the menu. They order three different kinds of imported coffee and as the librarian lights the flame percolator, I ask her whether there are differences between Shanghainese visitors and those from other areas of China.

“The Shanghainese are more inclined to talk. I can tell the non-Shanghainese by the way they walk, and their silence. When I recommend books to them from the gift shop, they don’t respond. When they leave and I say goodbye, they don’t even turn to look at me and I feel silly. And of course, only the Shanghainese drink coffee.”

Which Shanghainese drink coffee?

“Oh, the older ones.” The father of the coffee-drinking family joins the conversation: “Only the older generation likes coffee. The children won’t drink it.” Kids these days! “The older generation likes to drink coffee, sit, and enjoy a pleasant atmosphere.” Indeed, this family walked in the door just half an hour before closing time, and the librarian was nervous that they wouldn’t have time to finish. They had assured her they’d simply “drink one cup and go.” But they are still there, relaxing, drinking in the 40 million yuan décor forty-five minutes later. When the librarian offers the family water after they’ve finished their coffee, they refuse: “No, we’re just enjoying the flavor.” The father asks why the café is silent: “Coffee shops should have music!” The librarian replies enthusiastically that she used to use saxophone music before she was asked to stop by the House Museum management—when she played music the atmosphere was not “serious” enough. Back before she was asked to stop, she had originally been looking for 1930s saxophone jazz before giving up and choosing contemporary saxophone over 1930s piano—the piano would have been authentic, but the saxophone was relaxing.

So what, then, does the younger generation drink?

The father and the librarian agree: the youth won’t drink coffee like their parents; they like fruit drinks and pearl milk tea. Tea! It’s no surprise that only the young like the wide-straw drinks with three different types of chewy things floating in them, but what is surprising, when set against the backdrop of the rest of China, is that the middle-aged have latched onto coffee while the youngsters slurp tea-based drinks. It’s the opposite of the rest of China. And it only holds together through a certain kind of misremembering.

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By Leksa Chmielewski

Winners and losers in a twist on a museum café

In American museums, the museum gift shop or café stands as a constant reminder—before exhibit visits, after them, even in between them—of the dire financial straights in which nonprofits chronically find themselves. Museum gift shops and cafes are multiplying in Chinese museums too, even though the vast majority of Chinese museums are state-affiliated and enjoy full government funding. Chinese academics who work with museums lament that the Chinese museum scene still has much to learn from the American nonprofit-based system—but if that implies budget cuts, layoffs and a proliferation of museum shops selling finger-puppet versions of classic paintings, it’s not entirely clear why. Museum gift shops and cafes are common in America and becoming more common in China, and those that museum staff (in my experience, both American and Chinese) find more acceptable are those that manage to integrate product offerings with exhibit themes. But few go as far as the Liu Changsheng House in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, where visitors conclude their walk through an exhibit about the Communist Party’s pre-liberation underground activities with a cup of coffee flame-percolated the old fashioned, labor-intensive way, and by a very overqualified librarian.

The Liu Changsheng House Museum in Jing’an District

The Liu Changsheng House, now located on Yuyuan Road beside the Jing’an Si subway station, was built in the early 1920s, according to those who work there. It was occupied by at least one foreign family, including a family of Jewish refugees, before Liu Changsheng moved in. Liu Changsheng was Vice-Secretary General of the CCP, and after the Party went underground in the late 1920s, some secret meetings were held in the home.

Plotting the revolution over a cup of joe. Wax models of Liu Changsheng (in Chinese dress) and Liu Xiang (in Western garb) “consulting on the strategy for the revolutionary struggle” in secret

The rough narrative according to staff, who disagree on some of the details, is that the Jing’an District Library petitioned to save the house as a historic site, and it was dragged bit by bit down the street before the Jiuguang Mall was built over the original site. The house was renovated and given a permanent exhibition taking up the second and third floors, and an old coffee shop relocated into the ground floor from a site a few blocks away. After a total investment of 40 million RMB, the Liu Changsheng House opened in 2003. The permanent exhibition on the second and third floors tells a politically correct story of the CCP in Shanghai until 1949, with a focus on the time it operated underground. Visitors can enter for free and opt for a self-guided tour or a tour led by student volunteers recruited by local schools and universities. Visitors are fed into a teleological funnel from 1927, by way of the only possible path through the exhibit, to 1949, which looms inevitable and festooned with red banners and lanterns at the end of the second floor of the exhibition. Visitors may then opt to stop by the first-floor coffee shop before they leave.

It seems I didn’t hide my surprise very well when I first heard of the ground-floor coffee shop. The tour guides rushed to explain that Liu Changsheng and his cronies used to sit around in the house drinking coffee while they made their woodblock printed newsletters and dreamed of the utopian future. It wasn’t until I reached the coffee shop itself and had a chat with the staff there that I realized what most visitors who walk through, even stop to have a drink, never do: visitors might pause to appreciate the 1930s-era décor and flame-percolated offerings without ever learning that the shop is the latter-day incarnation of an actual café which was located a few blocks away, frequented, according to staff, by the likes of Eileen Chang. It turns out that the café staff and museum staff belong to separate departments of the same work unit. The café and museum are two separate (but similarly themed) units coming together in one building, and they may not be the only ones. The museum exhibit includes a small “water jail” exhibit in a corner where a dummy appears to be submerged in water up to its waist. When the tour guide presses a button, the display is bathed in blue light, a “fire” burns in a sconce on the wall, and a soundtrack of rattling chains plays. The guide explains that this is a recreated scene from a jail run by the municipal government under Japanese occupation. The original jail was nearby on what is now Wanhangdu Road. Now a school stands there.

“Water jail”

It appears that what was at first glance a museum café better integrated with the theme of the Historic House than most in-house money-making ventures, is actually all that remains of a historically significant café. The “water jail” recreated display in the exhibit area, and three framed original manacles on the wall, are likewise all that is left of the nearby jail. Suddenly the high cost of moving the Liu Changsheng House is put into perspective: does that price tag include the “preservation” of the café and the jail as well? And who ended up footing the bill to move the house—the Jing’an District Government, or the developers who wanted to build the Jiuguang Mall over its original location?

Perhaps the less obvious questions have to do with the relationship between the (at least) three targets of preservation—the house, the jail, and the café—housed in one building: the jail is relegated to a small corner of the house museum’s display about the CCP; what does it mean when one is reduced to a bullet point that bolsters the message of the other? The café hosts events that bring in a tidy 20,000 yuan for a four-hour party; what does it mean when one supports the others financially?

A house, a jail, a café: winners and losers.

Leksa Chmielewski is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Part 2 of “A House Museum Café” will appear at The China Beat tomorrow.

By Marta Cooper

Shanghai is a city where one has to work particularly hard to find simple, unadulterated culture. So, when the blue moon opportunity comes to bask in it for two weeks, I do just that. Most recently, that’s meant heading to the sophisticated Glamour Bar, overlooking the curve of the Bund and the sci-fi lights of Pudong, which has been hosting the 2010 Shanghai International Literary Festival (SILF) this month. The venue has been brimming with excitement, with authors from County Cork to Manila sharing their work with the spoiled audience.

On a mild Saturday, hot off the heels of Paul French’s swim through the depths of decadent and dirty Shanghai, two more authors took us back in time.

In the morning, historian Andrew Field launched his new book, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954. Plunging into an untapped reservoir of Chinese sources, government documents, novels and magazines, Field described a time when cabaret and ballroom dancehalls decorated old Shanghai.

Thanks to the pockets of Westerners in Shanghai’s concessionary areas, the city had its own edition of the Roaring Twenties. Shanghai’s dancehalls were awash with American musicians blending jazz beats and riffs with Chinese folk, taxi dancers being paid to drink, dance and converse with men, and local girls from a variety of class backgrounds cruising the town in 3-inch heels. It even seemed from his presentation that the glamorous and decadent cabaret halls, adorned in nickel, crystal and marble with electric lights, sometimes echoed more Saturday Night Fever than Paris of the Orient.

Dancing the cha-cha and Charleston were not only Shanghai’s answer to flappers, but also the city’s gangsters, who often used the venues for their own rackets. The scandalous underworld of sexual dancing and criminal culture unsettled the then-ruling KMT (Nationalist Party), which banned cabarets in 1927 but failed to outlaw the dancing halls and ballrooms that were conveniently situated in the concessionary areas, and therefore under foreign control.

What Field reminded us of is that the local Shanghainese quickly jumped on to the cabaret bandwagon and eventually “elbowed the foreigners off the dancefloor.” Despite the fact that the dancing was controversial in terms of Confucian cultural values, these venues sprung up during an enlightened era in which the May 4th Movement had set the stage for a context of change. What was initially a puzzling development for the locals was soon appropriated as a liberating transgression (however, when asked what the Chinese thought of this ballroom culture, Field simply responded: “read the book!”).

Field wrapped up by drawing parallels between the then and now. Even without the 1920s’ glamour, Shanghai’s nightlife is still one the city’s greatest assets: the club scene is alive and well, and bars of both the sophisticated and seedy varieties are not difficult to come by. For Field, the past still echoes through the amplifiers.

In the afternoon, 80-year-old (or, going on 25) Tess Johnston took us on a more personal journey. Having spent forty plus years abroad in the US Foreign Service, Johnston descended on Shanghai in the early 1980s. She called the city she found a combination of 1938 Warsaw and Calcutta: “grubby, grey and crumbling…but all entirely intact,” she said. She heralded the Bund, her most cherished Shanghai sight, as “a scruffy showcase of Western architecture, but wonderful.”

Tess Johnston

For the next hour, Johnston regaled us with tales of the mystique of the French Concession, foreigners-only markets in old warehouses, not wasting one bite of a decadent Snickers bar that had already been half-eaten by rats, and struggling to find an available dish on the Western menu at the Park Hotel. In between her escapades, Johnston managed to write 25 books, including several on Western architecture and the life of an expat in old China.

Johnston’s words were infused with nostalgia, but not for the glamorous Paris of the East that Field had described. Instead, Johnson yearned for simpler times: “there was no glitz or lust for money,” she said of 1980s Shanghai.

The city’s superficial reality certainly overshadows its creative and immaterial vibes. For a jazz enthusiast spoiled by London’s delicious culture, I arrived here with an immature pang for the Paris of the Orient I never experienced.

However, it is useless to criticise the materialistic currents running through the city’s nouveau riche. As Johnston affirmed, “who could begrudge China these new opportunities? The Shanghainese are taking this city into the twenty-first century with a vengeance.”

Marta Cooper is a British-Italian writer and student based in Shanghai. She currently writes for Shanghaiist and Global Voices Online, and keeps a blog titled …in Shanghai.

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By Anna Greenspan

The future is by definition modern – Carol Willis

Modern means Shanghai – then and now – Ben Wood

At the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park, where lower Manhattan meets the water’s edge, Shanghai is currently on display.  Though the museum only occupies a small space, the design by architectural firm SOM gives the illusion of height, and the show is packed with content (including maps, floor-to-ceiling photographs, architectural models, video, and a 20-minute floating streetscape by Shanghai-based photographer Jakob Montrasio).

For those who can’t make the trip to New York, much of this material is now available online at the museum’s superb website. In the coming months, this should be supplemented by recordings of a fall lecture series on the Shanghai skyline, which features architectural talks from many of the most notable firms working in the city (Portman, Gensler, SOM, KPF etc).

The exhibit is designed as an introduction to the urban landscape of contemporary Shanghai. Yet, there is much of interest here even for those deeply familiar with the city.

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Tael Lights CoverClocking in at only 99 pages, Shanghai: High Lights Low Lights Tael Lights is an excellent appetizer for those of us who generally dine on heavier reading fare. The authors, Maurine Karns and Pat Patterson, make their purpose known early in the book: in the preface, titled “an explanation but not an apology,” Karns and Patterson state that they have written Tael Lights “with the hope of enjoying ourselves, of making a little money, and of not committing ourselves to anything for which we might be sorry” (xx). They proceed to describe, with delightful if decidedly un-PC irreverence, the Shanghai they saw before them when writing the book in 1936.

Tael Lights has recently been reprinted by Earnshaw Books, and is once again available to readers looking to supplement their stodgy Shanghai guidebooks with a more tongue-in-cheek introduction to the city. Karns and Patterson have produced a brief, idiosyncratic work — one which does not attempt to detail the entire history of Shanghai or present a comprehensive survey of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites, but rather gives the reader a vivid impression of the Shanghai experience. Tael Lights is “Just a sort of a composite of what Shanghai looks like, and feels like and smells like after, say, the third whisky-soda, when, as Shakespeare or somebody said, the senses are sharpest” (xx).*

The absolute necessity of experiencing Shanghai, rather than gazing at it through the viewfinder of a camera, is a recurring theme in Tael Lights. Karns and Patterson urge their readers to forgo visits to the staid Longhua Pagoda and Willow Pattern Tea House, instead suggesting a trip to the Great World Amusement Park, Shanghai’s Coney Island, for tourists seeking a real taste of metropolitan life. The book lists and reviews the hotspots of Shanghai’s nightlife, devoting an entire chapter to “the fleshpots” and assuring readers that “A trip to the Venus [Cafe] is worth the sleep lost and is part of anyone’s education” (57). The writers, intoxicated by both the “Whangpoo whiskey” and the city surrounding them, express this joie de vivre in every page of their book. “The color and tang and spice of China is not in it’s temples nor in it’s lotus strewn gardens but in its crowded streets” (42), they remind their audience.

I was continually mindful of its original publication date, only a year before the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, effectively bringing to an end the treaty-port society described by Karns and Patterson. Like the television drama Mad Men, currently set in the early months of 1963, Tael Lights celebrates an apparently untroubled world that is in fact not quite so footloose and fancy-free, and which will soon be turned upside-down. While Karns and Patterson mention the presence of the Japanese military in Shanghai, they make light of the Japanese fondness for “playing soldiers” (7) and state that tensions between the countries stem from “the Japanese yen for the Chinese tael” (25).

Their Shanghai is on the cusp of disappearing, yet what is most remarkable about the guidebook Karns and Patterson have written is the sense of familiarity I felt when reading some parts of it. Tael Lights evokes the relentless energy of Shanghai, the cacophony of its streets, and the many indescribable qualities which make it “the most unique city in the world” (2). Although several other elements of the book are entirely divorced from my own Shanghai experiences (the final chapter is entitled “There Are Also Some Chinese in Shanghai,” for example), Karns and Patterson have nevertheless captured a certain slice of the urban landscape that remains recognizable seven decades later. In his forward to the new edition, Michael Schoenhals writes that Tael Lights “retroactively foreshadows like no other work the globalized Shanghai of the 21st century” (xiii). Simultaneously exotic and familiar, the Shanghai depicted in these 99 pages is most definitely “a grand place to live, to work and to enjoy life” (98-99).

*The Earnshaw Books edition of Tael Lights maintains all original spelling and grammatical errors, and quotes here are reproduced without alteration.

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