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Jazz Age Shanghai - Read the Book, Hear the Music

Jazz Age Shanghai - Read the Book, Hear the Music

A video with the song "Ye Shang Hai" and clips from movies of the era with additional background and a translation of the song here.

It's not surprising these days to hear of American pop stars at the top of charts across the globe and to find them on mix tapes in the remotest of regions. But this is not a new phenomenon. Nearly a century ago, another American musical export - jazz - took root in a number of far flung places, from the dimly lit cafes of Paris, to the townships of South Africa... and also to Shanghai, China.

Shanghai had its own Jazz Age, though it arrived a bit later and continued a bit longer than America's. A lively - if often dark and dangerous - time when the city came to life at night in the clubs and dancehalls. And jazz was the soundtrack - often performed by American expatriates, among the best known being Buck Clayton, who wrote about the experience in his memoirs.

It also inspired a unique hybrid of Chinese music and jazz that came to be known as "Yellow Music," a rather disparaging term that meant 'pornographic' music - similar in many ways the original connotation of jazz in America. But also like jazz, these Chinese songs would return over the years, recorded by other artists in contemporary settings, becoming something like the Great American Songbook, a set of standards or classics.

A  '40s version of one the biggest hits of the era, The Evening Primrose, that will give you a bit of the flavor of this music here.

A new novel and a new CD, released independently of each other, both harken back to that era in Shanghai and help bring it to life for readers and listeners.


Scott Simon's interview with Nicole Mones about Night in Shanghai here.

Nicole Mones, who has written a wide array of non-fiction articles about China and also several novels, takes us to Shanghai as this remarkable era of Ye Shanghai (or Night in Shanghai, which gives the novel its name)is about to come to a bitter and tragic end with Japan's invasion of the city and World War II. Intricately weaving in actual events and real-life characters, Mones recreates the time as seen through the eyes of the fictional characters she sets down in the city, including an African-American pianist, Thomas Greene, who comes to Shanghai and finds, at least for a brief time, liberation in both his music and in his life, which is now freed from the racial restrictions of America (though, of course, this was not the case for most Chinese for whom Shanghai was their actual home).

The gangs that ran the city's brothels, gambling halls, opium dens and clubs, the Japanese invaders, the competing Chinese Nationalist and Communist factions, and the distant but influential nations of Germany (whose Jews, at least those lucky enough to get a visa out, found refuge in Shanghai), Britain, and the U.S. all play a role in shaping the lives of the people who made the city their home and eventually were driven from it. 

In the midst of this often taut and compelling story as the Japanese invaders come ever closer, Night in Shanghai  strikes a fine balance between the stories of a believable and attractive set of characters, and the larger forces of economics, politics, race and gender that shape and shake their lives.

An earlier version of "The Bright Moon Will Send My Love to You" with additional background and a translation of the song here.

Throughout Mones' book, music plays a central role. And not just any music, but jazz - with its specific requirements of creativity, improvisation, freedom and emotional expression. It offers the profound lesson that Thomas Greene comes to learn and expresses the best of this unique and complex time. It is also the heart of a new release, The Classics, from The Shanghai Restoration Project.


SRP is the brainchild of Lawrence, KS born producer David Liang (who - in another bit of synchronicity came from a classical background and then discovered jazz, much like the protagonist in Mones' novel) working here with contemporary Shanghai jazz singer Zhang Le. The release revisits a dozen songs from the era in cool, modern, electronica form. Still, SRP's versions retain the elegant melancholy that ran through Shanghai's music then and expresses the loss now of a place and time that, in fact, can never be restored.

A medley of music from the Shanghai Restoration Project's The Classics here.

An interesting feature piece from NPR about The Classics here.

Taken together, these two projects vividly create a fascinating portrait of Jazz Age Shanghai where, in the midst of so much turmoil and destruction, something quite beautiful and precious emerged.


More  on Night in Shanghai, including an extensive list of books Mones used to ground her story in historical fact, here.

For more on the Shanghai Restoration Project here.


Chris Heim produces and hosts Global Village, a nationally and internationally distributed world music show; the nightly jazz show Night Train, and Crossroads, KMUW’s twice-weekly blues and R&B show. Chris is also a critic and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Utne, Global Rhythm, Dirty Linen, and Option, among others.