Lowdown on Shanghai: Installment 5

Low on the Hai 5.
By Jonathan Chandler
Exclusive for The Wild East

After 60 years of communist rule and the scourge of the cultural revolution, Shangai still maintains its reputation as the decadent capital of the Wild East.

Doped horse racing in Hubei, touts at the track, beauty pageants fixed in far provinces, CCTV reporters held hostage by City Prosecutors, farm landlords exploiting peasants, party wives on freebie junkets to Las Vegas, what-ho!

The huge-moled one will be rolling restless in his mausoleum.

Three films out now illustrate the differing shades of rose in the spectacles of nostalgia around these parts.

All are winners of accolades at the Golden Horse or other Festivals and all three are said by international critics to be in line for Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film.

From the Mainland comes “The Assembly,” which depicts the bravery of a PLA officer during the civil war between the communists and nationalists for China in the late 1940s. He is the lone survivor from a lost battle to the KMT, and the film follows his subsequent life-long struggle with the Party and Bureaucracy to get his squad’s rightful recognition for their valour.

The film, wildly popular over here in the Motherland, is generally viewed with disdain or ignored by the Taiwanese film-going public on account of perceived propagandist pro-PLA and anti-KMT content.

From Taiwan comes “Cape No. 7.” This beautifully filmed and lushly romantic movie has won the hearts of Taiwanese and many international fans but is viewed with either great outrage, alarm or sarcasm by Mainland critics, who only get as far as the opening sequence showing Taiwanese waving tearful goodbyes to the boat pulling away from harborside packed with retreating Japanese, signaling an end to the fifty-year occupation of the island, before apoplexy sets in.

How could the years of imperial enslavement and torture, etc., possibly be the subject of such sentimentality, romantic ideal and trite emotion, demand the always anti-Japanese netizens of the Motherland.

The third film, “Forever Enthralled,” by Chen Kai-ge, is already garnering excellent reviews from all sides. It depicts the life and loves of the 20th century’s most famous Beijing Opera star, Mei Lanfang, played by Hong Kong’s Leon Lai and his lover, a legendary beauty, Meng Xiaodong, played by Zhang Ziyi.

This traditional love story played out within the clanging cymbals, haunting singing and gorgeous costumes and make-up of the fantasy world of Beijing Opera is loved by all sides and beyond.

It seems, thus, that you need to return to a past of shared cultural tradition, to go back to the times before the civil war that left the Strait riven if you wish to reunite these jagged, shards of broken emotion.

Meanwhile, nostalgia’s never had it so good.

Some of The China Post’s older hands, the buckeroos who misspent their nights in Woodstock Club and the Edge or remember Buffalo Town on Linshen Bei Lu, will also recall with fondness the names Ricky Lee Hong (or Red Lee as he was known in Secret Society circles) and Gary Chen.

Red Lee (Ricky Lee Hong) started the first modern dance club in East Asia; The Edge, on the corner of Roosevelt and Hoping. It featured full-on psychotropia and the new-style mesmeric trance beats from Europe and Ibiza. It wasn’t rare in those days, the late eighties, to see HK movie stars and idols of the silver screen dancing sillily, and generally weaving around, totally off their heads.

The Edge was unique for a while back then, because no one else dared to open such a club in Hong Kong, Singapore and of course, not the Mainland. The club was raided by the police regularly, (after the stars had headed back to their hotels) and then at last, shut down permanently.

Sadly, as a member of the oldest secret society, Red Lee’s life was literally lived on the edge and he didn’t make it to middle age. Though friends will be gladdened to hear his son is a strapping Marine Biologist in Plymouth.

Gary Chen’s buckaroos will remember Buffalo Town and Woodstock for their rich inter-racial fraternization. It was always Harvest Moon on the roof of Buffalo Town.

Later on, his far more respectable Brown Sugar became and is still a mainstay of Taipei jazz and club scene.

This week Brown Sugar Jazz Club opened in Shanghai’s nightlife hub of Xingtiandi.

It has been a huge success: quoted one bedazzled lootocrat, “the best music night club I’ve been in ..ever — in my life…” And that from a man who has owned radio stations in East Asia since 1973.

Despite the chill winds and the hordes of broken migrants returning home in their masses, Festivity and Entertainment are in the air in obscene quantities. The rich-poor gap couldn’t be wider. For example, champagne makers Moet et Chandon gave each of their guests a broad, solid gold wristband to wear to their private Gold Party at Members-share-owned Mint Club. While Midas Club held a white truffle, foie gras and bubbly extravaganza to herald the coming celebration of the birth of Christ.

Uncle Deng did say “it’s glorious to make money,” but to poke it in the eyes of the starving masses is quite another thing.

Can’t sign off without a mention of newly-opened Swissotel’s PR manager Helen Soong; an equally pulchritudinous relative of the infamous sisterly dynasty of beauties.

They’ve got some incredible deals for Taiwanese and others to celebrate the new direct links — just call and mention my name, then dunk yourself in the hot chocolate fountain.

This is fine living at a fair price and a decorous sense of proportion.

In the meantime, May all your Christmases be Meaningful.

Jonathan Chandler is a British novelist based in Shanghai.