Remember that opening scene in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? I know, I know, it is the worst of the awesome trilogy (the fourth installment does not even count) but bear with me. The scene begins in a swanky club in 1935 Shanghai. The place is full of smartly dressed white and Asian patrons. Cate Capshaw's character, an American singer, belts out a Chinese version of 'Anything Goes'. The movie is not far off from the real 1930s Shanghai. Long before it was communist China's showpiece city, it was Asia's most cosmopolitan and freewheeling city. 

Shanghai was technically divided among the British, Japanese, French, Americans, and of course, the original owners: the Chinese. Majestic and impressive buildings filled the city's waterfront, the Bund (from the Persian word for embankment). More European Jews found refuge in Shanghai than any other in the city (fearing a wave of Jewish refugees no one but the Dominican Republic and Shanghai offered visas to Jews after the Evian Conference...I'll spare you the parallels to today's Syrian refugee crisis). Refugees found a Jewish community that dated back to the 1800s. The city was by far the most cosmopolitan and diverse in China, and barring New York, probably the world. It was China's business capital and certainly, like today, its richest city. 

Jazz club in 1930s Shanghai via www.vantage-magazine.com

Shanghai was also a place of cultural and social innovation. Like Berlin in the 1920s, it was a place of free wheeling love, gambling, and drugs. Underground gay clubs flourished. So did the music scene. From exclusive venues, to seedy illegal opium dens, jazz could be heard every night. Gangs controlled much of the illegal activity; the most infamous being the Green Gang headed by Shangdai Du Yuesheng. It was actually the Green Gang that created the city's first all-Chinese jazz band.  The Taipei Times interviewed a man who remembers those times:

"Mostly we were amateur jazz musicians," said Zhou Wanrong, band leader and trumpet player.  Even as Japanese troops [during  the Sino-Japanese War] pressed toward Shanghai, taking over Zhou's original hometown of Wuhan as they went, music was always in demand."


Jazz was loved by everyone, rich and poor. At the wedding of Chiang Kai-shek (leader of the Republic of China between 1928 and 1975), Josephine Baker's 'I'll be Loving you Always' was played. African-American jazz players, fleeing racists laws in the US, found a home in Shanghai. The best jazz bands came to play and added to the already large selection of jazz options for the city's discerning music lovers. 

It all came to an end after the communist takeover of 1949. It was deemed 'yellow' music and outright banned. Yellow is a term to describe something bad, seedy, immoral (think pornography and drugs). The music genre was too closely associated with the decadence of the past government. It was also associated with the colonial powers that humiliated China for so many years. Amazingly, jazz has seen a resurgence in today's more open China. Music lovers are always bemoaning that jazz is dying out in the US...maybe it can have a rebirth in one of its old haunts: Shanghai....where, ever since China's opening up in the 90s, is a place where 'anything goes' (sorry for the cliche it was too good not to use).