Months ago I picked up an old second-hand copy of a book by the eminent sinologist Orville Schell called Discos and Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform. The book’s age and the fact it had ‘discos’ in the title was what caught my attention, and I was hoping it might shed some light on clubbing (I use the term loosely) in China during the 80s. Despite having it all this time, I only just got round to reading the discos chapter and I thought I’d share a few quotes here. Unfortunately, Schell doesn’t know too much about the music, so details are a bit light and he doesn’t fully appreciate the potential signficance of discos, saying late on in the relevant chapter that “the society’s inability to animate its own young people with goals both more self-referential and capable of providing the stuff from which higher aspirations and dreams could be fashioned [than disco] seemed to be tragic and dangerous”. For him, it’s just about a fascination with Western things, a rejection of China’s Maoist past and an interest in modernity, and it surely was those things as well, but you can’t help wondering what the other dynamics were. Anyway, the quotes:
For certain groups of young Chinese, the soul of this huge hotel complex [the Huating Sheraton in Shanghai] was Nicole’s, the world-class disco on the third floor, where at night the thump-thump-thump of an electric base [sic] reverberated through several floors of the building like the beat of a giant heart. It cast such a spell over Shanghai’s “with-it” dance-crazed youth that even people who had never entered the hotel spoke of it with awe.
One night as I arrived back under the hotel’s portico, the young cabdriver, who made his living team-driving a small, leased Romanian Dachia with a friend twenty-four hours a day, gazed reverently up at the third floor and said authoritatively, “That’s the best disco in Shanghai, and probably all of China.”
By 1984, when the Chinese government allowed dance halls to open in China for the first time in thirty-five years, Chinese youth had embraced “couples dancing” with an almost delirious enthusiasm. On recent trips to Shanghai I had discovered that almost every hotel in the city held nightly dances (with stiff admission prices of 6 to 10 yuan). Young people, dressed so stylishly that it was possible to imagine one was in Hong Kong or Taipei, flocked to these new socialist pleasure domes, almost all of which were drab old halls from the thirties cheered up only by incongruous strings of Christmas tree lights. At least they featured live bands, never mind that they played warp-speed disco versions of “Jingle Bells” and Stephen Foster spirituals. The fact that this mix often sounded more like circus music than dance music hardly bothered the youths ardently gyrating about the floor.”
…in March the Party even lifted a long-standing but largely ineffectual ban on what they had called “underground ballrooms.” By November, 1987, Canton alone was reported to to be host to over five hundred such ballrooms and seventy tea rooms featuring music, several of which had reputedly become hangouts for China’s nascent gay community. The beach resort city Qingdao bloomed with dancing spots. Even some small county cities now claimed to have six or seven dance halls as Chinese of all ages turned en masse to this new form of diversion.
By the spring of 1987 official newspapers had even begun running articles proclaiming the wondrous effects of disco. This led to an unlikely dissonance in the press: One page would feature an article on the virtues of “bitter struggle” and of youths going to the countryside to labor side by side with the peasants; an adjacent page would have an article proclaiming the virtues of disco.
In fact, such dancing places were fast becoming a regulation part of all the Western-style hotels… In Beijing, there was the Cosmos Club at the Great Wall Sheraton, Juliana’s at the Lido Holiday Inn, the Xanadu at the Shangri-La Hotel, and the Glasshouse at the Kunlun Hotel, which ran ads proclaiming, “Latest sounds, Latest Lighting, Disco Night Fever!”
As living symbols of modernity in a country where modernization had replaced revolution as an animating ideal, discos, with their strobe lights, high-tech sound systems, up-to-date music, and svelte cosmopolitan styling, proved irresistible.