The Bund river flows through the heart of the city, flanked on either side by a skyline that dwarfs New York's. Its population is 23 million, making it the largest city in the world (if you don't include suburbs). More than 3,000 buildings rise above 17 stories and like most urban centers, poverty exists right beside high-end consumerism.
Shanghai has been an economic hub for centuries, but it's only been in the past few generations that it has exploded. The move toward modernity began when Mao's Cultural Revolution ended. Launched in the mid-'60s, it aimed to combat bourgeois influences creeping into Maoist Communist orthodoxy. Imperial and traditional cultural artefacts were destroyed; capitalist elements excised; sites of culture and religion were laid to waste. Millions of Chinese were persecuted, tortured, displaced and imprisoned. But with the death of Mao in 1976 and the last of the Revolution's policies dismantled two years later, China began to reclaim its traditions and undertake a furious pace of progress.
That's why the end of the Cultural Revolution is often taken as year zero for modern Chinese. It marks the moment when China began to properly assert itself on the world stage. In Shanghai, more than anywhere else in the country, it's also when foreign people, culture and investment began to assert a growing influence.
So, any story of Shanghai's electronic music scene—being a modern foreign import itself—is best told from the end of the Cultural Revolution as well. With the end of the Chairman's brutal purging, foreign cultural artefacts and capital began trickling into the country, including obscure experimental music and media. The stuff that made the most impact was Dakou (loosely translated as "make a hole"), CDs and records from the West that had been transported to China to be destroyed. Rescued from the trash by black market dealers, Dakou CDs became a mainline to underground music.
Certainly the Western perception of China as a cultural vacuum is overstated. That said, it remains a culture in its infancy when it comes to adopting Western sounds. The well-received compilation, An Anthology of Chinese Experimental Music 1992-2008, provides a surprising and fascinating insight into the situation. The release is accompanied by an essay that asks: "What is real and [what is] good change? Every intellectual and artistic tradition was almost destroyed with the Cultural Revolution [and] we have tried to rebuild the inner and outer world... This country is behaving like a child who is discovering a new world every day."
In club terms, both the inner and outer world have to be taken into account. "The problem is if you want to develop a local scene you need to be Chinese in your lifestyle, not a foreigner. You also need to learn the Western people's music from Western people. It's a careful balance," says Ma Hai Ping, a born-and-raised "Shanghainese" DJ, producer and promoter. Ping goes by the name MHP and is part of a small minority of English-speaking Chinese people that haven't taken on a Western name. MHP went to a traditional Chinese art school from the age of ten, a true child of the post-Cultural Revolution era.
Around 2003 MHP came across a book in his friend's house, the name of which he can't recall. "There were some black guys' pictures and their stories were really interesting," he says speaking of the Belleville Three. "This book really shocked me." Detroit techno set him off on a trail of discovery, which saw MHP and his Void crew bring acts like Underground Resistance and Juan Atkins to China for the first time. They've also put on gigs with more contemporary European techno producers like Surgeon, DJ Pete and Ancient Methods.
But even though MHP has supported the DJs mentioned above—and is integral to organising the parties themselves—he's not so keen on the whole "clubbing" thing. "I don't really go to the club if I'm not playing there," admits MHP. "I think it's a lifestyle thing. The Chinese lifestyle is not like this."
This sentiment is widely agreed upon by other Chinese in the scene. Shanghai-based vocalist Cha Cha is one. "There is no club culture in China," she says bluntly. "There is nothing like this in our history. Chinese kids go to school, come home, hang with their parents, have a cup of tea and go to bed. They never go out to listen to music."
Crucial to solving this problem is the mutually dependent relationship between local Chinese DJs and producers and the foreign promoters and patrons that fill most of Shanghai's nightclubs. As Cha Cha sees it, however, the foreign element is not really sustainable: "Most of them are foreigners, but foreigners come and go all the time... So if you really want to grow a scene you have to really concentrate on local Chinese people because they're here long-term." She credits MHP and other locals B6 and DJ Ben Huang with promoting parties with Chinese people, but she also knows that "their following is growing older now."
Despite their ambivalence, Cha Cha and MHP both acknowledge the importance of foreigners in the clubbing landscape: "I always tell the local [producers and promoters], don't be ashamed to say that you're influenced by these guys," explains MHP, referring to the Europeans and North Americans that manage most of Shanghai's best venues.
One such bar is Dada, which is tucked away in an alley near Jiatong University subway station. When I arrived there on a Friday night for a Stockholm Syndrome party I was greeted by Fad Gadget's "Lady Shave" blaring through the speakers. As the DJ worked through an array of new wave and Italo disco, I was told by a London expat that the jock was an ABC (American Born Chinese), and it was common to see them on dance floors or DJ booths. Replacing the ABC was British-born Gareth Williams who threw down Shackleton's "Touched" (from The Drawbar Organ EP) early in his set with the following hour unfolding in a similar vein. French duo Acid Pony Club then followed with a live funk-infused disco set. Despite this seemingly random lineup, Dada was full of foreigners lapping up the music on the dance floor. Meanwhile, the few Chinese in Dada had found themselves seats in the corner and were playing a local drinking game with dice and cognac.
There is nothing like this in our history."
— Cha Cha
In any other city a bill stacked with locals like Stockholm Syndrome might not have posed any competition for an RA Horizons party that same night. But this is part of what makes Shanghai so fascinating. RA had brought in Levon Vincent to The Shelter, and although Vincent wasn't short on fans, none of the local DJs, promoters or producers I spoke to for this article ended up going to Shelter that night. They preferred to stay at Dada instead, where it was cheaper and more relaxed. The sort of cultish European DJ worship that can be rife in small scenes was non-existent.
Even so, The Shelter is widely agreed upon as the city's electronic music bedrock. It's unlike Dada. In fact, it's unlike almost any other club in all of China. "Most other clubs are all really plush and decked out. Shiny surfaces, lights, fancy couches," explains Gareth Williams, the venue's manager. "And then we opened The Shelter in 2007 and it confused a lot of people. It's not nice at all. It's just a sweaty dark box. There's no lights, there's no dice or cognac—there's nothing to do but dance."
This dark minimalism is the club's strong point. The entrance is a bare-rock wormhole that leads you into the back of what feels like a concrete tomb. Charcoal pillars break up the dance floor and the low ceilings induce a feeling of claustrophobia. If you know that the space was actually used as a bomb shelter during the Second World War it adds a sinister dimension to the ambience.
The venue is suited to a very specific, darker shade of music. Dubstep and heavy bass work well, while techno has also found a home there through MHP and Cameron Wilson's Void parties. Wilson, AKA Shanghai Ultra, moved to Shanghai from Scotland to work as a journalist and began putting on nights at The Shelter in 2007.
Though local club culture is "the most important thing" for Wilson, he echoes the sentiments of Cha Cha when it comes to grassroots Chinese involvement. "The foreigners stay here for a couple of years and then they're gone. The average Chinese clubber is much younger because they begin [full-time] work much earlier. For that reason it's difficult to build a crowd in Shanghai."
What's more, promoters like Wilson face an incredible hurdle when it comes to language. English is electronic music's mother tongue, and is not spoken widely in China. Smart Shanghai is an English language website of cultural and events listings, but this is still only for the benefit of foreigners. A website like Resident Advisor is even less use in Shanghai because it's easier for foreign promoters to spread news of their parties to locals via word-of-mouth or flyers. In fact, the only online promotion that Williams' does for his Subculture parties are limited to his English-language Wordpress, which is strange not only for the calibre of his guests, but also because Wordpress is blocked in China. (Still, his parties fill The Shelter on most occasions.)
Mailing lists are also a vital way of promoting. Nik cites the European promoter behind DingDong Disco who has an immense collection of email addresses. It's the quality of the parties, figures Nik, that's led to such a database. He notes Daniel Wang's set at Lune as particularly memorable. Where dubstep and techno have found suitable venues in Shanghai, however, it's obvious disco has yet to occupy a space to call home. Lune is more at the "plush" end of Shanghai's clubs, with a much more polite and bright decorum (especially when compared with The Shelter).
In Shanghai, there's no lack of hard-working and passionate people wanting to develop a local scene. That said, its steady growth in the last decade has in no way matched the exponential economic expansion of China more generally. To expect such a quick change in lifestyle is unreasonable. For Chinese, the relationship between electronic music and club culture is an arbitrary one, if not non-existent. (Imagine how long it might have taken acid house to take off without Shoom.) While the music and media may have found their way to the younger generations, the lifestyles that are so intimately tied to house and techno in Europe are still waiting to be lived out in China.
"That [quick] sort of progress is everyone's fucking dream," explains Williams. "'China is moving so fast it's going to explode'. It's not going to happen as fast. Yes, it has progressed, but not that quickly." With Shanghai's dense population and resources there's no reason why the city's club scene cannot grow to be one of Asia's strongest.