CLAIRE: Katya Knyazeva, from Novosibirsk, Russia, is a historian and a journalist with a focus on urban form, heritage preservation and the Russian diaspora in Shanghai. She is the author of the two-volume history and photographic atlas Shanghai Old Town: Topography of a Phantom City (Suzhou Creek Press, 2015 and 2018). Her articles on history and architecture appear in international media and her blog avezink.livejournal.com. She also manages Building Russian Shanghai, a site dedicated to the diaspora’s built legacy, and Necropolis of Russian Shanghai. Katya received her second Master’s degree from Bologna University and is currently a Research Fellow at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Italy.
This article, researched and written by Katya at our request, is close to our hearts because it’s all about my Mom Isabel’s favorite late-1940s watering hole, the Airline Club, and its earlier incarnation through Katya’s Russian lens.
KATYA: One of the first images in Remembering Shanghai is a snapshot of Isabel Chao in the Airline Club in 1949. She is posing in front of a mural of Hawaiian dancers above a course of bamboo paneling. In another photo from Claire Chao’s collection, Isabel is posing with a Filipino swing orchestra, on a carpet-covered stage, with wicker music stands and a parachute of silvery fabric suspended above.
The Airline Club was created around 1946 by a group of Americans who worked for commercial airlines in Shanghai. The men found the existing nightclubs sleazy, purveying “poisonous booze” and charging exorbitant prices. They pooled 200 dollars each to buy a failing Russian establishment, located in a villa on former Route Doumer (by then renamed Donghu Lu), and went about converting it into a “clean” dancehall.
Before the war, that villa housed the Arcadia, the largest Russian cabaret in Shanghai. White Russian émigré Nicolai Plotnikoff, formerly the bodyguard of a Chinese restaurateur in Harbin, opened the Arcadia in April 1937. The mansion contained a 300-seat restaurant with two separate dining rooms, each with a stage. The ballroom, with a maple wooden dance floor and colored lights that could synchronize with the music, was quite a hit. For a dollar at the entrance, a visitor could dance, flirt and enjoy the floorshow without spending money in the restaurant.
In the summer, the party spilled into the garden outside; an open-air stage and dance floor were set up on the lawn. Chickens and geese for the restaurant were reared in coops behind the summer stage. Shanghai socialites, hungry for fresh entertainment, flocked to the new club; Sir Victor Sassoon and his coterie were seen in Arcadia on multiple occasions.
The entertainment at Arcadia varied, depending on the availability of the performers, who shuttled between North and South China, Japan and Southeast Asia. There was once a resident ballet troupe—15-persons strong—led by the suave Russian dancer Nina Antares. Ladislav Kaliwoda’s Czech orchestra (accordions, violins and brass section) was eventually replaced by Serge Ermoll’s Russian jazz band. The famous Kniazeff’s Duo, ballroom show dancers, were engaged whenever they returned from their Asian tours.
The Arcadia’s biggest draw was the all-time favorite performer of Shanghai Russians—singer-songwriter Alexander Vertinsky. Once a theatre actor, cabaret performer and silent film star, Vertinsky landed in Shanghai in 1935, having by then become something of a professional émigré. The advent of the Bolsheviks in October 1917 (coinciding with his big concert in Moscow) and the following civil war compelled the artist to go on an interminable tour of South Russia, Constantinople and eventually an exile in Berlin and Paris.
In 1933, Vertinsky left France for the USA, where he enjoyed the patronage of Marlene Dietrich, staying at her mansion in Beverly Hills. Vertinsky was superlatively witty and urbane, fluent in German and French, but never had a flair for English. Dietrich advised him to overcome “the perfectly normal revulsion to the sound of English” and to try a career in Hollywood, but Vertinsky instead sailed to Manchuria, then on to Shanghai.
In Shanghai, “Vertinsky-style” performances were already in vogue. Since the 1920s, local Russian artists imitated (and parodied) his manner: his famous whiteface, his long-sleeved costume of Pierrot, his melodramatic piano playing and his relentlessly French ‘r’s. But when the real maestro was scheduled to perform at the Arcadia, more than 500 people crammed there at once. Vertinsky’s vibrant tenor evoked the lost snow-covered Russia or unknown tropical beaches and empathized with lives of vulnerable women and lonely men. Connoisseurs considered Vertinsky’s art vulgar, but they turned out nevertheless, susceptible to the hypnotic effect of his stage presence; non-Russian speakers mostly didn’t get it.
Flamboyant offstage as he was onstage, Vertinsky wore impeccable tuxedoes, top hats and white scarves. He sauntered on Avenue Joffre in the company of two handsome boys from the Russian Caucasus; these self-appointed bodyguards would finish the food off his plates. Vertinsky allowed rich Russian matrons to woo him and finance the publication of his poetry collections. One of these women proposed a business venture specifically for Vertinsky: his own artistic cabaret, named Gardenia.
The Gardenia, situated in a mansion on Yu Yuen Road (Yuyuan Road) at the western edge of the International Settlement, flung its doors open in April 1937; Vertinsky’s initials were on the door handles. The maestro, with a gardenia flower in his lapel, personally greeted the guests at the entrance. Grey silk draperies and nautical fittings adorned the stage where the city’s best jazz bands performed. There was a floorshow with Mexican dancers—lured from another nightclub—and an acrobatic duo of Norwegian sisters. The Mexicans and the Norwegians were, as always, Russians in disguise. A circular dance floor in the center of the club was surrounded with dining tables, but “the main course was Vertinsky,” as one customer phrased it.
In addition to his time-tested repertoire, in Gardenia Vertinsky began to perform new songs composed in Shanghai. One of them, The Dancing Girl, poeticized the hard life of Russian taxi dancers: “The days run faster and faster; it’s your fifth year in the cabarets. Night after night, you life dances away in a drunken foxtrot with the foreigners. Their greedy hands grope you, and their contemptuous lips smirk as the sounds squeezed by the orchestra creep out from the trumpets, like snakes”. This song, indeed, became something of an anthem for Russian dancing girls, hostesses and prostitutes.
Vertinsky loved being a gracious host. The artist and his circle used the Gardenia mansion as their own party pad, popping bottles by the minute and never opening the cash register. The wait staff flagrantly stole food, drink and silver, and within three months Gardenia was bankrupt. In August 1937, Alexander Vertinsky and his lady friends were sitting on the boxes in the backroom, sipping the remaining champagne and devising a scheme to send the artist on a tour of North China, away from his angry creditors.
Vertinsky was officially registered in Shanghai only one time, in the Lincoln Apartments; the rest of his addresses were hotels and rooms offered by friends. He migrated from stage to stage as well. At the Bohemian Room of the Renaissance Restaurant, on Avenue Joffre, he sang practically for food. He took late-night rickshaw rides to Marie-Rose nightclub in Hongqiao and Rio Rita resort on Suzhou Creek. His own wedding reception took place at the Mexicana, on Avenue Joffre, where the woman proprietor virtually held the singer hostage.
It was the Arcadia that offered Vertinsky a stable venue after his fiasco with Gardenia, and the singer repaid the club with a regular full house. As the Japanese occupation progressed and entertainment became scarce, the Arcadia started hosting yearly Miss Shanghai beauty pageants; Vertinsky was the president of the jury. The participants were almost all Russian women, whom Chinese and Western patrons competed to crown as the beauty queen by buying the largest number of tokens. Local newspapers reported: a lovesick Russian patron of one finalist pawned his tailcoat to buy extra tokens, but some callow scion of the mighty Hardoon family bought even more, ensuring the victory of his paramour.
After 1942, with the disappearance of paying westerners, nightly performances and festivities at the Arcadia were terminated. The restaurant stayed open, frequented mostly by the Japanese officers and international spies. To help the Allies, the owner Plotnikoff waited at the tables of important visitors and passed the information that he overheard to the English. The Crown repaid by helping Plotnikoff and his family to resettle to Panama after the war, where he opened a hotel with the same name, Arcadia. Vertinsky had left Shanghai earlier: one of his many petitions to Josef Stalin finally resulted in a permission to repatriate, so in November 1943 he sailed to the USSR, with his wife Lydia and a baby daughter born in Shanghai.
In the late 1940s, when the Arcadia was reborn as the Airline Club, it briefly became the best dancehall in town. But then the Americans left, the Communists marched in, and the Airline Club ceased to be. The old mansion became the leisure club for the party cadres, and in the 1980s it was demolished and replaced with an office building. But even today, in spite of the modernized environment, the restaurants and cafés in the lower floors of the building resonate with a fraction of the same magnetism that turned this corner of the former French Concession into the glittering center of cabaret culture back in the 1930s.
A postscript from Claire: Days after posting this blog, I was delighted to receive an email out the blue. “My cousin sent me a link to your blog, and I was amazed to see my grandfather, Nicolai Plotnikoff, featured within. My mother (born in 1939 and still alive in England) told us various stories of his days running Arcadia.” What a warm and meaningful validation for why I devote time to developing these stories, in the hopes that it provides a platform for other writers to share and network in our specialized fields of interest.