CLAIRE: My mother Isabel loved the nightclubs of Old Shanghai: of course the music itself and, most of all, the dancing. Researching that part of the book naturally led me to Andrew Field, the world expert on the Shanghai jazz age, and his terrific book Shanghai’s Dancing World. One of the characters whom Andrew has written about in detail is the bandleader Whitey Smith, who, you might say, reinvented jazz for the Chinese ear, and thus indirectly taught my mama how to dance.
ANDREW: Whitey Smith arrived in Shanghai to great fanfare in 1922, and he remained in China until 1937 (though he took at least one trip back to the U.S. during that period). While in Shanghai, he played with his jazz orchestra in many of the city’s finest ballrooms and nightclubs, including the Astor House, Majestic and Paramount. He even tried to set up his own club, the Cinderella, in 1932, but a war was on (the Sino-Japanese conflict in Zhabei). The timing was bad, and the place went bust. When the Japanese military invaded China and took over Shanghai in 1937, he moved to Manila, where he was eventually incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp during the height of World War II. Upon his release, he remained for the rest of his life in Manila.
One of my favorite stories about Whitey is how he taught China to dance. Here’s an excerpt in Smith’s own words, as recounted in his memoir, I Didn’t Make a Million: How Jazz Came to China.
The Hongkong-Shanghai Hotels purchased the George McBain mansion which took in a full square block of Bubbling Well at the corner of Seymour Road … My band and I kept making music for large well-paying crowds at the Astor House while they turned the McBain mansion into a new hotel with a three-million-dollar ballroom big enough to accommodate 1,800 people. Mr. James Taggert, the managing director, hired a famous French architect to design what turned out to be, I can say without fear of contradiction, the most elaborate and grandest dance pavilion anywhere.
When I went over to look at it I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was absolutely flabbergasted! The ballroom was goldleaf and marble in the shape of a four-leaf clover with a huge fountain in the middle. There were two-inch Peking carpets covering the table area. Murals and ceilings were done by famous artists of Italy and France. Off to one side of the ballroom was the Empire Room where only royalty could enter. For cocktails before dinner they had the Winter Garden, with running waterfalls, artificial stars in the “sky” which sported a traveling moon.
I told Mr. Taggert that without doubt he had the world’s most beautiful ballroom, but if China didn’t learn to dance and begin to patronize us, he had just buried three million dollars. Mr. Taggert told me with a quick parry and thrust that was my responsibility … Obviously, I had to draw in the rich Chinese.
To appeal to the Chinese mind I was sure that I had to have something different. They would not be satisfied, I believed, with just good danceable music. I had to have something bizarre with plenty of novelties. Some of the things I tried in that beautiful gold-plated, marble-pillared ballroom bordered on heresy. They resembled the Disney fantasies. I had a miniature train built to run round, over and through the band stand and Mama Schmidt’s son, Whitey, stood out in front of the band swinging a red lantern calling out the names of Chinese stations while my musicians rendered choo-choo effects in the background. Another month and a few Chinese began to drop in for a look-see, but of course they didn’t dance since they didn’t know how.
I had a friend, a general in the Chinese Army whom we called General William. He was a graduate of Notre Dame and a regular patron of the Majestic. We became intermission pals and I told him about my problem.
“Whitey,” he said, “your music is good and I enjoy it. From what you tell me, you are trying to bring more Chinese into the Majestic ballroom.”
“If you are going to do that, you are going to have to play music that these people understand. The Chinese ear,” he continued, “is educated only for melody. You must get that modern deep harmony out of your music and stay more with the melody.” I began to see his point.
How we struggled! The melody was there in the stuff we had been playing, but it was buried under crazy accents and trick harmony, and the Chinese couldn’t find it, or remember it.
We scouted around and found the music to some old Chinese folk song melodies adaptable to band treatment. Chinese music is scaled high. It is repetitious and sing-song. To the American or European ear it sounds like a rising and falling wail from a torture chamber. It is punctuated with clashing cymbals.
A couple of the boys assisted by interpreters worked out arrangements based on Chinese music with—to them—familiar melodies. The saxes, trombones or flutes carried the tune, the only variation being by octaves. Sometimes the violin would take over. Guitars and traps were worked into the background, softly.
Jimmy Elder was our piano player, and a good one. Poor Jimmy. He tried hard to work the piano in somehow, but pianos just don’t fit Chinese music. Nine trained fingers became useless. Only one was needed. It drove Jimmy nuts.
It was monotonous torture for all of us, but we stuck to it and more Chinese began to drift in. At first it was out of pure curiosity. Then they began to flock in for enjoyment.
Of course we didn’t play Chinese music exclusively. We had to keep the International 400 happy too. We calmed down the Charleston and brought out the melody in it. We played Dardanella and the Missouri Waltz, Stumbling All Around, Somebody Loves Me, and Who. We alternated with our Chinese adaptations and gradually got something of a dance beat into them. The Duke of Kent, one night before a dinner party he was giving, brought me the music to five or six numbers which all became very popular.
The Chinese liked it and clamored for more. Before long they began to dance. They liked Singing in the Rain, Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, and the Doll Dance. Once in a while we would really let go with the St. Louis Blues, and you could feel the younger Chinese begin to catch fire with it.
My friend General William was right. At Sunday afternoon dances, the Majestic ballroom began packing to capacity, eighteen hundred people. Many of the 400 were waiting on the outside to get in.
I shall always remember a compliment paid me by Pearl Buck, the famous writer who was herself an Old China Hand. She remarked to some of her friends that Whitey Smith had brought more goodwill to China than many an ambassador. He had taught China to dance. I give General William a great big hand for his timely assist on that one.
Enjoy this clip from British Fox Newsreel “Nightime [sic] in Old Shanghai” , shot in 1929, showing Whitey Smith’s orchestra performing at the Majestic gardens while elegant Chinese dancers show off their skills.
An expanded version of this article was first posted on Shanghai Sojourns, Andrew Field’s blog, on 19 May 2017.