THE BIG SLEAZY
Impervious to government restraints, Shanghai's thriving club scene is proving a happy hunting ground for investors and punters alike, writes Laura Liu
WITH ALL THE economic buzz in Shanghai, its thriving nightlife attracts investors as much as clubbers. Among the latest to enter the scene is the provocatively named Snatch, which opened in Haixin Plaza last month with disgraced former boxing champion Mike Tyson as the celebrity guest. Clubbing aficionados, however, point to Tong Ren Road as the hub of raunchy establishments.
The flamboyant Blue Angel, with women dancing in cages, is probably as close as the mainland gets to a western strip joint. It targets foreign executives, many of whom stay at the nearby Portman Ritz-Carlton. 'The place is usually packed with foreign guys looking for a good time,' says frequent clubber Simon Wang. 'Of course, it's also packed with girls who want more than a good time.'
At the popular Judy's Too, young women pester customers for money and drinks, shouting above the deafening music to be heard. Outside, inebriated foreigners are staggering along the street chanting 'money, happy new year' even though summer is just around the corner.
'Once you're in the clubs, there are all kinds of tricks you have to deal with,' says Bruce, a thirty-something British resident. 'First, you have house girls who ask you to buy them drinks, then there are the prostitutes who hassle you for private rooms and massages. They're very persistent.'
Sex appeal is vital to running a successful club in the mainland's premier financial centre. 'Everyone knows sex appeal is one of the major reasons for adults to even have a nightlife,' says the operator of a Shanghai club, who declines to be named. 'In the market economy, you have to sell something people want, and for nightclubs, it's sex appeal.'
Club owners like to see two kinds of people on their premises. 'People with money and women who are willing to get involved for money,' the club operator says. 'They attract each other like magnets. It's a very profitable cycle.'
Wang agrees. He and his friends spend hundreds of yuan in places such as Judy's, Park 97 or Babyface. 'And that's not including buying drinks for girls, or private karaoke rooms,' says the 28-year-old who works for a multinational IT firm.
'The more skanks you see at a place, the busier the club is,' Wang says. These 'skanks' are also known as 'fishing girls' because 'instead of looking for a good time, they're looking for money', says Moz, a local graphics designer. 'They usually have a day job and speak good English. At night, they cruise the bars for the best place to diao laowai, which means 'hook up with a foreigner' in Chinese.'
He may well have been talking about Xiaoling, a 29-year-old college graduate who often hangs out at Park 97, near Fuxing Park. Cuddling a new foreign friend, her Friday night seems to be off to a good start. Park 97 is the place where educated Shanghai women go to find a rich husband, or jin laogong, she says.
'People with money come here for sex, be it long-term or short-term,' she says. 'Don't have money for that new Louis Vuitton handbag? You will, after you spend a couple of weeks here. The exchange of sex and money is pretty subtle, although people who come here are usually insiders who know the ins and outs.'
Although the lively club scene suggests otherwise, Shanghai club owners must maintain a level of discretion. The authorities conduct regular crackdowns and much of the population is conservative.
Authorities turned down Playboy Enterprise's application to open a club in Shanghai. According to government spokeswoman Jiao Yang, the application didn't comply with Chinese corporate law and rules on capital registration. 'No club owner in Shanghai will openly promote raunchy activities on their premises,' the club operator says.
Snatch, run by American Greg Lites and his local partner Ricky Wang, is apparently breaking the mould. 'Although 'snatch' has a derogatory informal meaning, we aren't afraid of people knowing about the connotation,' says Lites. 'Our club will have the best hip-hop music and many celebrity nights, where grown-ups can act themselves and have some fun.'
While it bills itself as an 'adult playground', the partners insist it isn't based on a raunchy concept. 'We will focus on the 'clean crowd' unlike many others,' says Wang.
That goal seems to be at odds with how the club publicises itself. Opening night attractions included a scantily clad cowgirl and the arrival of Tyson, who once served jail time for rape.
The boxing bad boy's presence was an accident, says Wang. 'Originally we just wanted someone famous, whether their reputation was good or bad. Then I mentioned Mike Tyson, and the next thing you know, he's on a plane to China.'
It drew plenty of media attention - the wrong kind. Officials of Luodian suburb, who had planned to make Tyson an honorary citizen, withdrew their offer after deciding it was 'inappropriate' in light of his chequered past.
Wang, who hopes to bring in Ja Rule or Mariah Carey next, has learned his lesson. 'Greg and I both agree that we'll give it a considerable amount of thought as we don't want more Tyson type press.'
Another US-style establishment, the 15-month-old Hooters restaurant, also pitches itself as clean entertainment. Although the waitresses aren't as well built as their colleagues in the US, they attract a big foreign clientele. 'Our Hongqiao outlet brings in about one million yuan a month,' says Stephanie Xu, marketing manager at Hooters China. 'Despite our tacky brand name, clean fun is what we focus on in the China market.'
Despite the routine clampdowns and raids, often prompted by noise complaints, clubs have continued to thrive. 'Shanghai people are now mostly indifferent to these places,' says Dave Lu, a 22-year-old university student. 'That's why when the government closes one down, three more open the next day. Obviously, there's a lot of money to be made for the clubs and the women who go there, and money is everything.'
James Farrer, an academic who explored Shanghai nightlife for his book, Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai, says the trend of nightclubs becoming more daring is just a resurrection of old Shanghai. 'What these clubs represent is the ongoing globalisation of Shanghai's nightlife scene, which started about 80 years ago with the brief interruption of the Cultural Revolution,' he says. Commercial sex was already widespread in Shanghai clubs 10 years ago, he says.
Farrer, a sociology professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, says fishing girls represent Shanghai women's 'pursuit of modernity, style and personal freedom'. They have a 'work hard, play hard' attitude, he says. 'If Shanghai girls stopped going to nightclubs, the image of Shanghai women would definitely suffer.
'Clubbing is about projecting an image, and about projecting a sexual image. So people in these clubs are making themselves sex objects.'