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Play and Power in Chinese Nightlife Spaces


Nightlife has reemerged in China since the opening and reform policies of 1978. Genres of contemporary Chinese nightlife include bars, dance clubs, karaoke clubs and saunas, all of which have been inuenced by transnational ows of investments, ideas and people. Nightlife is an important space for the study of Chinese social stratication and the study of sexual subcultures in Chinese cities. Nightlife is thus an area in which we can study the transnational processes of cultural change in China, while examining the possibilities of individual agency, resistance and creativity within these organizing structures.

Introduction: Play and Power

Journal is a collection of ethnographic case studies of nightlife venues and nightlife actors, written by young social scientists who have recently carried out eldwork in the Peoples Republic of China. The four articles address the role of transnational agents in the creation of nightlife cultures, the social and spatial stratication among nightlife spaces and the meanings and uses of nightlife activities for both customers and nightlife workers. Each article thus stands alone as an ethnographic project providing insights into the production and consumption of leisure spaces in reform-era China. Why study Chinese nightlife? We might begin with the question of why nightlife has been studied so little in Chinese contexts. One reason might be

This first special issue of China-An International

James Farrer ( is Associate Professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. He has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. His main research interests are sexuality and urban culture in Shanghai and Tokyo.




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that in China, as well in many other societies, nightlife is not seen as serious. Indeed, in everyday discourse, nightlife is dismissed as play as opposed to the serious business of everyday life issues such as work and family that also constitute the serious business of social science. In anthropologist Victor Turners terminology, nightlife is a region of liminoid activity, counterpoised to the daylight worlds of work and family.1 The idea of play as opposed to workaday life is captured by the word wan in Mandarin, a term used by many Chinese to describe going out at night, as well as the social and sexual relations undertaken by people in nightlife spaces. As elsewhere, nightlife is a space in which people form temporary social ties that they may not even acknowledge in daytime, and where people engage in illicit or subterranean forms of play they usually hide from daylight eyes. These include dancing, irting, provocative dressing, drunkenness and drug taking, temporary sexual alliances and prostitution. By studying nightlife play we nd forms of sociability that are not seen by day or explainable simply by referring to daytime structures. For example, my research on dance clubs in Shanghai in the 1990s points out how people used the space of the dancehall and dance itself to explore and express sexual themes that were off-limits in other social spaces. In other words, nightlife play can be productive in terms of new social relations and cultural expressions, partly related to global ows of ideas and people.2 It may also be disruptive to social boundaries and hierarchies. Much of the research on rock music culture in China points to its rebellious messages and the disruptive nature of rock performance and audience participation that create spaces for alternative expressions of identity, including political aspirations.3 In this issue, Komlosys

Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: the Human Seriousness of Play (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982). James Farrer, Disco Super-culture: Consuming Foreign Sex in the Chinese Disco, Sexualities 2, no. 2 (May 1999): 14766. Andrew Jones, Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music (Ithica NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); Andrew Jones, The Politics of Popular Music in Post-Tiananmen China, in Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China, ed. E. Perry and J. Wasserstrom (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1992), pp. 14865; Jeroen de Kloet, Let him Fucking See the Green Smoke beneath My Groin: The Mythology of Chinese Rock, in Postmodernism and China, ed. A. Dirlik and X. Zhang (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000), pp. 23974; Robert Erd, Rock in a Hard Place: Music and the Market in Nineties Beijing, in China Urban: Ethnographies of Contemporary Culture, eds. N. Chen, C. Clark, S. Gottschang and L. Jeffery (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 6786.

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account of rock music in 1990s Yunnan describes the creative and disruptive qualities of nightlife cultural production that can at times blur social boundaries, such as those between national and ethnic minority. Conversely, it is possible that by accepting the alibi of nightlife play as trivial we are missing the role of nightlife in reproducing larger social relationships of power and inequality. Anne Allisons ethnography of hostess clubs in Japan describes an ideological construction of sexual play (asobi) in which men use women hostesses as commercial props in masculine rituals of sexual banter and irtation ostensibly located outside the workday world, but ultimately serving to reinforce mens ties to companies and the gendering of corporate work and family life.4 In this issue, both Tamara Perkins study of a rural dance hall hostess and Zhengs ethnography of a hostess club illustrate the ways in which play can reinforce forms of social inequality. The second common dimension that runs through these ethnographies of nightlife, therefore, is issues of power and social inequality. As recent studies have shown, consumption, including leisure consumption, is a central means for expressing both social solidarity and social power in China.5 Nightlife in contemporary China is associated with spending money sometimes large amounts in ways that build ties but also establish status. Even so, as Zheng and Perkins articles in this issue well illustrate, nightlife spaces provide opportunities for subaltern gures, such as migrant women, to improve their social and cultural status through relatively high earnings as well as provide exposure to foreign people and urban and transnational culture. Nightlife therefore features a paradoxical mixture of both subordination (as performed within the space of the club) and social mobility for hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who occupy these jobs. The tension between what Georg Simmel calls the democratic ethos of 6 play and the inequality that actually characterises nightlife spaces in China is

Anne Allison, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Deborah Davis, Introduction: A Revolution in Consumption, in The Consumer Revolution in Urban China, ed. Deborah Davis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), pp. 124; David Wank, Cigarettes and Domination in Chinese Business Networks: Institutional Change during the Market Transition, in The Consumer Revolution in Urban China, pp. 26886. Georg Simmel, Sociability, in Georg Simmel on Individuality and Social Forms, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1971), pp. 12740.

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also a tension that runs through these ethnographic narratives. Indeed it is also a tension reected in the subjective perspectives of the researchers themselves. Some were obviously more in a position to have fun in the eld than others. The gendering of customer roles in hostess clubs, for example, almost certainly excluded women researchers from full participation in the enjoyment of maleoriented sexualised play. For example, Zheng was exposed to some of the same forms of harassment that female hostesses were also exposed to. Their status as Caucasian foreigners may have given Field and Komlosy more ability to distance themselves from, and also to have enjoyed the nightlife spaces that they investigated. In studying nightlife, it is necessary to modulate perspectives to account both for the fun, pleasure and play that enliven these spaces as well as the structures of inequality that create positions of power within the social space.7 Studies of nightlife generally, and studies of Chinese society both benet from these perspectives. Nightlife shows itself to be a particularly fruitful space in which to account for how people use elements of play sociability, music, dance and sensuality to both build and contest power relations. These studies of nightlife in China point out that the western perception of nightlife as a site of rebellion and anti-structure might need to be modied to account for the ways in which nightlife can reproduce forms of inequality. On the other hand, western accounts of nightlife point out that studies of Chinese consumer society need to take into account the forms of subversive play and creative rebellion that individuals engage in within larger structures of power and inequality.

A Typology of Chinese Nightlife Spaces

Commercial nightlife of the type discussed here was banned by the Communist authorities during the 1950s, and practices such as partnered dancing were deemed to be forms of bourgeois decadence. Nightlife thus recommenced anew in the 1980s though not ad novum. All the forms of nightlife discussed in this issue have their roots in transnational ows of cultural forms as well as in Chinas earlier development of nightlife in the Republican era. It is not possible to discuss all of these transnational ties and historical legacies here, but it is important to trace the forms and backgrounds of some of the more popular forms of nightlife in contemporary China.

Leonore Manderson and Margaret Jolly (eds.), Sites of Desire Economies of Pleasure: Sexualities in Asia and the Pacic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

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Social Dance Halls

Nightlife rst re-emerged in the early 1980s as working-class youth culture, or as a leisure activity aimed broadly at employed urban youth, with venues in local culture palaces, labour-union halls and colleges, although letters of introduction from ones work unit were sometimes required and some venues were closed to outsiders. Fully commercial dancehalls opened in Shanghai and other Chinese cities in 1982 and 1983. By 1988 there were 260 licensed dance halls in Shanghai alone, spreading through every district of the city.8 Most dance venues were aimed at ordinary workers. Senior citizen dances (laonianwuhui), often in city parks, attracted older urban residents nostalgic for the popular steps and tunes of the pre-Liberation and early post Liberation period.9 Partnered social dances remained the norm for younger people as well. Men and women frequently danced with partners of the same sex, although many males expressed dissatisfaction with this situation, labelling the women sarcastically as homosexuals (tongxinglian).10 The early 1990s were the heyday for social dance clubs in China. By the mid-1990s the city boasted over 1,000 registered song and dance halls and over 100 discotheques.11 Disco (di-si-ke or non-partnered dance) entered the dancehall repertoire in the 1980s but only in the mid-1990s did non-partnered forms of disco and break dancing become more popular among Chinese youth than these various types of ballroom dance steps. Chinese students were still learning these partnered dance steps at university dance parties until the beginning of the 2000s.12 However, since 2000 partnered social dance was in rapid decline among the youth of Shanghai. These traditional forms of social dance have effectively become a form of middle-aged and largely working class




Liu Yuan, Daochu kejiande wuting wuhui (Dance Halls and Dance Parties Are Everywhere), in Shanghai yeshenghuo (Night Life in Shanghai), ed. Gu Yanpei (Shanghai: Shanghai Culture Press, 1989), pp. 10527. Wang Zhicheng, Lao nianren tiao jiaoyiwu de xinli tanyou (A Psychological Exploration of Old Peoples Social Dance), Wenhuayushenghuo (Culture and Life), no. 6 (1988): 34. Yan Deren, Banwu nulang (Dance Hostesses), Wenhuayushenghuo (Culture and Life), no. 6 (1988): 356. James Farrer, Dancing through the Market Transition: Discotheque and Dance Hall Sociability in Shanghai, in The Consumer Revolution in Urban China, pp. 22649. James Farrer, Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

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culture. As Perkins case study of a contemporary dance club hostess shows, social dance clubs remain popular in smaller towns in China, including the practice of paid dance hostesses which is seen by some as a hold-over from the dance hostesses (wunu) of a previous era.13

Dance Clubs
Although disco dancing began in social dance clubs in the 1980s, Chinas contemporary international dance club scene can be dated to the opening of international discos in hotels such as Shanghais Jinjiang Hotel and Beijings Lido and Shangrila hotels in the late 1980s. Hotel discos were at rst open only to foreigners, although in many places local Chinese prostitutes were let in by a management with close ties to the military or police. Massive disco plazas began opening in Shanghai in the early 1990s, with names like Galaxy, Casablanca, JJ, Time and New York New York, evocative of foreign glamour. JJs on Shanghais Yanan Road was the rst disco located outside an international hotel, and attracted upwards of 1,000 customers on weekends in 1992 and 1993.14 As Fields article shows, by the mid 1990s an international-style clubbing scene emerged in which Chinese clubbers and club cultures were gradually reintegrated into the global circuits of dance and music culture, including overseas investment capital, foreign (often overseas Chinese) managers, international DJs and international fashions.

Smaller drinking bars have also been part of Chinas transnational nightlife development. Shanghais ballrooms, clubs and hotels in the 1930s and 1940s all hosted bars. The Seamans Club in the Dongfeng Hotel (once the British Shanghai Club), the Jazz club in the Peace Hotel and the bar at the Pujiang Hotel (formerly the Astor Hotel) were pre-Liberation holdovers that survived into the 1990s.15 Although no longer popular nightspots, they were a source for the nostalgic application of images of old Shanghai in the decor of bars that opened after the 1990s boom. A 1988 magazine article writes that the rst private bar of the reform era was called Chez Louis, a name taken from a famous French restaurant of the 1930s (renamed the Red House after
13 14 15

Yan Deren, op cit. Farrer, Disco Super-culture, op cit. Li Shaobing, Minguoshiqi de xishi fengsuwenhua (Western Customs and Culture in the Republican Period) (Beijing: Beijing Normal University Press, 1994).

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the communist take-over).16 Small privately owned bars sprang up near the big international hotels operating in central Shanghai in the 1980s. Shanghai bars in the early 1980s were very small, often the size of a living room. They served a mix of foreign and Chinese customers, but their locations near the hotels housing foreign businessmen point to their initial focus on foreign customers, including Hong Kong and Taiwanese guests. The small scale and style of service was more Japanese than western, and indeed, some were opened by Shanghainese who went to work in Japan in the 1980s. Although modest by current standards, Shanghais bars in the 1980s were associated with the glamour of the new high society of the market economy and with gold-digging local women who looked for husbands or simply easy money among the private entrepreneurs and foreigners who frequented them.17 Since the mid-1990s, bars have become a common feature of urban Chinese life, including pubs that appeal to foreign expatriates, bars with female hostesses (much like the rural dance hall hostesses described by Perkins in this issue), and alternative rock bars popular with students, such as in Yunnan described by Komlosy in this issue.

Karaoke Clubs
The transnational cultural circuits that went into the making of Chinese nightlife included Japanese inuences. Karaoke itself developed in Japan in the early 1970s, where it became popular in small snack bars that often featured a female manager or younger hostesses who might sing in turn with the middle-aged male customers.18 Karaoke spread to Taiwan in the late 1970s among businessmen who knew Japanese. Chinese songs became available by the end of the decade. As in Japan, small Taiwanese karaoke bars allowed customers to sing songs with the mama or hostesses, a custom also with Japanese colonial-era precedents in Taiwan.19 Larger KTV bars

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Ah Yan, Jiuba, jiuba (Bar, Bar), Qingnian yidai (The Young Generation) 6 (1988): 24. Ibid. Toru Mitsui, The Genesis of Karaoke: How the Combination of Technology and Music Evolved, in Karaoke Around the World, ed. Toru Mitsuie and Shuhei Hosokawa (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 3144. Akiko Otake and Shuhei Hosokawa, Karaoke in East Asia: Modernization, Japanization or Asianization? in Karaoke Around the World, pp. 178201.

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with private singing rooms (baofang) arose in Taiwan in the late 1980s.20 Many of these KTV bars also involved hostesses, which fostered prostitution. Karaoke boxes came to Hong Kong directly from Japan later in the 1980s, and Taiwanese and Hong Kong entrepreneurs brought karaoke to China in the early 1980s, where it was initially very popular in restaurants.21 A 1989 introduction to Shanghai nightlife included the citys 10 specialty karaoke bars under the category of music tea rooms (yinyuechazuo), describing the Japanese invested Huanglou Karaoke Nightclub as the most luxurious.22 By the 1990s even remote towns such as Banqiao Township in Yunnan Province (population 68,000) boasted several dozen dancehalls, karaoke parlours and cinemas.23 The practice of hostesses accompanying customers in KTV private rooms also travelled to China from Hong Kong and Taiwan, partly following the circuits of Hong Kong and Taiwanese businessmen, providing a front for prostitution. Sociologist Pan Suiming estimates that one-third of the hundreds of thousands of KTV hostesses in China offer sexual intercourse for money.24 Zhengs article in this issue provides a detailed and insightful description of the social world of such a karaoke hostess club.

Saunas and Barber Shops

Public baths and saunas have long existed in Chinese cities. Some began offering opposite sex massages as early as the 1980s, though this practice was declared illegal in many municipalities. By the late 1990s large Chinese

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KTV is short for karaoke-television and refers to the use of private rooms in large clubs, where popular music soundtracks minus the lyrics are played on televisions upon the request of the club patrons. This form of entertainment arose in Taiwan in the 1980s. The term KTV actually derives from the MTV (for movie television). MTV were video-lm houses that became popular in Taiwan in the 1980s. Otake and Hosokawa, op cit. Gu Yanpei, Huopohuanlede yinyuechazou (Lively and Enjoyable Music Tea Rooms), in Shanghai yeshenghuo (Night Life in Shanghai), ed. Gu Yanpei (Shanghai: Shanghai Culture Press, 1989), pp. 12833. Stig Thogersen, Cultural Life and Cultural Control in Rural China: Where is the Party?, in The China Journal, no. 44 ( July 2000): 12941. Pan Suiming, Bai Weikang (William Parish), Wang Aili, Lau Man (Ed Lauman), Dangdaizhongguoren de xingxingwei yu xingguanxi (Sexual Behaviour and Relations in Contemporary China) (Beijing: shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2004).

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cities hosted hundreds of bath houses or saunas, most of which employed women masseuses who provided optional sexual services. Hairdressers were also common fronts for prostitution. In the 1980s most such establishments offered only massage and shampooing by young female hairdressers, but by the 1990s a large number began offering assisted masturbation or full sexual intercourse. Some saunas also specialised in offering spaces for men to have sex with men (including sex with money boys), and a few massage parlours in Shanghai also offered sexual massages for women customers.25 Such brothels were found all over China, with large red light districts sometimes located in rural areas. 26 For example, there was almost no neighbourhood in Shanghai without one or more such red light barbershop. Some saunas also offered rooms for couples who came together to spend the night as well as spaces for men to meet with prostitutes.

Gay Nightlife Spaces

Gay nightlife before the 1990s is hard to document. In the 1980s, gay men could be found in dozens of public parks and other nocturnal cruising (or shing) spots in cities such as Beijing.27 In Shanghai, for example, gay men often met near the newspapers posted for public perusal on boards along public sidewalks. Such sites provided a convenient excuse for checking out other men and establishing liaisons. Gay bars and nightclubs did not become common until the mid-1990s when the police began to relax their persecution of gay public life. Gay bar owners I interviewed in Shanghai complained that police continued to single them out for arbitrary closure and nes during the following decade, but the number of bars increased markedly, and diversied into different segments including money boy bars featuring male prostitutes, neighbourhood gay bars such as Shanghais Eddys attracting a group of middle-age regulars and more fashionable international clubs such as Shanghais



Personal communication with patrons. See also Matsume, Ask Matsume 12 July 2006 posting at <> [19 Oct. 2007]. Pan Suiming, Shengcun yu tiyan: dui yige hongdengqu de zhuizong kaocha (Survival and Experience: An Examination of One Red-light District) (Beijing: Zhongguo shehuikexue chubanshe, 2000). Li Yinhe and Wang Xiaobo, Tamende shijie: Zhongguo nantongxinglian qunluo toushi (Their World: A Look at Chinese Male Homosexual Groups) (Taiyuan: Shanxi renmin chubanshe, 1992).

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Deep featuring dance music. There was reportedly one lesbian-oriented bar in Shanghai. Gay nightlife was not restricted to the western-style bar and club scene. There were also more distinctly Chinese forms of gay nightlife. For example, in Shanghai the Lai Lai dance club held dances every Friday and Saturday attended by roughly 200 men (and a very small number of women). Men danced the partnered ballroom dance steps that were popular with middle-age patrons in straight social dance halls. Afterwards many of the men would join in a large-scale private banquet on the top oor of one of the large privately-owned restaurants on Zhapu Road.

Nightlife Development Zones

An important development in the recent history of Chinese nightlife has been the embracing of nightlife as a development strategy by Chinese local governments. In major cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, the development of large nightlife zones was associated with the development of a favourable climate for oversees investors and tourists. Sanlitun in Beijing, near the foreign embassy districts, was probably the rst large-scale nightlife zone to develop after the opening and reform policy began. The rst nightlife streets in Shanghai developed near the new international hotels. Eventually Shanghais premier bar street, Maoming Road, attracted thousands of local youths as well as foreign visitors during its heyday from 2000 to 2003. A major turning point in the strategy to include nightlife in urban development planning was the opening of the now world-famous Xintiandi complex in Shanghai, a century-old residential neighbourhood in Luwan district that was re-developed by Hong Kong conglomerate Shui On Properties during the 1990s. The developers retained the shells of the former houses, reforming the interiors as cafs, bars and shops, all priced at international levels. Xintiandi is best known for its nightlife. There were artistic lounge bars as well as several local bar/caf chains. Many of the customers were Shanghai-based Taiwanese and foreign businesspeople, and foreign and mainland tourists. Partly because of its popularity with foreign guests (and relatively clean image), city ofcials and the middle classes embraced Xintiandi as a symbol of the rise of Shanghai to the status of a world city, a modern development that celebrates very selectively elements of Shanghais cosmopolitan treaty port past. Still newer developments on Shanghais historic Bund recreate the same nostalgic effect in even more exclusive and expensive dining and nightlife spaces with captivating views of Shanghais pre-1949 west bank (puxi) and post-1990 east bank (pudong) skylines.

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Xintiandi and the Bund developments have become models for similar nightlife districts in other Chinese cities. Nanjing has developed a group of old warehouses into a nightlife district, and Hangzhou has its own Xihutiandi on the scenic West Lake. The developers of Bund Three in Shanghai are also creating a similar high-end complex in the old British Embassy building in Beijing. Not only expense distinguishes these nightlife developments from previous bar streets, but also their high prole locations and the prominence they receive in ofcial culture. Nightlife has truly been reformed from its status as a mark of bourgeois decadence to its new status as a representative urban symbol. Such strategies also expose the regional inequalities in Chinas urban development. While relatively wealthy cities may be able to promote bars, restaurants and nightclubs districts for foreign tourists and the rising middle classes, cities on the periphery have engaged in other strategies of nightlifeled development. For example, Taiyuan in the relatively poor inland Shanxi province has developed a large KTV hostess club district with hundreds of businesses serving regional tourists and businessmen. Beijing men come to the city because prices and tips for hostesses are considerably lower than in Beijing and other coastal cities, so much so that the city has become known as Beijings backyard pleasure garden (houleyuan).28 Chinese cities such as Taiyuan that are on the margins of transnational ows of capital and travellers thus may be developing nightlife zones that exploit the availability of cheap sexual labour.

Themes in Chinese Nightlife Research

The study of nightlife, presently relatively underdeveloped in China, can enlighten research on signicant questions in Chinese social studies and also contribute to a different sociological understanding of nightlife more broadly. Several themes emerge in the four articles of this special issue.

Social Stratication in Chinese Nightlife Spaces

As Paul Cresseys pioneering sociological study of the taxi-dance halls in 1920s Chicago made clear, participation in nightlife was and continues to be stratied

Sun Zhao, Nightlife in Taiyuan in Globalization, paper presented at the conference Rethinking Locales in Globalization: Shanxi Province in Comparative Perspective, Sophia University and Jinzhong University Joint International Symposium, Jinzhong Shanxi, 1 Sept. 2006.


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by race, age, class and gender.29 Much of the sociological literature on nightlife published in the UK and the US since tends to focus on nightlife as a form of socially stratied leisure culture as well as an alternative space for marginalised classes of people such as youth, women, blacks, Latinos and gays to interact, form common ties and identities, and celebrate their differences.30 The history of nightlife forms in American and European cities could be construed as a process whereby socially marginalised forms of sociability and entertainment became slowly commercialised and popularised (or mainstreamed) over time. While this pattern seems to exist in certain cases in China for example, Komlosys study of Yunnan rock and punk clubs suggests that these venues were initially being used by a bohemian crowd to express its identity for the most part, nightlife has entered China as a highly commercialised and developed form of entertainment for social elites. This was certainly true of institutions such as bars and KTV hostess clubs, which were developed abroad before being imported into China. Even underground clubs, such as those covered by Field in this issue, catered to crowds and tastes that were already considered upper class by local standards. Nightlife in China tends to arrive along transnational pathways that have also brought in investment capital and created a new class of mobile elites (including foreigners, overseas Chinese and returnee Chinese). The ethnographic case studies in this issue thus may be useful in the search for a more adequate understanding of social stratication in similar late developing nightlife cultures in the world. Although there has been nightlife in Chinas past, the nightlife world of contemporary China has been built almost from scratch since the 1980s. The analysis of contemporary China nightlife affords us the opportunity to witness the whole range of dynamics in social strata formation. Although some early reform-era defenders of nightlife tried to distinguish the new socialist night life from capitalist nightlife by its healthiness (i.e., absence


Paul G. Cressey, The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study of Commercialized Recreation and City Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1932). Fiona Buckland, Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making (Middletown CO: Wesleyan University Press, 2002); Ben Malbon, Clubbing: Dancing, Ecstasy, and Vitality (New York: Routledge, 1999); George McKay, ed., DiY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain (London: Verso, 1998); Angela McRobbie, Shut Up and Dance: Youth Culture and Changing Modes of Femininity, Postmodernism and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994); Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996).


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of prostitution) and its availability to all segments of society,31 it was also apparent to many observers that nightlife was closely associated with an emerging culture of high class consumption, the return of prostitution and increased differentiation on the basis of social level (Cenci), age and other factors.32 Chinese urban nightlife spaces have experienced the kind of spatial stratication and gentrication that Paul Chatterton and Robert Hollands describe with respect to the UK.33 For example, my study of dance cultures in Shanghai shows how a relatively egalitarian and largely working-class culture of commercial social dancehalls became increasingly stratied along both age and class lines, and partly along a spatial divide between the fashionable high corner (shangzhijiao) and unfashionable low corner (xiazhijiao) areas of the city.34 In this issue, Fields ethnography of the elite Shanghai club Park 97 shows how social status differences are mapped at the micro-social level onto the spatial layout of a single night club. Zhengs article describes the yawning urban-rural gap that characterises Chinese nightlife culture, and Perkins article extends the discussion of spatial social hierarchies to include all of China. The articles in this special issue reveal particular aspects or instances of social stratication in Chinese nightlife that are not often explored in studies outside of China. In examining the workers instead of consumers in nightlife establishments, Perkins focuses on how social stratication in the daytime and nightlife worlds relate to each other. She demonstrates how socially underprivileged Chinese women could strategically make use of night-work to improve their social standing in the daytime world. Field focuses on three of the most elite dance clubs of Shanghai. His discussion provides a detailed account of how the high subcultural statuses of these clubs were actively cultivated and maintained by their owners and patrons. Status and class distinctions were spatially inscribed into the labyrinthine designs of exclusive clubs, with some spaces accessible to all and some baofang requiring reservations and minimum charges. At the same time, the potentially disruptive and rebellious nature




Liu Yuan. Dui Shanghai yeshenghuode yidianxiangfa (Some Thoughts about Nightlife in Shanghai), in Shanghai yeshenghuo (Night Life in Shanghai), pp. 2002. Liu Nianqu, Guanyu yeshanghai de sikao (Thoughts on Shanghai by Night), in Shanghai yeshenghuo (Night Life in Shanghai), pp. 10527. Paul Chatterton and Robert Hollands, Urban Nightscapes: Youth Cultures, Pleasure Spaces and Corporate Power (New York: Routledge, 2003). Farrer, Opening Up, op cit.


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of nightlife subcultures in China must not be dismissed. Komlosys article points to the creative uses of live music in Kunming that allow for alternative forms of identity expression in a complex multiethnic environment. Nightlife subcultures in China thus do not simply reproduce the status hierarchies of the daytime world, but can also challenge them. New status hierarchies peculiar to clubbing may also be constructed.

Transnational and Transregional Flows within Chinese Nightlife

One of the core features of contemporary globalisation is the transnational and regional mobility of people. The nightlife worlds in China are populated by non-local groups including expatriates, foreign tourists, domestic tourists and migrant workers. As the contributors to this issue illustrate, workers in Chinese nightlife, whether performers, waiters, prostitutes or hostesses are largely transregional Chinese migrants. Transnational entrepreneurs including foreigners and ethnic Chinese from Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong have been some of the founders of contemporary Chinese nightlife. They also constituted a main group of patrons to Chinese bars and dance clubs at least until the middle of the 1990s. Even if transnational and transregional groups are not necessarily larger than local participant groups, Chinese urban nightlife industries often cater to them. Evidence of that can be found in the emergence of government planned nightlife districts, such as Xintiandi and Houhai in Beijing. With heavy initial costs, these nightlife districts are developed by local governments and placed at some of the most scenic spots of the city with the intention of facilitating tourist earnings and increasing a citys international stature. Given the centrality of transnational flows to Chinese nightlife, a question arises as to how Chinese or local are the nightlife cultures in China. Most scholars of globalisation agree that global cultural ows are neither bringing about global cultural homogenisation nor an obliteration of local cultures. Processes of localisation, glocalisation, hybridisation or conscious domestication involve a creative mixing and appropriation of cultural forms travelling across national boundaries with an admixture of local themes and practices.35 If cultural hybridity is dened as a mixing of local

Joseph J. Tobin, ed., Re-made in Japan: Everyday Life and Consumer Taste in a Changing Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Roland Robertson, Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity, in Global


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and foreign elements, then most nightlife cultures, institutions, practices and products in contemporary China are hybrid. North American, European and Japanese inuences are perhaps most obvious, though often mediated through transnational Chinese entrepreneurs. Field shows that overseas Chinese communities are an important conduit and source of new nightlife ideas as well as managerial talent and capital. Whether these hybrid nightlife elements generate the cosmopolitan attitudes of exibility and creativity that hybridity theorists such as Homi Bhabha propose is only one among the many interesting questions posed by Chinas nightlife.36 As an example of the creative potential of cultural hybridity, Komlosys article on Yunnan clubs shows how musicians, venues and their audiences strategically blend and mix local, regional, national and international styles to create a unique social and cultural performance space in this ethnically diverse region of China.

Sex and Chinese Nightlife

Nightlife in China is an arena in which we can observe new expressions of sexuality in the context of new forms of consumer culture. Some forms of nightlife in China offer possibilities for womens free participation as customers, gender transgressions and play outside daytime sexual norms. In other nightlife spaces however, such as the karaoke hostess clubs discussed by Zheng, women serve primarily as hostesses and less frequently appear as customers. A critical question that runs throughout the four articles is the relationship between sex and money in the nightlife, or the degree to which Chinese nightlife is dominated by sexual commerce or straight prostitution, which is the reputation nightlife establishments still have among many segments of Chinese society. For many ordinary Chinese, nightlife is nearly a synonym for prostitution. Ethnographic evidence presents a more complex picture of sexual expression in Chinese nightlife. Farrers research in dance clubs in Shanghai during the 1990s found that the new giant disco plazas in Shanghai in the 1990s provided Shanghai youth a space in which they could act out sexual personas that were not gender-appropriate or morally appropriate in the everyday world of Shanghai neighbourhood life. Discos were the rst spaces
Modernities, ed. Michael Featherstone, Scott Lash and Roland Robertson (London: Sage, 1995); Jan Pieterse, Globalization as Hybridization, in Global Modernities; James L. Watson, Golden Arches East: McDonalds in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).



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in which Shanghai women tried out revealing fashions such as miniskirts and halter tops, now common street wear. Young women could dress daringly and dance provocatively, despite moral norms against premarital intercourse and gender norms against young women showing sexual desire. These ndings suggest that discos and dancehalls were an important site in which new sexual norms were negotiated in the Chinese sexual revolution of the 1990s.37 Fields ethnography of clubbing in Shanghai makes a similar argument for the liberating potentials of sex in clubbing scenes, but also acknowledges the often unequal income, regional background and/or status bases upon which sexual liaisons are often formed. Other research points to the simple commodication of sexuality in Chinese nightlife. Pan Suimings ethnographic research on a small town red light district in Guangdong provides an exhaustive account of the workings of sexual commerce in this kind of environment.38 Elaine Jeffreys research emphasises the relationship of sexual commerce to larger patterns of ofcial corruption in China.39 The articles in this issue contribute to this research on commercial sex in China by situating prostitution within social contexts that have not been studied in detail, including Zhengs ndings on hostess clubs in Dalian and Perkins article on a married dance hostesss family and community environment. Both Zheng and Perkins articles show that a rural/ urban economic and status divide underlies many of the sexual interactions between largely urban male customers at hostess clubs and hostesses who generally come from small towns or villages.

Conclusion: Nightlife Play Spaces as a Meso-level Scale of Analysis

The tension noted earlier between play and power in Chinese nightlife can be reformulated as theoretical alternatives between a focus on individual agency and creativity, or a focus on structures of social inequality including global capital ows and patterns of sexual stratication that determine individual choices. This tension between agency and structure can also be reformulated as a methodological alternative between a focus on micro-level processes in
37 38 39

Farrer, Opening Up, op. cit. Pan Suiming, Shengcun yutiyan, op cit. Elaine Jeffreys, Debating the Legal Regulation of Sex-related Bribery and Corruption in the Peoples Republic of China, in Sex and Sexuality in China, ed. Elaine Jeffreys (London: Routledge, 2006).


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which individual tactics and expressiveness are highlighted, or a focus on macro-level processes in which social structures and inequalities are the focus. Seen as a methodological issue, nightlife research generally provides a mesolevel scale of analysis in which social structures and individual agency can both be fruitfully explored in a bounded ethnographic context.40 For example, in an ethnographic study of the indigenisation of hip-hop culture in Japan, Ian Condry focuses on the genba (xianchang in Chinese) or performative space as a spatial scale for examining how local actors engage with transnational cultural forms. I make a similar suggestion for the play spaces of Chinese nightlife. By focusing the research on concrete social spaces, individual tactics of resistance and creativity are highlighted, but by simultaneously considering the history and institutional organisation of these spaces, macro-social structures of inequality are also accounted for. Institutional ethnographies in general have this quality, but nightlife research may be especially well-suited for looking at such questions as how individuals creatively react to situations of class, gender, sexual and ethnic discrimination and disadvantage. Nightlife case studies are also particularly useful for understanding how these tactics of resistance or creativity are limited by the resources and institutionalised order of a particular social space. Research on nightlife play spaces thus could prove to be an especially fruitful meso-level strategy for the analysis of power and play or social structure and anti-structural agency in contemporary Chinese societies.


Ian Condry, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2006).


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