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July 9, 2008

Chairman Wao - A Louisvillian Invades China by Johnny Siegel

Shanghai Night Out (Parts 1-3) 


In writing this column, I wanted to impart some real cultural knowledge on you good people about what it’s like to live in a foreign place with not only a different language, but vastly different values, customs and norms. And having grown up in Louisville, I know what you people want. I know that everyone in Louisville (or everywhere else for that matter) goes out at least five nights a week and gets completely mashed with their mates in the glorious hopes of “hooking up.” You don’t want culture. You want dirt. So I’ll comply and give the people what they want.

Shanghai is definitely a nightlife town. You can go out and have a crazy time, and there are ample routes to take until the sun rises. But as I’ve stated before, the Chinese seem to favor restaurants rather than bars, so it’s mostly Westerners bellying up at local watering holes.

So, where to go? If you just stroll around aimlessly you’re likely going to stumble upon some pretty seedy and often empty establishments. In the corner you might find an old and decrepit Dutch guy making out with a young Chinese girl. Then chances are another young lady will try to get you to play this weird dice game and buy her drinks. She will be nice and for 30 minutes it will be a tolerable, if not an innocently pleasant experience. But it doesn’t take long to figure out you’re in the wrong place. Many bars in Shanghai are known as “lady bars,” inhabited mainly by bankers and prostitutes. I will say the prostitutes are good for chatting to practice your Chinese skills, as they are among the only English speakers you’ll meet in the street. However, I wouldn’t recommend using them for anything else. 

Other places that are popular are nightclubs. These are giant discos playing awful techno music while selling expensive drinks on cheesy theme nights. Not for me, but lots of people swear they’re amazingly fun. If you like dressing up and dancing, you will be more than pleased, as the Shanghai scene seems pretty fertile and draws big-name DJs from Europe.

Then there’s the karaoke. Private karaoke rooms are extremely popular with Chinese and with foreigners (think businessmen). In Shanghai alone there are about 10,000 such private karaoke rooms, better known locally as KTVs. Most have open bars, but there’s a catch: prostitutes! They bring in the ladies, line-up style, and you have to choose one. It’s all very humiliating, but it’s what the bands my company brings in always want to do. We present them with lists of places to go and sights to see. We try to emphasize other avenues of entertainment, like amazing restaurants, or local bands. When we offer karaoke as an option, we quietly mumble “with prostitutes,” hoping they won’t hear correctly. But we almost always end up at karaoke. At least I get to practice my Chinese — and take potential blackmail photos with my cell phone.

Then there’s the “rock” scene. Cheap drinks, shitty bars, loud music, ah, I’m home. The rock scene is so small in Shanghai it’s like Frisbee Field in Cherokee Park circa 1995. If you were in high school in the mid-’90s, remember that one summer when every night, everyone you knew congregated at the field? You never had to call anyone. That’s what it’s like. I know where everyone will be by simply perusing a local events calendar. Being the new guy, it’s nice not to have to bug people I don’t really know by asking where they’re going night after night. I just show up and they can think I have a clue. (Note: I know my generation hardly discovered “The Field,” but we rocked it out pretty hard.)

So that is Shanghai nightlife in a nutshell. There’s also a plethora of classy little wine bars the Mrs. and I check out from time to time. Anyone can find pretty much whatever they’re into, whether it’s karaoke and call girls or thumping techno and pricey cocktails. It’s probably worth noting that prostitution is illegal here, and I’m sure any Chinese person would object to my portrayal of their lovely, amazing city. It’s just that until you know where you’re going, you will end up in some seriously shady spots. Having said that, I’ll bet the tourism board sees a spike in male visitors from Kentucky, ages 30-60. 


Contact the writer at 

citystrobe@leoweekly.com