THE Paramount, the legendary ballroom of the Orient in the early 20th century, reopens its doors today after a three-year renovation, stirring old memories.
“It has been years since I last saw the huge gates of the Paramount,” says 63-year-old Wang Ying, a retiree living nearby. “It has been hidden behind scaffolding for so long.”
Chen Jiankang, 67, who lives two blocks away, remembers watching movies at the Paramount when was turned into a cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It was called the Hongdu Cinema, and it was a popular destination,” recalls Chen.
The Paramount, located at the intersection of Yuyuan and Wanhangdu roads, was a glamorous venue for high society in the 1930s. It was later converted into a cinema, and then a nightclub. Most recently, it was a dance hall in 2002.
Most of the original interior features of the Paramount have been restored during the renovation. Photos of celebrities of the 1930s adorn the walls.
The Art Deco Paramount, known in Chinese as Bai Le Men or Gates of 100 Pleasures, was one of the largest and perhaps the most luxurious venues in the era before 1949. Shanghai was then known as the “Paris of the East” for its Western-style buildings and lifestyle.
After the popular Dahua Hotel closed in 1929, the Paramount became the place to go. It was built on property purchased by Chinese businessman Gu Liancheng.
Opened in 1932, the Paramount astonished visitors with its luxury facilities, including dazzling lighting under a glass floor that changed colors, an advanced air system, a huge ballroom with no pillars and “spring” floors that provided a unique new dancing experience. A giant glass tower projected car license plate numbers to inform drivers that customers were ready for pickup.
In its heyday, politicians, tycoons and adventurers of all kinds flocked to the building. The grandson of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) minister Sheng Xuanhuai held his wedding there. Its fame also attracted celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Kuomintang General Zhang Xueliang and legendary poet Xu Zhimo.
Beautiful dance hostesses plied the Paramount.
Wang’s mother, who worked as a dance hostess, met her future husband at the Paramount in the 1930s. As the eldest daughter of a family with five children, she worked as a hostess to help support a poor family. She gave up dancing when she met a surgeon who swept her off her feet.
“She married him quickly and became a nurse,” says Wang. “I still remember her dancing with my father sometimes at home, even in their later years. They were probably reliving the era when love blossomed.”
Not all dance hostesses had such luck.
Chen Manli, one of the most popular hostesses of the era, was murdered by a gunman in the club in 1940 while drinking with two customers. It was commonly believed that she was killed because she had once refused to dance with Japanese officers during the occupation of Shanghai.
Another version of the story holds that Chen was a secret spy in charge of collecting information about the Japanese.
In a departure from the foreign bands that dominated the music scene in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, the Paramount also hosted the premiere of one of China’s earliest Chinese jazz bands.
The legendary local musician Jimmy King and his 11-member band hit the scene in 1947, playing programs of Western and Chinese music.
The band was comprised of three brasses, three saxophones, a piano, a bass and a set of drums.
King always kept up to date with the latest jazz scores from the United States, according to Zheng Deren, who is now in his 90s and played bass with the band at the Paramount from 1947 to 1952. He is the only remaining member of the ensemble still alive.
“We were nattily dressed every night and performed with five female vocalists,” Zheng recalls. “The band was very popular.”
Zheng says he earned a monthly income equal to between 3,000-5,000 yuan (US$435-725) today. He supplemented that by playing with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.
He says he met many celebrities while playing at the Paramount, like “Golden Voice” Zhou Xuan and Li Xianglan, or Shirley Yamaguchi.
Zheng later was part of the famous jazz band at the Peace Hotel in the 1980s.
“People said that they saw the prosperity of old Shanghai in us,” he said. “What we are witnessing now is a brand-new Shanghai.”
According to the cultural authority of the Jing’an District, the three-year renovation of the 3,700-square-meter Paramount building cost about 120 million yuan (US$17.4 million).
“There was flaking rust on steel bars when I entered the building,” says engineer Chen Zhongwei, who was in charge of the renovation project. “We referred to many historic photos to copy the original look. We removed the billboard and rebuilt the Art Deco tower.”
The new Paramount now serves as a heritage attraction and an up-market entertainment and dining venue. Visitors can pay to dance, have drinks and meals, and watch stage performances. The site will no longer be reserved for the wealthy, but rather cater to all social classes. Free activities will be held, according to Chen Hong, director of Jing’an’s cultural authority.
“Residents will have the opportunity for free dancing lessons,” she says, citing one example. “We also plan other activities that reflect Shanghai’s cultural heritage.”