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The Paramount reborn: A living legend of old and new Shanghai

Ma Jun

Ma Jun

EDITOR’S note:

Shanghai’s iconic Paramount Dance Hall reopens to the public tomorrow after a three-year overhaul. Shanghai Daily interviewed Ma Jun, senior researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an expert on the Paramount, about the myths surrounding the dance hall and what it means for today’s Shanghai. Ma is also the author of three books pertinent to the Paramount.

Q: The Paramount was an iconic dance hall in pre-1949 Shanghai. But it actually started as both a hotel and a ballroom. Why was the Paramount as a hotel not as famous?

Ma Jun: Although the Paramount was first registered as a hotel, it was actually a second- or third-rate hotel. Its suites and rooms were exquisitely decorated, but there were only 25 of them in all. The limited scale of its operation paled in comparison to more established competitors like the Cathay Hotel (Today’s Peace Hotel).

Although a few celebrities preferred to stay at the Paramount whenever they visited Shanghai, most notably the deceased Hong Kong actress Chan Wan-Seung, the Paramount hotel business did not flourish.

Q: What role did the Paramount play in the history of old Shanghai’s nightlife and mass entertainment?

Ma Jun: To begin with, Shanghai before the 1940s was the largest city in the Far East, far eclipsing Tokyo and Hong Kong then in opulence. Entertainment was one of the city’s most important businesses and dance halls were one of the two pillars of entertainment, the other being cinema.

At that time, the Paramount was the leading dance hall, along with the Ciro’s Dancing Palace, the Lido Garden Ballroom, and the Metropole Garden & Ballroom (Together known as the Big Four). The Paramount stood out among them for several reasons.

One, it was the first Chinese-run dance hall that opened to Chinese. Before that, high-end clubs and entertainment establishments were mostly foreign-owned and off limits to Chinese.

Second, the Paramount was furnished with the finest materials and amenities. Its floorboards, kitchenware, toilets, pipes and carpets were the finest even by world standards. Besides, there was a copious variety of entertainment on offer, to say the least, which attracted a lot of curious customers. Of course, the Paramount is legendary also because it was graced by the presence of many dignitaries.

The Paramount even became famous overseas. Following the advice of his friend Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin made a point of spending half a day at the Paramount during his brief stopover in Shanghai in 1936.

Another thing that made the Paramount famous is that it was the birthplace of the first all-Chinese jazz band led by Jimmy King. At the beginning, the Paramount employed Filipino jazz bands, as they were thought to be the most skilled. This continued until Jimmy King came along with a band that upstaged the Filipinos.

Q: We often see Paramount being depicted as a risque and decadent place in popular fiction or TV dramas about wartime Shanghai. An implicit message seems to be that the Paramount represented an unduly festive spirit amid the war. Is that true?

Ma Jun: The Paramount may have received more than its fair share of TV bias because it was the prime symbol of all entertainment activity in wartime Shanghai. As a matter of fact, there were 100 plus dance halls and ballrooms in Shanghai before 1949.

The cinematic depiction of the Paramount as a decadent place is a little kitschy. There of course were decadent dancers who earned money through sex, but the dancers were actually multi-faceted figures. Indeed, when the war broke out, a few Paramount dancers did all they could to help the refugees.

And the same can be said of old Shanghai. To a certain extent, Shanghai was an oversized Paramount and the Paramount was a slice of Shanghai.

Q: There is a gap between the reality and myth of Paramount. Why that?

Ma Jun: Indeed, there is a misguided perception held by many that the Paramount was the stamping ground of the filthy rich. But a fact unknown to them is that the dance hall for a long time was a loss-making business, always struggling to break even financially.

It changed hands several times, and barely managed to stay afloat.

The popular depiction of the Paramount as a paradise of the rich may not be entirely correct. In the initial days after its opening, the Paramount did advertise itself as an expensive club for the bourgeoisie class, something that was made clear by its first manager Austrian-born Joe Farren.

But this proved unsuccessful commercially. Later, after a change of ownership, a host of less refined yet inexpensive features were added to the Paramount’s business, such as cabaret, and later dancers could be “rented” at a certain rate.

And what happened at Paramount was part of a greater trend.

In the 30s, to survive the competition brought about by a proliferation of new dance halls, the Paramount could not but try to woo customers with cheaper admission, and admission eventually became free in the 1940s.

Q: What is your expectation for the newly renovated Paramount?

Ma Jun: It is said that the dance hall has been restored to its 1930s grandeur, with pictures, decorations and objects meant to impress visitors with a vibe of the 1930s Shanghai.

In my opinion, it’s relatively easy to restore the façade of the Paramount, but harder to revive the Zeitgeist of the 30s or 40s.

With their dazzling neon lights and the Westernized lifestyle they represent, dance halls are often construed as a symbol of Shanghai’s modernity. Can the Paramount still symbolize that modernity now?

I can understand that the city’s decision to renovate the Paramount is part of its bid to burnish its time-honored cultural brands and enrich the citizens’ cultural life. But we are living in an age of diversity, where the TV, cinema and the Internet are all competing for attention. Can the Paramount promote a new, cherished lifestyle for millions?

Can it satisfy their need for modern nightlife? What does it have to offer that is avant-garde? The challenges are myriad.

For me, the Paramount is simply a historical relic, a legacy. Renovation will give it a new face, to be sure, but what is more needed in my view are seminars, museums and exhibitions that chronicle its history, so that today’s and the future generations will have a better idea of how life had been for their ancestors.

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