By James Jeffrey
The bartender poured and the lemon peel danced in the cocktail glass, as a six-piece jazz band played “Shanghai at Night”—a tune all the rage in the 1930s—for an audience seeking a sense of Old Shanghai.
If anyone could deliver, it’s the Old Jazz Band. Known throughout Shanghai and beyond, the band—average age of 75 years old—has played the famous Peace Hotel over parts of four decades.
Today, Shanghai is known as a city of the future. Seen through the window of its Pudong district it features a cityscape like something out of the science fiction film “Blade Runner.” But Shanghai is also known for a glamorous past that continues to fascinate imaginations—a time of adventure, entrepreneurship and dazzling style during the 1930s. This period is epitomized by the Peace Hotel, located at the corner of Nanjing Road and the Bund and overlooking the Huangpu River. On most nights, the Old Jazz Band is to be found playing in the hotel’s plushly outfitted bar.
The band formed in 1980 after the Cultural Revolution’s limitations on public musical performances had dissolved. Now only one member of that original band remains: saxophonist Sun Jibing, 77. The others have either retired or died, inviting new members such as 70-year-old Jia Xue Tai, playing the second saxophone, to join in.
A city like Shanghai can regenerate itself—as Pudong attests—but it’s another matter as to how much it can recapture the spirit of yesteryear, even with the best efforts of the Old Jazz Band.
“What the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald called ‘The Jazz Age’ was the time of the decade-long party that has become an image of old Shanghai,” read the first page of the Jazz Bar’s cocktail menu, a point echoed by the bar’s manager Sheng Feng, before the band came on stage.
“Young people come and say their grandparents told them, ‘Don’t forget to visit the Peace Hotel and the Jazz Bar,’” he said. “It’s a very famous jazz bar. Everything is original from 1929.”
Originally called the Cathay Hotel, the establishment opened within the International Settlement in 1929 and was owned by Sir Victor Sassoon, a British property and finance tycoon with a passion for the high life and known for throwing fabulous parties and flamboyant costume balls.
When the Chinese Communist Party took control of Shanghai in 1949 after the civil war, the hotel’s clientele base dwindled, forcing it to close down in 1952. The CCP officed out of the building thereafter, but by 1956 foreigners began returning to Shanghai as diplomatic relations between the CCP and the West improved.
The hotel reopened in 1956 as the Peace Hotel in recognition of the 1956 World Peace Conference held in Beijing.
“The Peace Hotel prior to 2007 was historically significant,” said the hotel Director of Rooms Arthur Wong. “But unfortunately it had become run down, so renovations restored it to the grandeur of the 1930s.”
On a recent June evening, the Old Jazz Band, with their catalog of 500 songs, had plenty of options for evoking an era. While they played, requests from the audience scribbled on pieces of paper given to and delivered by the wait staff, piled up in front of 73-year-old pianist Zhang Jinyu.
“If I stayed at home, I wouldn’t have anything to do,” said Zhang, who joined the band 11 years ago. “I’ve played the piano all my life.”
Zhang said he couldn’t perform publicly during the Cultural Revolution so he had to get a normal weekday job. But the weekends, he said, were spent practicing his craft in hidden locations.
Sun added that if he didn’t play he’d get bored. He also teaches the saxophone to students in the morning. Although the longest serving member of the band, he isn’t the oldest. That’s 83-year-old drummer Tang Sheng Long.
Every table in the bar was full as the wait staff—matched in pin-striped trousers and waistcoats over white shirts—wove in and out of the crowd carrying silver trays loaded with Sidecars, Daiquiris, Manhattans and other drinks.
“Because Shanghai has changed a lot, I wanted to find some of that old feeling,” said Lin Chia Hui, in her forties and visiting from Taipei in Taiwan on business. “To find something representative of the quality of Shanghai—this jazz bar and hotel suggest that Shanghai.”
The Jazz Bar is on the ground floor of the hotel, along with the lobby and atrium that were restored to their original 1929 look during the 2007-2010 renovation, for a price tag of $64 million. The guest rooms that rise 10 floors above the bar have been renovated numerous times since the hotel was built.
“You can’t just stick to the old things of the 1930s,” said Martin Ma, who has worked at the hotel for 46 years after starting as an 18-year-old lift assistant in 1964, and is now director of the hotel’s museum. He explained customers expect their rooms to have certain facilities and if the hotel didn’t renovate the rooms it couldn’t compete with newer hotels.
He added the areas of Shanghai like Xintiandi and Tianzifang, restored to look as they did in the 1930s, don’t reflect the true culture of Shanghai, as it is now—a dynamic, modern city.
“It’s destiny that new things will emerge and replace the old things,” Ma said, “because of the great development of society.”