Shanghai: Funny what you notice when you’re a foreigner.

Posted by Bao on Thursday, January 5th, 2006
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Funny what you notice when you’re a foreigner. For example, my utterly random mental rolodex filed away this keeper: of all the American songs you have heard in Juarez and Shanghai, the only American musical artist you’ve heard in both cities has been Lil’ John. In Juarez, blaring from a Hummer that blurred past your vision as if the driver was singing to himself the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire, we don’t need no water let me drive fast enough to see the mother burn. In Shanghai, Lil’ John’s crunk beats and yapping vocals radiate quietly from Sarah’s sound system as we talk, the music sounding somehow absurd when delegated to such low levels.

Sarah’s story will be one of the main narrative arcs of this project in Shanghai, and we met her for the first time today in her boutique. Her small store sells mostly PNB clothing, and suspiciously many of the women’s clothes that she has in stock are in petite sizes that appear as if they would fit her particularly well - a suspicion made stronger during a break in our conversation, wherein she tries on a bunch of her own inventory. She is a promoter and organizer of hip Shanghai events, in one of the founders of (a website devoted to information and connections on youth events in the city), and also a singer who is working on her debut album. Sarah is very open, intelligent, thoughtful, and pretty - and has a wonderful singing voice. Our conversation flows refreshingly easily, and I am pleasantly surprised to hear her say she would not want to live in the U.S., because she believes that America does not treat Chinese like human beings. At last! I think to myself, here is someone from outside the United States that understands and talks about racism in America. It was a tremendously validating moment for me.

Later on I walk around the city and come upon more places where broken and charred remnants of buildings stand in the foreground while the imposing sight of giant skyscrapers form a gauntlet in the background. Let the mother burn, indeed. I don’t like these words - progress, development. I settle for change. I guess we all end up dealing with change.

I take a cab back to the hotel and on the back of the driver’s seat is an advertisement for a posh VIP lounge and club in Shanghai. Of the 18 people pictured in the ad, 9 are Asian women, 2 are Black men, 3 are white women, 3 are white men, and 1 is an Arab man. Funny that a dance club in Shanghai would feature no Asian men at all. As an Asian man in America, I’m used to being left out of the whole United Colors of Benetton multicultural quilt thing - and the whole feminization of the East positioned to masculinize the West (colonialism 101, y’all). But damn, being invisible in a country where Asian men are the majority? Damn, makes me want to punch Nicolas Cage in the mouth.

In the late evening, we head off to the ultra hip Pegasus, a club where V-Nutz will be spinning hip hop and reggae. The place slowly fills up with young Shanghai youth decked out in faux-fur lined jackets and baggy pants, fuzzy hats and tight jeans, sneakers and heels; tables of ABCs who perhaps predictably seem to be caught in a space between comfortably belonging like the local Chinese and sticking out like a sore thumb like the Caucasian expatriates. I meet some very cool peeps: Sarah introduces me to an energetic, charismatic Shanghainese MC who flows in the local tongue - apparently many Shanghainese musical artists sing and rap in Mandarin because Shanghainese is such a specific dialect - and the pioneering b-boy of Shanghai, a tall and lanky fellow who is immediately friendly to us and gives me, shall we say, a small gift that reminds me that some aspects of the hip hop lifestyle are universal.

V-Nutz is widely regarded as the best hip-hop DJ in Shanghai, and he has a strong following. He does his reputation justice as he works the crowd, mixing popular hits by artists like Jay-Z and Snoop with somewhat lesser known artists like Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli, as well as spinning a couple of older favorites by Biggie and some reggae tunes. The dance floor fills up as he rocks the wheels and the crowd is starting to make more and more noise, more and more hands are thrown in the air when folks recognize the beginning of their favorite jam blaring from the speakers, more hips climb up and down and elbows and knees get elastic, feet get spastic. Sarah drags me to the dance floor, and yes I feel it: a club filled mostly with Asian people dancing with no drama, the energy is high and the vibe is strong. Maybe you’ve worked all day, maybe you snuck out hoping your parents won’t notice you’re gone, maybe you just got back into town after visiting your significant other in some far off place where they unceremoniously dumped your ass, it doesn’t matter, here all the languages become the same: you speak by the way you dance.The music is pumping, the DJ knows how to get your ass on the floor and keep you there, and you feel free to dance amongst your beautiful fellow Asian people without feeling like some stupid ass shit is about to pop off. There are not a lot of times when life is like this. But when it is? We don’t need no water, let the mother burn. And you’ll find yellow-brown skinned people, black hair blending into the darkness, Asian and knowing we’re beautiful, dancing like flames, and I dare you to try and put us out.

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