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April 8, 2011

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Author dancing through city's history

ANDREW Field, a 40-year-old American scholar, is so obsessed with Chinese history and culture that he published a book about a specific aspect of it last year.

The book, "Shanghai's Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919-1954," provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the entertainment venues that once played an important role in the development of the most famous - and infamous - of China's treaty ports. It is widely regarded to be packed with fascinating information and attests on every page to his understanding of Shanghai's history.

"No one has studied the rise and fall of those cabarets more extensively than Andrew Field," wrote Lynn Pan, author of "Sons of the Yellow Emperor," in her review of the book.

With his serious and passionate attitudes on academic research, Field is now preparing his second book which will focus on the city's dance culture in more recent times.

Field, a professor of Chinese history and culture with New York University in Shanghai, studied Chinese in Taiwan for several months before he made his first trip to the mainland in 1988.

"I wanted to see the real China, so I took three months traveling all over the country," says Field.

His first visit in Shanghai took one week, though Field was sick at the time and didn't get to see much of the city.

"It was totally different from today," recalls Field. "It seemed that the city had frozen in time. All the buildings were from the 1920s and 1930s. The tallest building at the time was the Park Hotel."

Field returned in 1997 and stayed for two years to carry out his PhD dissertation research, which became the basis of his book. Now he can speak perfect Chinese with accurate pronunciation and a rich vocabulary.

"Shanghai is a lovely city - exciting and modern - a dynamic place for people to realize their ambitions and dreams, fascinating to live in and research. It's the most convenient city in China for foreigners," says Field, who made his decision to remain here permanently in 2008.

Compared with Australia, where he once lived and taught in Sydney, Field says Shanghai is "the center of the world."

He tags the city as a "lodestone" attracting very interesting people from around the globe.

"Almost every week people visit me here from all over the world," he notes.

It's a city of contradiction, with different layers of social classes. And this multi-layering is one of the most attractive features in Field's eyes.

"Europeans find a lot of connections with their own cultures from here as they can find a big part of their history from such places as the former French concession," says Field.

His book covers the rise of cabaret culture in Shanghai from the early 1920s, describing how China learned to dance to the beat of the jazz.

"The topic is a complicated one - dancing here was not just picked up. It talks about social dancing and partner dancing," he says.

His book also looks in great depth at the generational conflicts between old and young people on the acceptance of this social event - where men and women made physical contact while dancing; feudalization; freedom of choice on dating and marriage; the liberation of women, with much focus on the dance hostess; and how the cabaret industry was challenged by the local government.

The second book Field is working on is to be called "Shanghai Nightscapes." It picks up where "Shanghai's Dancing World" ends and looks at the city's dancing culture right up until the present day. The book is planned to be published in one year's time, and Field is writing it in cooperation with history and culture scholar James Farrer.

Cross-cultural contact between the Chinese and foreigners will be an important topic in the upcoming book.

"Compared with the 1920s and 1930s, Chinese people today can speak fluent English and foreigners can also communicate in Chinese," Field states.

He calls today's Shanghai a "contact zone" where foreigners and Chinese people are coming together, and the nightclub is a key place for them to do this. Achieving equality, interracial marriage and relative social topics in modern China will be widely researched.

From his extensive research on nightclub culture in the early 20th century, Field has his own understanding on today's modern urban culture.

"The young people in today's nightclubs are new capitalists. They are the new money makers, the new-rich wannabes, who see the nightclub as a place to show their faces and try to fulfill their desires," he says, mentioning the word bao fa hu (nouveau riche) several times.

Field says he enjoys the modern lifestyle here, but not the bao fa hu.

He has taught Chinese history for the University of Puget Sound, University of New South Wales, Dartmouth College and now New York University in Shanghai.

Busy with his teaching work and academic research, Field says it's the most valuable thing in his life.

"Many people have invited me to be involved in some businesses to earn money. I know it's good but I am too busy and I don't have a good business brain," says Field, laughing.

Field loves music, especially jazz, so his favorite place in Shanghai is around the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He is studying the jazz piano and hopes more people will go to the jazz clubs and theaters to listen to live music, rather than only singing in karaoke bars.

"I also suggest people go out to dance and not only to drink alcohol in the clubs," adds Field.

"We don't need more shopping malls, but need to raise the quality of life and environment to make Shanghai a real international city," he says.

Andrew Field

Nationality: United States

Age: 40

Profession: Professor of Chinese history and culture




Favorite place:

Former French concession, especially around the Shanghai Conservatory of Music on Fenyang Road.

Strangest sight:

Nothing. Now everything here looks reasonable to me.

Worst experience:

Driving in rush-hour traffic.

Motto for life:

Embrace your passion.

How to improve Shanghai:

More parks; more green paths (an emerald chain to connect different areas in Shanghai); less developer greed; more efforts on building international universities like NYU.

Advice to newcomers: Support live music; go out to dance to support dancing.


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