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Searching for Space and Place at Shanghai Club ALL

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Point & Shoot Perspectives is a guest column by Tea Haus, centered around point-and-shoot club photography and interviews with everyday Chinese clubgoers.

Getting to ALL feels like a journey. Many people start their nights elsewhere in Shanghai, whether it’s nightlife complex FOUND158 a short trek up the road, or the eclectic roadside liquor store 624ChangLe just down the block. The venue lies inconspicuously in the middle of a street filled with bars and restaurants, out of sight on the second floor of a building where the only signage outside belongs to Perry’s, a notorious student dive bar with locations across the city. The main indicator that there is something else that is definitely not just a Perry’s is the crowd hanging around outside, a mix of in-your-face-trendy Chinese youth chatting in groups, cigs and beers in hand.

Past the crowd and up the stairs, you get to the actual entrance of the club. Inside, it feels as if you’re being led along a winding path, taking you through each part of the venue until you reach the main attraction. Walk past the coat check, take a right, and you get to the bar. Walk a little further, and you’re in the UV-lit lounge area. A step to the left, and you suddenly find yourself in a dark tunnel, the only visibility coming from the other end where wild looping visualizers on the wall and rainbow LEDs on the DJ controller illuminate the faces of patrons, enraptured like moths drawn to light.

Live electronic production resonates throughout the narrow tunnel and is absorbed by the padded interior, creating a pulsating sensation that is expansive yet contained. With rows of swaying people facing the conductor of this sound, the scene is practically religious.

Indeed, beyond the physical journey of getting to ALL, there also seems to be a spiritual one that unites its attendees. ALL is popular with my friends in Shanghai, most of whom work in some type of creative industry. They embody an ethos that is fundamentally off the beaten path, but increasingly prevalent with Shanghai’s youth: an identity that often runs counter to the changing dynamics of the city.

Many of them were regulars at Shelter, a particularly underground nightclub (located in an actual old bomb shelter) that shut down in 2017. In essence, ALL has sprung up in its place. With ALL’s progressive tastes and uniquely designed enclosures, it’s easy to see how it might serve as a new refuge for Shanghai’s alternative crowd.

On the night I’m there, it has been exactly two years since ALL’s establishment, and the energy in the club is higher than I’ve ever felt it in the few times I’ve been before. It feels like everyone has come to pay respect to the place, bringing together a community of creatives who all seem to know each other to one degree or another. I arrive with a small group of people from mixed-heritage backgrounds, some of whom I just met earlier in the night. Inside, I bump into another person I only recently got introduced to, a member of the underground-driven Shanghai Community Radio (SHCR) team.

After a celebratory night commemorating ALL’s two-year anniversary, I spoke with a couple of these people about their impressions of the place, and the meaning of club culture at large.

Sam Lu

I work at SHCR and also work on music on the side. I enjoy a wide range of music, ranging from traditional to club, experimental to pop. I’m interested in exploring my background as a Chinese-Canadian living in China through experimental electronic music and thinking about alternate futurities.

What brought you to ALL? Who were you with? Do you go often?

ALL was opened up as the continuation of Shelter in Shanghai. It was opened by the same owners and continued on with the same type of bookings: eclectic and forward-thinking underground electronic music. I was able to catch the tail end of Shelter, having come to Shanghai in the Fall of 2017. Knowing very few people here prior to coming to Shanghai, I quickly connected with many people with similar music tastes, leading me to go to Shelter and then ALL quite often.

What is your impression of the space? The audio, the visuals, the style? How does it compare to other spaces you’ve experienced?

I guess the biggest point of comparison would be Shelter. As opposed to Shelter, which was housed literally in an old bomb shelter, ALL is a lot sleeker, losing a lot of the grimier aspects. The aesthetic direction was designed by Kim Laughton, known both in and out of Shanghai for his CGI artwork.

What is electronic music to you? What is its culture?

Electronic music is basically anything made on a computer, made or altered digitally. But that would include a lot of modern music in general so it’s hard to say, I guess.

Electronic dance music (not EDM) as a type of music, however, has its roots in both Germany and America, without either of which we would not have club music as it exists today. Black music producers in America were inspired by the use of electronic sounds coming out of Germany at the time (Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream), and made it their own, appropriating those sounds into the long lineage of African diasporic dance music. The use of these sounds was inspired by their own material conditions right before the decline of industrialization in the American Midwest (Detroit techno, Chicago house).

Due to Stateside racism, this music was never given a chance to break into the mainstream like hip hop (associated with lower-class hetero-normative Blackness, as opposed to the middle-class Blackness of Detroit techno or the queered Black and Latino aspect of Chicago house). But it was picked up back in Europe, where they were impressed by the reworked danceability of the music. Hence, techno and house music, despite their origins as Black American music forms, became associated with Europeans.

Then there’s the influence of Jamaican music, especially dub music, which relied heavily on processed instrumentation and percussion, using highly creative experimental techniques, which impacted the British music scene due to the large Jamaican diaspora there. This resulted in Garage, 2-step, Dubstep, Drum n Bass, and Grime coming out of the UK. These are the roots of the “electronic music”, or club music, that we see at spaces like ALL.

What is culture? Well that’s a lot more complicated of a question that I don’t think I can quite answer very responsibly right now. But I think a good question to start a fruitful conversation with is: “What is the purpose of culture?”

As someone working closely with music, how do you view its role in your communities?

Music is a communal thing. It brings people together, sharing emotions. The dancefloor creates a sense of belonging, even if you’re not talking to anyone.

What do you think is the future of electronic music in Shanghai? In China?

With clubs being the constant site of shutdowns and crackdowns, it’s hard to say. A lot of club kids are trying to leave the country for more permissive pastures, which are invariably in the West. Many can’t leave. This isn’t to harp against the government here — the system is just different out here, with a different approach to power (less co-option of counterculture or subcultures as soft power in the international realm).

But club music is about an escape at the end of the day, to let loose and express yourself physically. There will always be some outlet for that, no matter what direction things go here. Plus, club culture is relatively new, so it’ll be interesting to see more and more localization of the music, having kids express themselves with the music they produce here.

When it comes to club culture, what are your values? What do you value?

Hard to say, but it’s about a certain freedom from mainstream values and aesthetics, which isn’t to say that there isn’t a quite obvious aesthetic amongst club kids, haha. But an acceptance for certain alternative aesthetics and living styles. I think it’s important to remember that club music is the result of marginalized people finding an escape from a culture that deems them unfit for the daytime world (queer Black/Indigenous people especially were the first to create and also innovate on club music as we know it today).

What role do clubs play in the lives of you and your friends? What do they mean to you?

For me it’s a space to meet like-minded people, people who have ideas about the society they live in and wish to impact it somehow. For many of us, it’s a space of release, sometimes overly hedonistic. Nothing is perfect. You can find Utopia in certain moments.

As an international, how do you view your position in the subculture of places like ALL?

As someone who grew up in the West, I’m much more able to navigate these spaces with fluency. I already have my preconceived notions of what these places are, colored by my knowledge of its histories. But I try to avoid pushing my own cultural background on this as much as possible and understand how local kids came into this. Being also Chinese culturally in my family background, there is actually a lot I can relate to with the local kids and how they got into this music, since most of my early forays into club music was through the internet, much like them.

What, if anything, would you change about electronic music or club culture in Shanghai?

Not really my place I feel — I just want to push it forward. Before, it was a lot more expat-dominated, but more and more local kids are taking over. I do wish there were more Chinese-language resources on the history of this music and its context, and so that’s why a big part of SHCR for me is doing interviews with artists. It’s not an in-your-face thing, but more something to slip in.

Jenny Wang

I’m Jenny Wang. From Melbourne but am now based in London. I’ve participated in the Melbourne club scene since I was 18 and have worked in the industry helping run events for over a year. I now run events in London platforming East Asian and Southeast Asian artists with a crew. I have also worked with music labels around Europe. Sometimes I write articles critiquing the music industry and do radio shows as well discussing issues that marginalized people in the industry go through.

What brought you to Shanghai and, in particular, ALL? Have you been before?

I grew up in Shanghai as a kid and have family here, so I visit every year or so. I used to really like going to Shelter and when it closed, I heard ALL opened in its place. Tzusing is one of my favorite DJs, so last time I was in Shanghai (almost 2 years ago) I went to go see him play at ALL. I had a great time and had been wanting to go back since.

What was your impression of the space? The audio, the visuals, the style? How does it compare to other spaces you’ve experienced?

ALL is one of the best venues I’ve been to. I like how the dancefloor has an underground kind of bunker vibe to it, but there’s also a nice bar and space to chill out.

I’ve been to many venues in Melbourne, Sydney, Berlin, Paris, Zurich and London, and would say ALL definitely is one of my favorites. The decor gives it the same intensity as a lot of underground venues I’ve been to, such as OHM and Tresor — it’s very cool. The sound system is great, and I especially like how the visuals provide most of the lighting on the dancefloor. Most venues just have lights/lasers coming off the ceiling, which I feel can be a bit tacky sometimes.

What is electronic music to you? What is its culture?

To me, electronic music is very vast. There are multitudes of genres ranging from Ambient, House, and Techno to Dungeon Synth, PC Music and other experimental genres. So many new sounds are coming up all around the world every day. Pretty much, if it isn’t produced predominantly by standalone instruments, then it’s electronic to me.

The culture of electronic music varies. I’ve done radio shows where I’ve talked about the history of electronic music and how it originated in the ’80s in Chicago with House music. Back then the culture was mainly made up of LGBTQI POC who created House music for their underground parties at The Warehouse. They created a movement which has spread around the world. The culture is different everywhere I go: different genres and sounds, different energies on dancefloors. However, there is one thing in common that all these cultures have, and that is that the music is played to bring people together.

What should an ideal club always have? What should its vibe be?

I’ve always said, “music is for everyone.” Everyone should feel included and safe to express themselves freely on the dancefloor. I’ve been clubbing for over seven years, and have spent a few years working in the industry running club nights. From my experience, a club can be on point with its lineup and venue and you can be out with your favorite people, but if you don’t feel safe in the space then the vibe is completely ruined. I’ve had too many nights over the years completely ruined because I was harassed/assaulted on the dancefloor. Or I’ve had to leave events early with friends because someone was homophobic towards them. Obviously, it is impossible for clubs to make sure every patron they allow into the venue is going to be chill, but the least they can do is make sure they have some sort of “safer space policy.”

Currently I run club nights in London with a collective called Eastern Margins. A “safer space policy” is something we push with each of our events. We make it clear that we have zero tolerance for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other problematic behavior. The way we enforce it is we make sure our patrons know that if there is anything that makes them uncomfortable on the night, or if they feel excluded from being able to express themselves, then they can either speak to myself or anyone in our collective and we will resolve the issue the best we can, as quickly as possible.

This way everyone, especially marginalized people, can feel more secure about themselves at our events, and it just creates a better vibe all around.

From your experience in this industry, what is something that the typical participant might not be aware of?

I feel like the typical participant never really thinks about how much time and money go into running club nights. There’s a lot of work involved, from organizing the lineup and working with venues to getting the artwork for social media promotion sorted. As much as I always wanted to give people free entries to my events, if I did, they would literally be taking money out of my pocket. But if I said no, I’d be met with a very disgruntled response.

If you like a club night and want it to keep going, support it as much as you can! Help with promoting, pay the door charge, bring people along, spread the word. These nights can only run because people are putting in a lot of time and money to make it what it is. Without support, they go under very quickly.

What role do clubs play in the lives of you and your friends? What do they mean to you?

Clubs have been a big part of my late teen, mid-20s life. I was a bit of an outcast in high school, so as soon as school finished, I moved to the city to make a new life for myself. I found a home in the club scene in Melbourne and made a lot of friends in the scene. Most of my friends today are people I’ve met in the industry. They’re promoters, DJs, producers, etc. Some of my friends depend on clubs for their livelihood — it pays their bills.

For me, it’s more of a hobby. I like going out and I like working in the industry, so I do what I can outside of my regular job. Recently, I found out that one of my favorite clubs back in Melbourne has been closed because of gentrification, and even though I Ieft that city two years ago, I do feel a little empty inside thinking about how I can never return to that venue again.

As an international, how do you view your position in the subculture of places like ALL?

The subculture of ALL to me is fresh, new, and exciting. It’s not as pretentious as a lot of Western scenes who have a longer history of underground music. Those scenes tend to be very, “this is the music we play and this is how we dress, and if you don’t look the part then you stand out like a sore thumb.” What I love about ALL is how diverse the music and the people are, yet everyone is able to come together and have a good time.

Shanghai is also a very international city these days, so I feel like the subculture would have a lot of influences from all around the world. I wouldn’t say I contribute much to the subculture of ALL, though. I’m not present enough, and have only been a few times. I am definitely more of a participant. However, I do genuinely appreciate the culture that’s been created and how welcoming it is for me to be able to experience it.

What, if anything, would you change about club culture in Shanghai?

I feel like club culture in Shanghai is still quite new. I mean, if you look at the history of China, it just didn’t have the same openness with underground music as the West did. There was no disco movement in China, there was nothing like the ’90s rave culture of the UK going on anywhere in the East. The Shanghai scene is still relatively new, and I feel like it’s definitely still working itself out.

Obviously, what I would love to change is to remove the obstacles that club culture has to face from strict government policies. A few people I’ve spoken to who call ALL their home are worried it’ll get shut down. If there was also a way for me to help the Shanghai scene receive more funding so it can expand, that would be great too. As for the music and the energy people are bringing, I think it’s great, and would love to see how it pans out. I have high hopes for club culture in Shanghai. I really think it could turn into something very special.

Read more about Shanghai’s underground club scene:

DJ and Promoter Illsee Curates Alternative Shanghai Nightlife with a “Bit of Punk Spirit”

A Multi-Stream Radio Station for 21st-Century Shanghai

More Point & Shoot Perspectives:

Peace, Love, and Hip Hop at Kunming’s CLUB ICON

Tea Haus
    Tea Haus is an independent creative media agency specializing in Asian anthropology. Conceived in New York during the summer of 2018, we pride ourselves in our diligent fieldwork and candid, compelling visual storytelling. Instagram: @tea.haus