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Living a Dream at “Dreams of Old Shanghai” Restaurant and Cabaret

April 14, 2012

There was a moment last night between my two sets at the Dreams of Old Shanghai restaurant that I had a flash and said, “Did I once have a dream about this sequence happening to me before?” It was one of those deja vu moments that don’t necessarily happen, but you wonder if they did…. Now if that sounds a little confusing, just imagine the situation last night in Shanghai when I ended up on stage in this chic restaurant night club where a large cast of singers and dancers had previously occupied the stage in a long and colorful program of 1930s nostalgia of old Shanghai.

The evening had started quiet enough. After having two nights of playing at open mics in China I opted to have a very quiet night eating noodles, reading in my hotel room and just going to bed early. But regular readers of this blog will know that I generally like musical adventures and I have learned while in far off and exotic countries that I must always be ready for them. I have occasionally gone out thinking there was no place to play and have not taken my guitar with me because of that defeatist way of thinking, only to discover that I find a place where I could have played if I had my guitar with me.

So despite my intention of simply going over to the De Xing Noodle House on Guangdong Lu, eating a big bowl of noodles and returning to my hotel to read, I said, “Hey, take the fucking guitar. You never know what you might run into.” So I took the guitar, found the noodle house, ate the sublime bowl of noodles and then said it was time to return to the hotel. But not quite. No. I needed dessert.

There was nothing on offer at the noodle house, which was closing anyway, since it was now 10 PM. So I set off to find a place selling something sweet. I decided, however, that my route for that would including taking in the street where there are a bunch of musical instrument stores, Jinling Donglu, to see if it was worth a visit next week after the race and before my trip to Bahrain.

So I go to Jinling Donglu, window shop, and continue my search for dessert. Lo and behold, at the end of the street, at No. 229 Jinling E. Road, and before I was about to return in the direction of my hotel, I saw a big sign on the front of a building: Dessert. So I crossed the street and entered the building. Once inside I saw the dessert joints were closed, but I heard what sounded like live music coming from up an escalator. And it sounded like traditional Chinese music, with a woman singer. I was intrigued.

So I took the escalator, went up and found a couple of restaurants, one of which was called, “Dreams of old Shanghai.” It was elaborate, ornate, classy, and I was immediately invited in by the people at the door. I said, “Live music?” Wanting to check it out, and they said I could look. I craned my neck around the entrance and saw this wonderful stage with full lighting, a curtain, and a cabaret revue of Chinese women dancers and a singer. Holy shit, a real Chinese stage revue here. Very cool! The restaurant appeared vaguely retro, posh, and very, very Chinese.

“Come in and eat,” said the guy at the door.

“I already had my meal,” I said.

“No problem, just come in and have a drink!”

Then he noticed my guitar bag and said, “Guitar?” I said yes. “Come in and play?” he asked me. I gestured to the stage. “There?” He said, “Yes, yes, come in and play.”

This I could not quite believe under the context, with this posh cabaret in old style, and here I was a kind of old hippie with a battered guitar…. (And short hair, granted.)

Then the manager showed up and door and did some more persuading and I asked if there was a cover charge, and was told there was not. So I asked if there were desserts. “Yes.”

So I thought, Okay, I’ll go in and watch the show, make videos, have a beer and eat that dessert I wanted. I did not really think the offer to go on stage would materialize.

I watched the show, ate a fabulous cheese cake, with ice cream and blueberry sauce and mango and kiwi chunks, and drank an Asahi beer. This was bloody bliss. And to top it off, I was sure that every one of those beautiful dancers and singers was staring directly at me. A magician dropped by and showed me a couple of tricks, and then after I finished my cake, someone came around and asked if I would now take to the stage and play.

It was a tremendous stage, wonderful lighting, I felt the room to be completely laid back in a way that I had not at first imagined. But the class singing and dancing acts were so Chinese and classy that I still wondered what I could possibly sing from my repertoire to not feel like the French proverbial “hair on the soup.”

No problem, I finally decided. This is too much fun, and as it turned out, I had noticed a table of several young European women sitting not far from mine, and I was sure that if the Chinese could not relate to my songs, they certainly would be able to.

So I went on stage and found my guitar dreadfully out of tune after I had forgotten that Joe Chou had done an open tuning the night before and I had not touched it since. But the musical director of the Dreams of old Shanghai immediately plugged in my guitar and got a mic stand for me – remember, they did not even know that I sang and played at the same time, let alone how good or bad I might be! – and I got the guitar tuned and lept right into “What’s Up!” I then did “Father and Son.”

I think I left it at the two songs, but it was clear that it went over wonderfully. The musical director played a percussion machine, the crowd clapped and sang along, and at the end, one or two of the beautiful Chinese singers who I liked to imagine had been looking at me came up on stage and offered me red roses.

So I go back to my seat and quickly, I get a signal from one of the European women. So I join them, and it turns out, of all things, to be a table full of French expats working in Shanghai. So we drink and talk and the Chinese stage show goes on. But then the Frenchwomen request of the management that I return to the stage and do more songs.

Management accepts, and I go up and do “Wicked Game,” then “Mad World,” and they request an encore, so I decide finally to do one of my own songs, and I do, “Borderline.” This time during the singing the management brings up some massive flower in a tall pot and vase contraption, and then I am joined by one of the singers who brings me a rose and dances beside me as I play. The a couple of the other show girls comes up and give me roses.

I don’t want to overstay my welcome, so I get off the stage, go back to the table, and the restaurant manager comes over and tells me he is offering me the food and drinks I had that night, and would I like a glass of red wine….

They then invited me back to play again tonight!

Now who would have thought, who ever would have thought that this posh, cool, and very traditional Chinese place would be so “arms open” to a complete stranger with a guitar to take time on its stage and perform. And then actually encourage more of it?!!? Absolutely wonderful. It was just the kind of experience I crave in the musical adventure, the kind that changes my ideas and preconceptions about a people, a city, a country. To say nothing of what I can do with my own music and where it can take me, and I must never give up hope about seeing fun opportunities arise.

This is clearly a very open and wonderful restaurant. Check out the videos for yourself, and try to imagine me on that stage. Could be difficult! It was so dreamlike and wild and unimaginable that I had that moment wondering if I had, in fact, once dreamed about alighting in an unknown world and being invited on stage and feted like a star. I do remember such a dream about suddenly finding myself playing like Jimi Hendrix, but I am certain that one will never come true….

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