In the first half of the 20th century, Shanghai was the most notorious city in Asia, with a nightlife that rivaled that of Paris. Dubbed the "Whore of Asia," old Shanghai presented countless opportunities for debauchery in its gambling dens, opium joints, rowdy nightclubs, and glamorous theaters. After the Communist Party came to power in 1949, Shanghai was cleaned up overnight; drugs and prostitution were ended by decree, and entertainment was reduced to a few politically acceptable plays and dances. Well into the 1990s, visitors retired to their hotels after dark unless they were part of a group tour going to see the Shanghai acrobats. In the last few years, however, the possibilities for an evening on the town have multiplied exponentially, and while Shanghai is not in the same league as Hong Kong or Paris quite yet, it is fast becoming again a city that never sleeps.
Culture mavens can now find in Shanghai large-scale performances of acrobatics, musicals, opera, dance, theater, and classical and contemporary music. New state-of-the-art theaters and auditoriums have attracted in recent years the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Luciano Pavarotti, Diana Krall, the Kirov Ballet, and touring companies of Les Miserables and Cats, among others. Large-scale pop and rock concerts are happening with increasing frequency, many of them of the more benign Mando-pop or Canto-pop variety, but artists like the Rolling Stones, Christina Aguilera, and Celine Dion have all performed here in the last few years.
Nightclubs and bars are also booming, with joints opening and closing faster than night can turn into day. Barflies now have a choice of everything from glamorous Art Deco lounges to the seediest watering hole; live rock and jazz can be heard into the wee hours (although 2am is the official closing hour); and the dance club scene now employs DJs, foreign and local, to keep the younger set raving. With a return to the rollicking times has come the return of drugs and sexual exploitation, a phenomenon that periodically receives some government attention, but largely continues unchecked. Having converted some of its newly won wealth into so many venues for culture and entertainment, Shanghai, it seems, is not about to go gentle into that good night.
Buying tickets -- Check the entertainment listings in the free English-language papers for tourists and expatriates, such as the bi-weekly City Weekend (www.cityweekend.com.cn), or the monthlies Time Out Shanghai, Shanghai Talk, or that's Shanghai (www.shanghai.urbanatomy.com). Tickets for all arts performances can be purchased at their individual venues, or at the Shanghai Cultural Information and Booking Centre, Fengxian Lu 272 (tel. 021/6217-2426 or 021/6217-3055; www.culture.sh.cn; daily 9am-7pm), northeast of the Shanghai Centre, behind the Westgate Mall, as well as online at the above Web address. Tickets for the Grand Theatre can be purchased directly at the box office (Renmin Da Dao 200; tel. 021/6372-8701), and movie tickets can be bought at the cinemas. If you don't want to do it yourself, your hotel concierge should be able to secure tickets for a fee.
Dance Clubs & Discos
Shanghai has some of the most sophisticated and elaborate dance clubs and discos in China. The bar scene is lively, too, but clubs and discos are for those who want to party on the dance floor as well as at the bar -- or at least for those who want to observe Shanghai nightlife at a pitch it hasn't reached since the 1930s. Shanghai's dance club scene relies heavily on DJs, whether foreign superstars brought in on a short engagement or increasingly sophisticated locals. We've reviewed the top venues, which like all trends are subject to overnight revisions.
The Lounge & Bar Scene
The big hotels often have elegant lounges on their top floors and some of Shanghai's best bars in their lobbies. Independent spots outside the hotels run the gamut from upscale to down-and-dirty, but those listed here are frequented by plenty of English-speaking foreigners (residents and tourists alike) in addition to hip, well-to-do Shanghainese. In recent years, Shanghai's lively nightlife seems to have cleaved along the lines of the Bund crowd (favoring the many bars that have sprouted there), and those who wouldn't be caught dead anywhere near there, the latter including a growing underground scene. Expect drink prices, especially for imports, to be the same as, if not more than, what you'd pay in the bars of a large city in the West. Tipping is not necessary, although it does make the bartenders happy.
Gay-friendly nightspots (subject to change, as the scene shifts but never disappears) include the mainstay Eddy's Bar, Huaihai Zhong Lu 1877, by Tianping Lu (tel. 021/6282-0521; nightly 8pm-2am, Fri-Sun to 3am); Kevin's, Changle Lu 946, no. 4, at Wulumuqi Bei Lu (tel. 021/6248-8985; nightly 9pm-2am); Frangipani, Dagu Lu 399, by Shimen Yi Lu (tel. 021/5375-0084); and the part bar, part art studio Shanghai Studio, Huaihai Zhong Lu 1950, no. 4, by Xingguo Lu (tel. 021/6283-1043; www.shanghai-studio.com; nightly 9pm-late).
Shanghai's trendiest upscale pedestrian mall, Xintiandi (New Heaven and Earth), located just a short stroll south of Huangpi Road (S) Metro station downtown, is famous for its upscale restaurants and international shops. But this impressive development comes truly alive only after dark when Shanghai's hip and wealthy spill out of its pretty bars and lounges. For now, the top nightspots here include:
Brown Sugar -- A lively jazz venue with bar, restaurant, international and domestic artists, and high table minimums. Performances start around 9pm. Open daily 6pm to 2am. North Block, House 15. tel. 021/5382-8998. www.brownsugarlive.com.
Club G Plus -- A massive dance floor and a host of international DJs playing trance and techno help pack in the party people. Open daily 5pm to 1am. South Block, No. 6, fifth floor. tel. 021/5386-8088. www.clubgplus.com.
Dr Bar -- The quietest place in Xintiandi for a chat and drink over candlelight. Open daily 5pm to 2am. North Block, House 15. tel. 021/6311-0358.
KABB -- This American bar and cafe with candlelight in the evenings is the place for laid-back music and musings. Open daily 7pm to 2am. North Block, House 5. tel. 021/3307-0798.
Luxe -- Hip-hop beats attract a mostly local crowd. Open daily 8:30pm to 4am. South Block, fifth floor. tel. 021/6336-0000.
Paulaner Bräuhaus -- This is the second branch of the popular and festive Bavarian bierhaus with home-brewed beer, hearty food, and a hoppin' live band. Open daily 11am to 2am. North Block, House 19-20. tel. 021/6320-3935.
Rendezvous -- The staples here are the Filipino band, which the local patrons seem to like well enough. Open daily 10am to 2am. North Block, House 22. tel. 021/6336-5383.
TMSK -- Here's a bar made entirely from colored glass, owned by a Taiwanese actress and glass entrepreneur. Even the wine and martini glasses are works of glass art. Open daily 1:30pm to midnight (Fri-Sat to 2am). North Block, House 11. tel. 021/6326-2223.
Although Shanghai is no longer the center of Chinese filmmaking today, there is still a large and eager movie-going audience here. China limits the release of new Hollywood films to just 20 a year. In the past, most of these movies were dubbed in Chinese, but recently, some have been shown in Shanghai in their original language with Chinese subtitles. In the last 2 decades, Chinese directors have made some of the best films in the world, but some of these still can't be officially shown in China. Of course, the pirated versions of these politically sensitive films and of hundreds of Hollywood movies are usually circulating on Shanghai streets within hours of (and even sometimes before) the film's world premiere, wherever it might be. Given this sad state of cinematic affairs in Shanghai, there isn't too much here for the non-Chinese-speaking visitors eager for a night at the pictures. The only exception is when the Shanghai International Film Festival comes to town every June. Originated in 1993, when Oliver Stone chaired the jury, the festival attracts more than 250,000 viewers to the screenings.
In the long interval between festivals, cinephiles can also get their fix at regular screenings sponsored by the Canadian Consulate (tel. 021/6279-8400), German Consulate (tel. 021/6391-2068, ext. 602), and Cine-Club de l'Alliance Française (tel. 021/6357-5388). Reviewed separately are the best venues for flicks in Shanghai, which still has a long road to travel to regain its reputation as China's Hollywood. Tickets range from ¥30 to ¥120 depending on the theater and the movie shown. For up-to-date listings, consult the English-language monthlies, such as that's Shanghai (www.shanghai.urbanatomy.com).