Friday, March 12, 2010

Pearls Under Shanghai

The Asian Art Museum recently opened a new exhibit about Shanghai's history over the last 150 years, and the reviews have been unkind, with most of them calling the exhibit an unfocused mess. It was definitely misconceived.

Think of a curator attempting to encompass the last 150 years of history in New York City, for instance, in four small rooms containing a selection of sculptures, paintings, furniture, clothing and signage, and you'll appreciate the absurdity.

The most powerful, and disturbing, aspect of the exhibit consists of maps showing the "foreign settlements" in the heart of the city that were imposed upon the Chinese in the 1840s after the Opium Wars by the British. These autonomous French, American and English enclaves lasted until the the Japanese invasion of World War Two chased them out, and the Communists never allowed for their return.

As Nancy Ewart points out in a post on the exhibit, "By the time Shanghai became a treaty port, it was the brothel capital of the world. One in every 130 women in Shanghai were prostitutes, making Shanghai also the V.D. capital of the world."

"Pearls Over Shanghai," the Thrillpeddlers' outrageously successful revival of the Cockettes musical extravaganza, is closer to reality than I ever imagined.

It is certainly closer to some kind of truth than the sanitized display of party dresses and magazine cover girls at the Asian Art Museum.

"Pearls over Shanghai" has been extended at least three times since I wrote about the show last October, and is currently slated to run through April 24th. Don't miss it or you'll be having to hear about the production secondhand from friends for the rest of your life. After a hiatus to produce another Cockettes revival, the Thrillpeddlers also plan to bring the show back next summer.

If the Asian Art Museum is smart, they would offer free admission to "Pearls Over Shanghai" ticketholders, because the exhibit and the drag musical about Shanghai brothels, opium dens, and white slavery are strangely complementary. There is also some fascinating art in the museum exhibit, though "Pearls Over Shanghai" definitely trumps them in the costume department.


Axel Feldheim said...

It sounds like I can safely skip the Shanghai exhibit but need to catch Pearls Over Shanghai. I went on a history walk in the Presidio Cemetery this week, & at one headstone the guide gave a little talk about the Boxer Rebellion, & I was surprised that people in the group had no idea that China was an occupied country for much of the 19th & 20th century. My own father was born in a German colony in mainland China & for a time the family also lived in one of those British enclaves. That's probably how my grandfather got his otherwise unaccountable anglophilia.

sfmike said...

Dear Axel: Americans, including myself, know nothing of history, particularly the unpleasant sort involving occupying and exploiting other cultures over the last 300 years. I actually found the exhibit rather illuminating because I didn't realize quite how extensively China was occupied by Western powers and for how long, mirroring the ignorance of your cemetery companions. Love that your grandfather had an unaccountable anglophilia (shades of Borges).

And yes, though its Asian stereotypes are deliberately offensive and outrageous, "Pearls Over Shanghai" is something to behold. Do buy tickets ahead of time because they are selling out every weekend.

Sibyl said...

Lived in Shanghai in '86 and'87, long before its modernization. The city was still very redolent of its bad old days. Bullet holes were still visible in the lobby walls of the Peace Hotel (where the Kuomintong staged their last stand against Mao's forces), while in the 4th floor dining room there were dusty Lalique medallions 20 inches in diameter adorning the walls. If you knew to do it and didn't mind untwisting the baling wire that kept it shut, you could climb out a window on the 11th floor and stand, all alone, on what used to be Victor Sassoon's private terrace and look out over the river. The older people would tell you all about which cantonment was where and what they were like, if they thought no one was listening (and in those days we foreigners were under constant surveillance). I lived in the old French canton, and there were still a lot of French-inflected aspects of the neighborhood which have since been erased (the best part was the local bakery which was still fairly French, although crippled by the paucity of ingredients that were then available). The evidence of mistreatment of the Chinese in their own country by the West was still visible all around the city. Somehow I think you're right: four rooms in a museum cannot do that justice.

sfmike said...

Dear Sibyl: Wow, thanks for the stories.

salzburglar said...

This is fantastic. Thanks Mike!

I'm very proud to be a member of the cast of "Pearls..." and was so pleased to discover your positive assessment, especially in contrast to the AAM show (which I look forward to attending, despite the reviews).

Come back and see us in Shanghai again sometime, ya hear!? We've just been extended to August!