Looking for Shanghai Lil

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2006

The Cliffside Club At Sixty.

by Burritt Sabin

Shanghai was a haven for Jews fleeing pogroms and white Russians escaping the aftermath of the October Revolution. It was a magnet for the jazzman, the political dissident, the homosexual and anyone else liable to be crushed under the heavy boot of fascism in Japan. All came to Shanghai for the freedom of its International Settlement and French Concession, areas ceded to the jurisdiction of foreign powers by treaties in the mid-19th century. The refugees helped transform Shanghai into one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth.

"Shanghai" was sailor slang of 19th century origin for getting a man drunk and then kidnapping him to crew a ship bound for the eponymous city. By the 1920s there was no need to truss up men for the voyage. They pined for the "Whore of the Orient." It was always a port of call for ships on round-the-world cruises. Aldous Huxley, on a visit to Shanghai in 1926, summed up the city's zeitgeist as "life itself?ense, rank, richly clotted life?othing more intensely living can be imagined."

Here we first meet Lil.

It was inevitable that Hollywood would discover Shanghai. Busby Berkeley's 1933 musical Footlight Parade depicts Shanghai Lil (Ruby Keeler) in the city's dives and back streets. The production number tells us Lil has "an outstanding lovely face." What sets her apart from the other "chummy little Chinese ladies, drinking at those dinky bars" is an ingenuous honesty. Sings the sailor (James Cagney) smitten by her:

I learned to love her
The little devil was just a butterfly
But you'd discover something on the level
Shining in her eye.

Lil is a femme fatale with a heart of gold. This is to say she is a type. She is a spiritual sister of Suzie Wong, the Hong Kong B-girl of the 1957 Richard Mason novel. Much ink has been spilled over the attraction Asian women hold for Western men, with the most recent entry in this category being Sheridan Prasso's Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient (2005).

Petite and almond-eyed, hobbled by bound feet or legs wrapped tight in kimono, inculcated in ways to serve men, the Asian female ensorcelled. And if the man were a sailor, the climb up rickety stairs to boudoir would have sated pangs pent-up at sea:

The stars that hang high over Shanghai
Bring back the memory of a thrill.

There was perhaps a push as well as a pull into the arms of a sloe-eyed, raven-hair beauty. Maurice Collis, a British author, wrote that Englishmen went to the East, where they lolled amongst a brood of half-caste children under swaying palms, to "escape English weather and Englishwomen."

Shanghai Lil could be white. Josef von Sternberg cast Marlene Dietrich as Lily in Shanghai Express (1932). She is a "coaster," a "woman who lives by her wits along the China coast." Lily still vamps (played by Dietrich she could not do otherwise), but she is cannier. She is the "the notorious white flower of China," a woman without the nurturing nature of her Asian sorority.

Lil Returns Home

Watching the ships
From a Hama cabaret
The wind bears rumors of Lil
Lil back from Shanghai, Lil Lil
With only dim painful memories
Walking in search
Of Lil. Lil.
Does anyone know where Lil is?

?"Lil Back from Shanghai"

In the immediate years after the Second World War Yokohama took on an American complexion as the Eighth Army hunkered down in the few buildings standing amongst the ashes from Curtis E. LeMay's incendiary air raids. Women trolled for GIs on Isezakicho. The Negishiya, a 24-hour honky-tonk, catered to a salad of human types, grifters, hookers, hoods, gangsters, pimps, hustlers, boots, and gobs—the flotsam and jetsam of the postwar wasteland—and the writers, actors and directors come to soak up its déclass? atmosphere. Bereaved wives exploited sympathy to lure men to "widows' salons" where love was for sale. The occupiers reintroduced jazz in the dance halls, cabarets, and clubs that sprang up. The most notable were the Seaside Club in Honmoku and the Zebra Club in Yamashita-cho. Both were off limits to Japanese.

So Masaji Nosaka, a Yokohama native, erected on the side of a hill above Motomachi a riposte to the occupier-exclusive clubs. His intention, explains his son Kinya, was "to establish a watering hole for Japanese." The Cliffside Club opened on August 2, 1946, less than a year after A-bombs incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the first genuine club open to Japanese.

Cliffside, 992 meters square in area, was capacious. The ballroom, accommodating 250, had cathedral windows and a mezzanine. The suspended ceiling reduced the number of pillars, creating a large dance floor.

A newspaper ad in 1946 trumpeted 200 taxi dancers. At the door unescorted men purchased tickets to exchange for a spin around the floor with a dancer. Patrons were well-heeled men who had made their fortunes in dubious and not-so-dubious enterprises.

"Lil Back from Shanghai," which debuted on NHK radio in 1951, was a hit. With defeat, millions of Japanese repatriated from Continental and Southeast Asia. In the chaos people were separated and lost contact with one another. "Lil Back From Shanghai" captured the mood of those years.

Scuttlebutt credited a Cliffside dancer as the inspiration for Lil. Kenro Taiichi, a sideman in Cliffside bands for 35 years from the early 60s, is certain the cabaret of the song is Cliffside. "A cabaret, ships. The setting could be Nagasaki or Kobe. But the lyrics contain 'Hama,' which is short for 'Yokohama.' Cliffside was the only seaside cabaret of any scale in Yokohama."

Under their gorgeous costumes the taxi dancers bore the weight of defeat and deprivation. They struggled to survive. Their image as heroines redolent of a sorrowful exoticism overlapped with the raw scars of war. They fit the image of Lil.

Seen in a black dress
Seen crying

Hideto Kanai, a jazz bassist employed by Cliffside at the age of 20, is quoted in Uta no Yokohama (Yokohama in Songs) as saying, "There were girls who sold their bodies. Perhaps there was a girl whose circumstances were as sad as those in the song 'Lil Back From Shanghai.' "

Was there a dancer named Lil?

Taiichi says there was a rumor one of the dancers was the model for Lil. Kinya Nosaka (66), who succeeded his father as Cliffside's owner, simply says he doesn't know. Songwriter Shusaburo Tojo took Lil's identity to the grave.

In 1952 Shin Toho stretched the song lyrics into an 85-minute film with Hisaya Morishige and Kyoko Kagawa. And it was a stretch. A shipping company employee, Gikichi Yamamoto, frequents the Cliffside Club in Shanghai, where he befriends a band man named Ichiro Okamura and falls for a dancer named Lil Takemoto. War separates lovers. Yamamoto and Okamura repatriate. Yamamoto makes a bundle in shady enterprises. But he can't forget Lil. One day he thinks he sees her boarding a cab on a Tokyo street. He replicates Shanghai's Cliffside Club in Yokohama; nostalgia for their Chinese idyll should draw her there. Having poured all of his money into the club, he can't pay his debts. The local don arrives to claim ownership. Yamamoto is shot and wounded. When in a semiconscious state he utters "Lil," a club proprietress, who is in love with him, shoots him dead. His pursuit of Lil brings his destruction.

The film, shot at Cliffside, is part of the club's lore. But while the song's performance became a club ritual, requested nightly, the movie fell down the memory hole.

The club's exterior was remodeled, although no one, not even the veteran Taiichi, remembers when. The glass doors were replaced by a wall and the entryway, too, has been stuccoed. There seem to have been other extensions such that there is now a cascade of red roofs. The building resembles a fairytale castle.

A Club Where Time Stands Still
Tadashi Yamashita, the present club manager, insists that the essence of Cliffside is its immutability. "Cliffside does not follow fads," he avers. "It has no disco system or billiard table. The music is swing or dance music." Coltrane's sheets of sound have never echoed from its hoary walls. Taiichi, who teaches the sax at a small school on Motomachi, agrees with this policy. "I like jazz, but not the maniacal kind." No Bird either.

Step into the entryway, with its purling lantern-shaped fountain, large oil of a Western beauty with shawl over her shoulders, and staircase with a golden rail, and you feel as if you have stepped back in time, to the late 1940s, when the hama jiru (Yokohama jitterbug) was the rage.

The hama jiru probably originated in Yokosuka. The occupiers enfranchised women, busted up the zaibatsu, redistributed land, and reintroduced jazz. The medium of the music was in particular the black GI, who jammed at and patronized the clubs that mushroomed in Yokosuka, Yokohama, and Tokyo. "The sounds were filtering out from the States over oceans, across rice paddies," wrote Hampton Hawes, a jazz piano player who arrived in Yokohama in 1953. "These Asians knew about Bird and Dizzy and Bud and all the time I'd thought nobody past 52nd Street or Central Avenue could possibly be hip to them." Yokosuka, with its base for the Seventh Fleet, crawled with sailors, who hung out at the sprawling Club Alliance.

It was in such a place that the hama jiru would have originated. Japanese watched blue jackets jitterbug and, the Japanese, in their time-old fashion of making something their own, speeded up the tempo. The dance came to be called the "hama jiru" after it reached Yokohama. Taiichi says the opening dance number in West Side Story closely resembles the hama jiru. "The men hardly move; they are a fulcrum on which the women pivot." People would come all the way from Tokyo to dance the hama jiru at Cliffside.

No one does the hama jiru today, but Taiichi hopes to preserve it. The only people who know the steps are now in their 70s. He'd like to arrange for septuagenarians to teach the steps to younger generations.

His hama jiru initiative is reminiscent of a depopulating village striving to preserve its folkways. Indeed the club has been depopulated. It hopped through out the 1980s. A big band played every night. There were dancers and hostesses. The expense account set would entertain clients and associates. Many were trading company or shipping people and master mariners in uniform. "They had their regular tables and hostesses," says Tadashi Yamashita. "There would, for example, be a table where the Nippon Yusen people always sat."

The Golden Hour
In the 1950s and early 1960s cabarets closed at 11:45 pm, at which time night owls moved to clubs. One o'clock was the Yokohama nightclubs' golden hour, when Tokyo show business people with their girls began pulling up. Yamashita refuses to name Cliff's celebrated patrons. "In this business we never disclose names—not even the names of patrons long deceased." Written sources name as Cliff's patrons Yukio Mishima, the writer, and Yujiro Ishihara, the actor and brother of Shintaro, the Tokyo governor.

Fumio Nanri's Hot Peppers played every night. Fumio (1910-75) was a legendary jazz trumpeter. At the age of 19 he sailed on a China clipper for Shanghai. On board he jammed with New Orleans jazz musicians, the experience nurturing a love for Dixieland. He and other young Japanese jazzmen in Shanghai were referred to as the bansu, short for "advance," since they had already drawn on their salaries. Fumio was the model for the trumpeter in Ren Saito's play Shanghai Bansukingu (The Shanghai Bansu King; 1980), which was made into a film, Shanghai Rhapsody, directed by Kinji Fukasaku, in 1984.

Fumio, says Taiichi, one of his sidemen in the early 1960s, was a pioneer in disseminating jazz in Japan. He was also its best jazz trumpeter, its Satchmo, an epithet he would have relished, for he revered Louis Armstrong. Taiichi recalls that one of Fumio's favorite numbers was the "St. Louis Blues." Fumio remained fond of the jazz of the American south all his life.

With his death, the baton passed to Yuichiro, his son, who led the Red Peppers at Cliffside. The Trumpet Room, a second-floor banquet hall, is named for Fumio.

For Taiichi those were the best years at the club, since the bands played jazz. The program was divided into two parts: show time and dance time. The show consisted of a vocalist—usually female—with jazz band accompaniment. There was a house singer and a guest singer. The latter included Satchiko Kobayashi and the androgynous Kenichi Mikawa, who are known for their sartorial duel during NHK's New Year's Eve gala "Kohaku Utagassen."

At Cliffside jazz gave way to dance music—standard numbers by Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, and the like—from around 1975. Patrons requested numbers by title or, more often, by type of dance. "I don't know to what degree we should have trusted customers," recalls Taiichi, "but there were patrons who requested what we were playing at the moment. In that case, we would play the tune again later." Patrons most often requested waltz music and Latin music—tango, rumba, and mambo.

The last named gave rise to "mambo pants," narrow pants for dancing the mambo popularized by Yujiro Ishihara in the film Taiyo no Kisetsu (Season of the Sun; 1956). The mambo was replaced by the cha-cha cha, and, eventually, the pants flared out into bellbottoms. Throughout this evolution in male fashion female patrons still wore one-pieces or "parachute skirts."

Cliffside was packed during the years of the bubble economy. The bubble popped. Patrons vanished. The club retrenched. The taxi dancers were let go. The house band followed. Today bands play only twice a month, on "swing night" and "dance night." Swing night is for music appreciation, chairs being arranged on the dance floor. Dance night is for social dancing.

"Dance night" on January 28 drew a dozen couples. They waltzed, tangoed, cha-chaed, and jitterbugged in a counterclockwise circle to the accompaniment of a 15-piece band playing mainly Latin numbers. The music, the colorful dresses, the shadows beyond the shafts of light—the scene was atavistic. Each pair were in the thrall of the moment and of each other. The mixture of music, rhythmic movement, and costume was intoxicating. The pleasure of ballroom dancing was clear; yet few Japanese under the age of 60 can do even a two-step.

Cliffside marks its 60th anniversary this year. Manager Yamashita says the club doesn't change. But it must if it is to revive. Taiichi's hama jiru initiative is one way to utilize the ballroom. But it is hardly enough. In the era of cyberspace other initiatives are needed to bring men and women together as couples gliding across the cherry floor.

Lil in her last incarnation was, like in her first, the object of an obsession. But she was no longer an exotic; she was another lost soul in war-ravaged Japan. The Imperial Army, in ravishing Shanghai, had destroyed the milieu of her mystique.

Yamashita, when asked if he knew Lil, says he never even heard a rumor of her existence. She was legendary, he believes.

She remains as anonymous and emblematic as the beauty in shawl gracing the wall in Cliffside's foyer. JI

For upcoming events at Cliffside, visit http://homepage2.nifty.com/cliffside/whatsnew.html

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