Where West Met East, and Then Asked for a Dance

Shanghai Journal
Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: October 3, 2007
SHANGHAI, Sept. 28 — Somehow all conversations at the Paramount ballroom in Shanghai manage to wend their way toward what might ordinarily be considered an unwelcome topic: the ballroom dancers’ ages.
The Paramount Ballroom, built in 1933, once again beckons to Shanghai in the night.
The Paramount is just that kind of place, a palace of retro in a city with its gaze fixed far more intently on a bright-looking future than on its often brilliant but tumultuous past.
But more often than not, it is the dancers who bring up the question, proudly daring a visitor to try to guess their age.
It might be a rich business tycoon in his 90s who shuffles through halting steps propped up by a fine-boned dance partner seven decades his junior. Or it might be a well-heeled tai-tai, a Shanghai homemaker out for her regular escape from tedium.
The reason the age question comes up with such regularity is not because this relic of a place makes its habitués feel old — quite the contrary. Whatever their description, the regulars here are all but unanimous on one point: it’s their frequent turns at the fox trot or the tango or the rumba that help keep them feeling young.
“Look at me, I’m still upright,” said a slim and stylishly dressed woman who gave her name only as Yoshimi. “I don’t go the gym and I don’t diet, either. My regimen consists of coming here twice a week and enjoying myself dancing.”
With a wink, the woman, a 49-year-old Paramount regular, who is half-Chinese, half-Japanese and divorced, added: “And it works.”
In a city that is rapidly losing the remaining traces of its last great boomtown era in the first decades of the 20th century, the Paramount has not only somehow managed to survive. It stands out.
By early evening, its approaches are clogged with hurrying commuters talking quickly into cellphones and dodging sidewalk vendors hawking everything from copied DVDs to Shanghai-themed Monopoly boards on narrow, hectic side streets.
Turn onto Yuyuan Road, though, and no matter how many times one has seen it, there is a moment of surprise. With its bright neon Art Deco trimmings, the building could be a giant and lavish set prop from the Buck Rogers era, or a gaudy transplant from the old Miami Beach.
That the building has survived to stand in this form today, though, has been a small miracle, considering the countless reincarnations it has undergone since it was built in 1933 by Chinese bankers. It started out as a casino and favorite gathering place of high society, but went steadily down the economic ladder, first as a favorite after-work stop for government clerks and other members of a growing Chinese middle class, and then deteriorating into a preferred hangout of wiseguys and their molls.
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