Nothing exceeds like excess

A dancer performers her routine on opening night at Linx, a new nightclub on Huaihai Road. Photo: Dave Tacon
A dancer performers her routine on opening night at Linx, a new nightclub on Huaihai Road. Photo: Dave Tacon

They are China's first generation to grow up rich and they plan to enjoy it to the max. In the nightclubs of Shanghai, political intrigue, food safety scandals and poisonous air pollution are far out of mind as a new aristocracy, born from Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, re-establishes Shanghai's reputation as a truly decadent city.

Clubs such as Myst, M1NT, Muse, Bar Rouge, Linx, Richbaby and the circus-themed Cirque le Soir fete VIP patrons who may spend up to $60,000 a night on bar tabs.

With gaudy scenes of excess not seen since the 1930s, Shanghai is once again the adventurer's paradise with its own brand of exotic and seedy glamour.

Myst, a dark, multi-level nightclub in Shanghai's expensive Jing'an district, stretches more than 100 metres from end to end, but you can see the big spenders wherever you stand.

Blue and red columns of lasers beamed from the ceiling pierce the fog of cigarette smoke to illuminate bottles of luxury alcohol arranged on VIP tables. Each ice trough glows with a dozen bottles of champagne.

Some tables display up to nine bottles of premium whisky, which sell for about $500 each. But the bottles are not so much for drinking as for show.

With few outlets for self-expression under the Communist Party's authoritarian regime, mainland Chinese increasingly define themselves by what they buy. At Myst and other clubs, imbibing is often secondary to flamboyant spending. Sometimes, there are "champagne wars", with tables competing to make grand statements of purchasing power.

Bo Bo, a luxury car dealer in his late 20s, frequents Shanghai's nightclubs with his wealthy young friends three times a week. He flits between Myst, Muse and his current favourite, Linx, the city's newest venue.

Bo and his crew do not go to Linx to dance, but rather to sit at a reserved table, chat, watch the floor show (Russian dancers, a leather-clad singer from West Africa) and play drinking games with dice and champagne.

Bo, dressed head to toe in designer fashion, says it is the club's "high technology, high fashion and classy atmosphere", that draws him there.

Most of Shanghai's luxury nightlife still takes place around the Bund, the city's historic waterfront built during a century of colonial rule. A series of "unequal treaties" beginning in 1842 forced the Celestial Empire to open its doors to foreign settlement and foreign opium traders – on the threat of military annihilation.

By the 1930s, the swampy port of Shanghai, divided into British, French and international concessions – each exempt from Chinese law – had grown into one of the world's most famous skylines. It was largely built with drug money from the opium trade, and the price paid by the Chinese was humiliation and exploitation.

Shanghai was alternately known as the pearl and the whore of the Orient for its boundless economic opportunity and reputation as a place where every vice could be indulged. The city lurched between boom and bust until the outbreak of World War II. The subsequent Japanese invasion brought a string of crushing military defeats and the massacre of millions.

Yet before their world came crashing down, Shanghai's taipans (foreign-born captains of industry) toasted their success with champagne ordered by the case-load in the Bund's most luxurious saloons. Today, a visitor from that time would recognise the eclectic mix of revivalist, neoclassical, beaux arts and art deco buildings, but little else.

The Shanghai Club, once the city's most exclusive private club, is long gone, although the facade remains. Its famous Long Bar, a 34-metre stretch of polished mahogany, was dismantled to make way for Shanghai's first KFC restaurant in 1990. Now it has been rebuilt in the same six-storey Baroque revivalist building, in the Waldorf Astoria luxury hotel.

Chinese were banned at the original all-male club. Visiting actor, playwright and composer Noel Coward claimed to see the earth's curvature as he laid his cheek against the Long Bar. Today, you are far more likely to see the curvature of the earth from any of the skyscrapers in Pudong, modern Shanghai's financial centre on the opposite bank of the Huangpu.

The Shanghai Club's modern incarnation is M1NT, launched in 2009 on the 24th floor of a building just back from the Bund. Founded by Australian former merchant banker Alistair Paton (who also opened and closed M1NT venues in London and Hong Kong under controversial circumstances), M1NT proclaimed itself "the world's first shareholder's club".

At M1NT, bottles are delivered by bow-tied waiters, each bottle topped with sparklers. Bystanders can track the luxury flotilla as it bobs above the crowd on its way to a private party.

In new Shanghai, cocaine is the drug of choice, particularly among the hedonists of the city's expatriate community. And nowadays, the money and power is in the hands of Chinese. M1NT is also known as a happy hunting ground for high-end prostitutes.

One patron, Zheng, who declines to give his second name, says he made his millions by importing luxury clothing into China. (Last year, the country eclipsed Japan as the world's biggest consumer of luxury goods.)

Seated with his wife and four other women in M1NT's VIP area at the club's annual, invitation-only Black Swan party, Zheng had ignored the black tie dress code (a reinvention of Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in 1960s New York).

When asked about this, Zheng, who is stocky and in his mid-40s, points out that his open-neck white shirt is by Yves Saint Laurent and his red pants are Dolce & Gabbana. According to his account on Weixin (a website that passes as Facebook in a country where Facebook, along with Twitter, is blocked), he owns two Ferraris and a Rolls-Royce. "Rich people are the masters of their own destiny," is one of his many online declarations. "Poor people think their future is dependent on others."

Shanghai, a city of more than 24 million, has about 166,000 millionaires, according to WealthInsight, which monitors the global rich.

Unlike Zheng, most of China's wealthy made their fortunes through property and manufacturing. Government connections are indispensable.

M1NT was so successful at courting this new crop of millionaires and billionaires that founder Paton says it was Asia's largest seller of Dom Perignon for five years running.

German-born Stefan Langi, a former front-of-house manager at M1NT and a veteran of high-end hospitality, says that when foreigners start businesses in China, it's the same ball game, "but it has completely different rules and while you're playing, the rules are changing".

With about 15,000 customers per week and partnerships with numerous luxury brands – the club had a formula one racing car delivered by crane to hang from its ceiling for one event – M1NT had navigated the treacherous waters of China's hospitality industry with little trouble. That was until Paton made it known that the club was for sale earlier this year.

Last month, while he was negotiating M1NT's sale, it was closed down in a Friday night raid by the Shanghai Fire Department. According to Paton, it demanded the equivalent of $54,000 for M1NT to reopen. M1NT reopened only after Paton sold it to Sino Group, China's largest entertainment company, which owns Myst among other nigthclubs. The former banker claims to be bound by a confidentiality clause regarding the specifics of the sale, although it is believed he sent a group email in the wake of the temporary club closure describing it as a "hostile takeover".

Unique among cities, Shanghai has the dishonour of having its name appropriated in English as a verb to describe a despicable or underhanded act. Traditionally, to be shanghaied was to be abducted to crew a ship, often when under the influence of alcohol and or with the use of violence or drugs. Today it is commonly used in expatriate circles as a euphemism for being ripped off while doing business in Shanghai.

At the twilight of Shanghai's colonial days in the 1930s, the city was so corrupt that its biggest triad boss, "Pockmarked Huang", was simultaneously head of the notorious Green Gang as well as chief of police.

Corruption is still a problem in Shanghai and throughout China. And in the wake of a procession of scandals involving public officials who have used their position to enrich themselves, it is in the crosshairs of Chinese President Xi Jingping's leadership.

Under communist rule before 1978, Chinese society had egalitarian income distribution. Despite economic reforms that lifted more than 500 million citizens out of poverty, according to the World Bank, there is now a gulf between rich and poor not seen since colonial times.

Australian scientist Jacques Miller, 83, spent much of his childhood in Shanghai in a five-storey house with 24 servants. He still vividly remembers excursions to the centre of Shanghai, where "lesion-ridden beggars, some without limbs, plastered their faces, or whichever part of their bodies was disintegrating, onto the windows of our luxury car as soon as we stopped".

So deep was his disgust that Miller believes it may have spurred him into his distinguished career as an immunologist.

Although such scourges as leprosy have been eradicated, the well-heeled patrons of M1NT are greeted by stooping beggars as they arrive and depart. Customised Ferraris share Shanghai's streets with rusted bicycle carts loaded with scavenged recyclable material.

Ten years ago, China had no billionaires. Now there are 315, up from 64 last year according to the Hurun Report, a Chinese rich-list.

Last year's Chinese GDP, was less than $12,000 per capita. Although this is an annual increase of 7.3 per cent, almost 100 million of China's 1.3 billion people live below the national poverty line of around $400 per year, according to state statistics.

An oft-cited statistic in foreign as well as the state-controlled Chinese media is the Gini co-efficient. In 2012, this measure of inequality was estimated as 4.71 by the World Bank. Beyond four is considered the danger zone for social unrest.

To placate public anger at this wealth gulf, the nation's President has, to some extent, stayed true to his promise to hunt "tigers" as well as "flies". His biggest scalp to date is Zhou Yongkang, China's retired domestic security chief and a patron of Xi Jingping's disgraced and imprisoned rival, Bo Xilai. Both men were part of a clique known as the "Shanghai Gang" loyal to Jiang Zemin, Shanghai's mayor before his appointment as Chinese president in 1989. Now Zhou is under house arrest. More than $15 billion in assets have been seized from his family and associates.

Further down the chain, the hunt for "flies" has already had an impact on China's "entertainment' industry. In the 1930s, Shanghai was the world's capital of prostitution, with one out of 130 women plying the trade in a city of 3 million.

In modern China, Dongguan, a city of 8 million in Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong, had the reputation as the country's red light capital. In March, 865 people were arrested in numerous raids, 2400 venues were shut and the city's police chief, Yan Xiaokang, was fired and put under investigation. This month, government officials in the southern mega-city of Guangzhou were banned from attending nightclubs.

No such decree has been given in Shanghai. The city's high-end brothels, often branded as health spas or karaoke venues, still operate with impunity.

In the weeks since the raid on M1NT, Shanghai's nightclubs are also back to business as usual. Yet just as there once seemed no end to Shanghai's 1930s boom and no end to the party, history tells us that there will be. And it will come suddenly and sooner than anyone expects.

Dave Tacon is a journalist and photographer based in Shanghai.

This story Nothing exceeds like excess first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.