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Shanghai’s Peace Hotel Ushers in Tea Dance Revival

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Asia Life

Shanghai’s Peace Hotel Ushers in Tea Dance Revival

A nostalgic social dance in Shanghai that was phased out during World War II has returned.

It was during a dance break when I walked into the Jasmine Lounge of the famous Peace Hotel on the Bund last Saturday. The waitress showed me to the only table available in the room. The others were occupied by people from all walks of life: new parents who brought their baby daughter to celebrate her birthday, young white-collared ladies with their Channel and Gucci handbags, an elderly couple recently returned from overseas, a group of middle-aged tourists from a northern city.

The afternoon tea set (358 yuan, or $58) comes with a pot of Earl Grey and cupcakes, macaroons or pudding, and didn’t seem any different for me from what is served in other cafes, except for a little chocolate dancer standing on the plate to remind me of the theme. And then, the afternoon languor suddenly snaps as people start to whirl to the beat of the music in the front of the room. 

Despite being cuffed for disturbing the community by playing loud music and dancing at Brooklyn’s Sunset Park recently, elderly Chinese are now proving they know how to dance more than the collective square dance. Rather than throwing on a pair of ragged pajamas or baggy T-shirts, these dancers don camellia patterned qipao or silk wide-leg pants in peacock blue with golden high heels. A live orchestra plays classical jazz music, instead of red songs blaring from loudspeakers, as the dancers move across the 10-square-meter indoor dance floor under the exquisite Art Deco dome, instead of a 100-square-meter plaza under the gaze of a statue of Mao. 

“It is the kind of dance I used to go to with my father when I was very little,” Mr. Dong tells The Diplomat. In his seventies, he explains that he has come here with his wife to dance. “The adults used to dress decently and what attracted the kids most were still the cream cakes and butter biscuits.”

It was the 1930s, and such a ball held in the then Cathay Hotel – once the tallest building in Shanghai – was known as Sassoon Tea Dance, named after the founder and owner of the hotel, Sir Victor Sassoon. Only the city’s elites or foreign visitors were allowed to attend and the tickets were always sold out in advance. 

However, the tea dance came to a halt during the World War II. In 1956, the hotel was nationalized and renamed the Peace Hotel. It only accommodated guests invited by state-owned organizations during the planned economy period before 1978. The lounge then remained silent of any dance music for half a century until the hotel decided to revive the tea dance this June. 

“Now the pastries and environment are modernized,” Mr. Dong adds. The hotel has also shifted their focus towards members of the young middle class as their target customers for the dance. However, it seems today’s young generation is not fashionable enough to participate in this revived social institution. 

People aged 40 to 85 account for nearly 80 percent of the customers who come for the nostalgic tea dance, although some young people show an interest in watching others dance. “Unfortunately, not so many of the young generation can dance nowadays,” Belle Bai, Assistant Director of Marketing Communication of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, tells The Diplomat. “But I am sure they are yearning to learn how.”

“I do wish I could one day dance like these ayis (local maids) in the Peace Hotel,” writes 26-year-old Yanyan Feng on a Sina Weibo account. “It would be embarrassing if it turns out I am more clumsy (than the older dancers). But when will I have time (to learn), and who can be my partner to learn dancing?”