Naked truth about Shanghai’s secret VIP expat parties

By Juli Min Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/5 18:48:39


Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

A few months ago, when I first moved to Shanghai, I received a cryptic e-mail inviting me to the exclusive Shanghai Supper Club. This monthly, invite-only dinner is marketed only in English and hosted in a different location every month - revealed only after handing over a 400 yuan ($58.15) deposit. I did not know what to expect, but I thought I'd give it a go.

The night of,I arrived at the venue, a dark lane house in the former French concession that had been renovated into an event space. As I mingled, cocktail in hand, I couldn't help noticing that among all the white faces only three were Asians. For the first time since arriving from the US, I was a minority.

I was also a bit surprised that, despite the fact that most of these expats had been in China for many years, hardly any spoke Putonghua. "Oh I really should get back to my lessons," was the general refrain, followed by a flip of the wrist and a spat of laughter. But the most shocking moment was when one of the guests announced that he was the host of a series of naked parties.

A party where everyone is in the buff? It reminded me of a book I had read just, Midnight in Peking by Paul French, a true account of socialite foreigners in 1930s Beijing who threw salacious sex parties.

The expats of that era, French insinuated, were loosed upon a land where their id could run wild away from the constrictions of society back home. Their foreignness in China in turn inspired reckless, irresponsible and downright murderous behavior.

The people I met at that Shanghai club did not seem particularly criminal. The young man explained that at his naked parties, friends could crack open a beer and socialize as normal ... just in the nude. Other guests around our table peppered him with questions; WeChats were exchanged. At the end of the night I left scratching my head and feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Were those really the most interesting expats Shanghai had to offer?

I understand that it is human nature to seek out people from similar backgrounds and lifestyles. I, too, find it comforting to speak English and meet other Americans when abroad. But those I met that night - and what I have encountered in Shanghai again and again since then - are pockets of expats that have made pretty much no effort to understand and engage with anyone in China outside of their comfort zones and/or income brackets.

Indeed, I have witnessed a variety of foreign communities here who spend all their time enclosing themselves into smaller and smaller circles: it starts with befriending only those who speak the same language, which leads to only eating at Western restaurants and drinking at only the coolest "speak-easy" bars, and finally culminating in this type of VIP invite-only supper club.

Exceptionalism, while perhaps the easy choice for expats who came over on corporate packages, can ultimately beget closed mindedness, elitism and ignorance. If an expat spends five years living in Shanghai, but only hangs out at hipster locales like the former Yongkang Lu, he is the one who loses out.

But what is to be done? Perhaps both Shanghai's expat community and local organizations should put more effort into creating joint multicultural activities and clubs, as well as exchange opportunities for foreigners to work collaboratively with locals in tourism, the arts, or philanthropy.

This autumn, for example, I went on a sponsored trip where expats were paired with travel-minded Chinese. Many friendships (and even one romantic relationship) blossomed. Entrepreneurial innovators might also want to think about developing an app that helps newcomers be aware of locally sponsored cultural events.

As expats, we must remember that we are guests in a country that graciously gives us opportunities for work and travel, and where we should in turn (and out of respect) attempt to become more fluent in the culture and language. Instead of throwing secret parties, how about looking outward and doing more positive and productive things as adults living in a larger society …preferably while wearing clothes.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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