Dancing the Tango Through Mao's Cultural Revolution With Argentinian Pancho and His Orchestra

Pancho and His Orchestra, Tango Time (Vocalion/Decca Records)

On Shanghai dance halls of the late '30s and a vinyl tango artifact that survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919–1954

Publisher: The Chinese University Press
Author: Andrew Field
Publication date: 2011-03
“Tango Delle Rose”, with its hand-numbered label which might indicate its previous use in a “taxi dance” club or a dancing school of the colonial era, is an exciting consideration, lending the record a preciousness beyond its market value.
If there is such a thing as crate digging in China, one is going to have to dig pretty deep (excepting recent imports) or else, as in this case, find the odd surviving 78rpm. The Cultural Revolution that occurred between 1966 and 1976, sought out and destroyed any activity or material deemed bourgeois, any leisurely or hobbyist pursuit that distracted one from the purity of revolution.

Many decades before that tumultuous era, sections of Shanghai had been commandeered by American and European interests. Due to its colonial cosmopolitan past, the city was held in high disregard by Mao Tse Tung, not to mention that it was the location where the Kuomintang duplicitously massacred its communist allies in 1927. After the communists finally took power in 1949, many decades passed before Shanghai resumed its place in Chinese urban culture.

That’s an extreme summation of the historical circumstances, but for the purposes of this article, the European colonial era (or really, the end of that era) was the time and circumstance that produced “Tango Delle Rose” (b/w “Adios Muchachos”) by Pancho and His Orchestra, a 78rpm record that I found in a Shanghai junk shop in 2007. The record was not recorded in Shanghai but was first issued on the Decca label, and then reissued in 1938 by Pathé’s franchise in China.

It also seems necessary to qualify the term “junk shop”; perhaps it was more of an antique store, crammed with all manner of ephemera. But not the kind of antique shop you might find in New Hampshire or Vermont. The store housed books, magazines, posters, sheet music, concert programs, advertisements and 78rpms from the modernist heyday of Shanghai, all the stuff that had survived the purges of the Cultural Revolution.

After rummaging through the shop, perusing its objects as if I was in a museum (as record, book and second-hand stores are wont to be) I found a short, scratchy, haphazardly piled stack of 78rpms, many of which were by the legendary Chinese language “Shanghai Style” singers of the '30s. Though these particular records seemed prohibitively expensive at the time, I now realize (a common regret of the record collector) that they have since doubled or tripled in value. Instead, I bargained and then settled for the unknown Pancho and His Orchestra, which came in at a third of the stated price, but not exactly on the cheap side.

While one can find discographies for Pancho and His Orchestra on the internet, I have yet to come across any serious background or biographic information. One source tentatively states that “...Pancho was originally from Argentina.” It’s probably safe to assume that Pancho and His Orchestra were a niche ballroom dance band, a workhorse, sticking to Tango and Rumba as opposed to jazz, leading to the tentative guess that Pancho was an Argentinian. Judging from a promotional poster found on the web, I would also guess that Pancho, at one time, was based in New York City.

It’s then safe to assume that my 78rpm, given its reputation and condition, is close to worthless on the open market. The song, composed by Italian songwriter Filippo Schreier, was first recorded in 1927, and since then has been covered by a host of international artists, along with the likes of Connie Francis and Frank Sinatra.

But why worry about economic returns? My 78rpm has an intrinsic value precisely through the markings of a previous owner, if not simply by being pressed and released during Shanghai’s intriguing past. In this regard, my indispensable guide became, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics 1919 - 1954 by Andrew David Field (Chinese University Press, 2010).

The European incursions into China in the 19th century (see: Britain’s Opium Wars, which led to the secession of Hong Kong) greatly weakened China’s imperial dynasties. By the '20s, specific areas in Shanghai had been conceded to various foreign powers (The French Concession and International Settlement) while the areas outside those zones were controlled by Chinese warlords and criminal enterprises. The Japanese were also testing the waters, eventually undertaking a full-scale invasion of the country and the expulsion or internment of foreign nationals (see: J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun).

In tandem with these rather unstable conditions, the city’s native population and cultural ambiance began to be greatly influenced by western modernism, in particular jazz and nightclub dancing. Here’s where my copy of “Tango Delle Rose” comes in, with its hand-numbered label which might indicate its previous use in a “taxi dance” club or a dancing school of the colonial era; to my mind, a very exciting consideration, lending the record a preciousness beyond its market value.

“Taxi dance” as a vernacular term is completely apropos. Male clients would pay for a packet of tickets that permitted them to dance with one of the club’s female hostesses, to take a taxi as it were. According to Shanghai’s Dancing World, during the economic recession of 1934 (as quoted from the Crystal newspaper) “ Shanghai cabarets it cost one dollar for three dances. Now in order to attract more patrons, some small cabarets are offering seven dances per dollar. Since everything is expensive in Shanghai nowadays dancing is still a cheap alternative to spending hundreds of dollars at a brothel or singing hall.”

For historical purposes, the service and price have been established, but the rest surely indicates the milieu; the city seems wide-open, decadent. Shanghai’s Dancing World further elucidates that while some “taxi dance” hostesses fell into prostitution that wasn’t necessarily a given (though customers could “cop a feel”). Some hostesses became famous, reported upon in the press and could earn more money this way than by working as a movie actress or singer. (Chapter 4, pgs. 119-152, “Improper Attractions: Cabaret Hostesses and the Popularization of Cabaret Culture in Chinese Society, 1932-1937”, Shanghai’s Dancing World, Field, 2010)

The sultry sound of “Tango Delle Rose” (Pancho’s rendition is wholly instrumental) also seems apropos for that era’s Shanghai. The tango’s tightly wound melancholy evokes one’s imagined scene of such a club. While jazz was the sound of the times, and Shanghai’s upper-crust venues employed well-known African-American jazz musicians such as Buck Clayton, to my ears the genres of rumba or tango had a more lasting influence on modern Chinese pop music. The aforementioned “Shanghai Style”, while a somewhat generic term, frequently uses these rhythms on recordings made in Hong Kong and Taiwan up to and beyond the '60s.

It’s pure speculation on my part as to what the hand-numbered label on my record indicates, but I can be sure that the record was printed in China and was recovered in Shanghai. My talents at sleuthing are far below the forensic level and rely on that most questionable yet fantastic aspect of the human mind: imagination. In the epilogue to Shanghai’s Dancing World, Andrew David Field makes a curious kind of apology concerning the book’s focus on Shanghai’s colonial, decadent and even criminal past as opposed to the revolutionary reformation of China. (Epilogue, pgs. 285-292, Shanghai’s Dancing World, Field, 2010)

Why such a milieu takes hold of our imagination is worth considering, but an opposing term for the era’s “decadence” might be “vibrant”. Sometimes political and social instability, and indeed decadence (as in the erosion of traditional values) makes for a certain type of creative energy, a not uncommon outcome given urbane multi-culturalism, which in Shanghai’s case produced, for example, outstanding writers such as Eileen Chang and Mu Shiying (who has been translated into English by Andrew David Field).

Who, or what, Pancho and His Orchestra really are is the missing key here, but just as Shanghai’s Dancing World states that there were hundreds and hundreds of “taxi dance” hostesses that came and went without a trace, and whose recovered quotidian histories would make for a hefty load of academic analysis or source material for fictional pursuits, we can also rest assured that there is a sky high stack of musicians, now and then, that are vanishing into the ether only to be recovered by way of a fantasy based on some slim artifact such as a recording etched into fragile shellac.

* * *

Unfortunately there are no youtube links for the mentioned song titles, but there are these examples of Pancho and his Orchestra:

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