It takes certain type of people to dust themselves off, pick themselves up and start all over again, but it takes a certain type of burlesque entrepreneurs to see the potential in a life event and turn it into a show. After sold out previews in New York and Washington DC, Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl hops across the pond for a series of dates at the Edinburgh Fringe. Let’s start at the beginning and how Miss Amelia and Norman Gosney met and became a melting pot of burlesque success…
British born Gosney, residing in the penthouse of New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, had already achieved great success in the mid-nineties by producing the ground-breaking Dutch Weismann’s Follies, a success which he followed up in 2000 by opening the iconic original Slipper Room. Following this he paired up with Miss Amelia and the couple opened the notorious and now legendary illegal speakeasy The Blushing Diamond. Not content with their success in the US they packed their belongings in 2007 and embarked on a new adventure: to open China’s first burlesque nightclub in Shanghai, 2009.
“We were lured to Shanghai over Beijing or Hong Kong because of its reputation as the Paris of the East,” Miss Amelia said of their choice to start anew in Shanghai. “We were in love with the 1930s Hollywood version of Shanghai seen in movies like The Shanghai Express, The Shanghai Gesture, and Lady from Shanghai. It’s always been the most liberal of the Chinese cities; a famous jazz hub, glamorous and mysterious, where foreigners go to escape, which is still true to this day. We also believed that China was the future, that in becoming a modernised, international city we had something valuable and cool to offer. We wanted to do something incredible. And we did.”
“My husband Norman has designed hundreds of nightclubs around the world, and finding the perfect venue is an integral part of having a great nightclub, so he rode his bike around every street in Shanghai for two months before finding the perfect venue for Chinatown: a Buddhist temple built by a Japanese designer in Hindu style architecture, in the Jewish concession in Shanghai, 1931. It was the most spectacular building in Shanghai.”
But the road to true building love never runs smoothly. A long spell involving lots of red tape and bribes was followed by applications for licenses and permission, which resulted in even more bribes and an even longer wait. Even after these were granted there were a new roof, plumbing and electrics to take care of, and then came a very specific request…
“We had to do a cleansing ceremony because the authorities were worried that our dancing might conjure up spirits from the past,” Miss Amelia explained.
And once the ceremony was complete and the authorities satisfied?
“Norman tricked it out with a fully functioning Victorian stage, equipped with a proscenium, Juliet balcony, trap doors, a street lamp, emcee pulpit, and the jazz band had their own stage too. The second floor had private boxes reserved for the rich and famous, and we even had a third floor VIP bar in the heavens where we did late night, risqué performances when the censors weren’t looking. It was truly the most gorgeous nightclub; Norman’s masterpiece.”
They put together a dream team from all over the world.
“We imported our show singer from New York and an emcee from London, and the rest of the cast we met in Shanghai. We had ‘The United Nations of Showgirls’, with girls from Australia, Uzbekistan, Brazil, Russia, England, and the US. Because we had all that time before we opened, we had lots of time to build the troupe’s repertoire. By the time we opened we were a fully formed, 10-strong ensemble with a 6-girl chorus line, ‘The Chinatown Dolls’, and four showmen, with a whole back catalogue of material. Some of the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”
I asked Miss Amelia if there was ever a time when things were happily ticking along.
“Yes, we had an amazing time where Chinatown felt like the centre of the universe, and every night we were living the dream. Doing what we do in China was never easy, though. We got shut down right away after we first opened; it was a crazy nightmare and too long to go into here, but it’s all in the book. Then we reopened and enjoyed being the hottest nightspot in Shanghai, if not Asia. We became an oasis of fantasy and a sanctuary of escapism in the massive, crazy city. We were well aware that we had literally achieved the impossible, and celebrated that fact nightly by producing shows unlike any in the world. It was old-meets-new-meets-21st-Century-China, and we did a different show every night with over a hundred acts in our repertoire.”
But with fame and success came problems for the foreigners, from local jealousy to government spies. It escalated to a night spent in jail, bank accounts frozen, and being forced to escape overnight or else face a long, unwarranted stretch in a Chinese prison. Was there a turning point in all the fabulousness, I wondered?
“The night Norman spent in jail was a big one … and the night I pulled a prop gun on a triad gang who was attacking the nightclub … It was more of an escalation,” Miss Amelia answered.
Now, for the first time, they will expose their astonishing story in a brand new variety show, debuting at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl is a two-person variety show that tells the real-life story of the couple who took on the Communists and beat the odds to open China’s first burlesque nightclub. It’s an adventure, a love story, and a cautionary tale.
Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl preview by Ivy Wilde.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.