In the boudoir with Shanghai's Chinatown Dolls

In the boudoir with Shanghai's Chinatown Dolls

The proprietors behind Shanghai's first burlesque -- er, 'varieties' -- club bare the secrets to its impending success
Chinatown Shanghai
Lace-up costumes offer a hint of seduction, and the Chinatown Dolls promise to do the rest.

Editor's Note: For photos from Chinatown's private opening, see our gallery.

As the Chinatown Dolls struggle with their detachable fishtail-style skirts, one of them blurts out, “this Velcro gave us rashes on our butts yesterday!” The five dancers erupt into giggles.

With only days until the private opening of Gosney & Kallman’s Chinatown nightclub (private opening was on Sept. 18 and the public opening will be on Oct. 9), the Chinatown Dolls are grappling mightily with the logistics of their elaborate costumes, many of which are designed for easy on-stage removal.

Chinatown ShanghaiGosney: "We were looking for a virgin market"

Rashes in unfortunate places are but among many 'kinks' to be ironed out. New floors are still being laid down at the venue -- a renovated Buddhist temple (which was also once home to a CCP gym and Egyptian-themed KTV) -- and the Chinatown management must decide which sausages to use for the club’s gourmet hotdogs, which will be offered to patrons on the balconies by vendors on stilts. Of course.

From New York to Shanghai

So what exactly is Chinatown? Mindful of the need for continued support from the local Shanghai government, “we’re not using the word ‘burlesque,’” says proprietor Norman Gosney. “I prefer the word ‘varieties.’ All forms of entertainment from a pre-television era.”

For Gosney -- the New York nightclub impresario whose credits include designing ‘80s Manhattan hotspot Danceteria, and, more recently, founding Lower East Side burlesque club The Slipper Room -- Shanghai was a natural next-step.

“Having reached the top in New York, we were looking for a virgin market,” he says with a cheeky raise of one eyebrow. “And there was Shanghai, the hottest city in the world. It’s not the same energy as New York City in the ‘80s, but it has the same volume.”

And so, after 23 years living in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, Gosney, with his wife and business partner Amelia Kallman, made the move to Shanghai in 2007 and began laying the groundwork for their most ambitious project to date: Gosney & Kallman’s Chinatown, a vaudevillian nightclub in a city already saturated with all things glam and splashy.Chinatown ShanghaiGosney & Kallman moved to Shanghai in 2007

Preparing for the big night

With the venue still under construction, the performers have convened for rehearsal at the Gosney-Kallman home, an aptly glamorous building in Shanghai’s former French Concession, built in 1931.

Kallman, an Oxford-trained actress and one of Chinatown’s star dancers, is perched on the edge of her bed, wearing a blonde wig, sheer robe, black thigh-high stockings and a corset accented with black feathers around the bust.

As she watches the Chinatown Dolls run through their numbers, Kallman seems oblivious to the chaos surrounding her; her bed is a sea of parasols, costume jewelry, lengths of tulle, faux-mink stoles and other props.

After critiquing the Doll’s performance of “Take Back Your Mink” from “Guys and Dolls,” Kallman switches effortlessly from the director’s chair to the spotlight, taking center-stage for her rendition of the “Blazing Saddles” number, “I’m Tired.”

While the performances draw heavily on the American songbook, Chinatown also pays tribute to the razzle-dazzling charm of Shanghai past and present.

Chinatown ShanghaiKallman is the star of Chinatown's Chinatown DollsThis is evident not only in some of the performances -- a Shanghainese dialect version of “Anything Goes,” a rendition of James Cagney’s “Shanghai Lil,” an homage to legendary Chinese-American burlesque artist Noel Toy -- but also in the makeup of the cast, which includes a pair of twin Shanghainese acrobats.

Chinatown plans to incorporate regular local guest performers into the shows over time.

The Chinatown Dolls themselves are a melting-pot dance troupe, representing nations from China to Australia to Uzbekistan.

Will they succeed?

In a city so rife with nightlife options, will consumers embrace Chinatown as more than a novelty night out?

Gosney, no stranger to operating destination nightclubs, believes he has Chinatown’s sustainability down to a near-science.

As another nightlife veteran once advised Gosney, the key ratio is one-to-four. As he puts it, the clientele of any successful nightclub should be “20 percent beautiful people, and 80 percent people who are willing to pay to be near beautiful people.”

So long as Chinatown sticks to this formula, Gosney is confident in the long-term appeal of a spot that “people can walk into to suspend their realities.”

Getting there

471 Zhapu Lu, near Haining Lu 乍浦路471号, 近海宁路
tel +86 21 6258 2078