This image of the old Canidrome Race Track and Ballroom 逸園跑狗場 (Shaanxi Nan Rd. and Yongjia Rd.) was taken on October 13, 2003. The dog racing area is now a large flower market, with entrace on Shaanxi Nan Lu. The old main entrance to the Canidrome on Yongjia Lu (the former Rue Lafayette) is at the end of a long driveway, but is shut with a locked gate. Entrance can also be gained from Shaanxi Nan Lu. In the main building is the old Ballroom where Buck Clayton and his Harlem Gentlemen played in 1934, and in an adjacent domed building is another old ballroom now used for a martial arts gym.*|
* In February, 2006 the flower market was closed and the old Canidrome racetrack building, including the main building with the ballroom, was demolished.
In 1934, the young trumpet playing band leader Buck Clayton, and his band The Harlem Gentlemen,debarked onto Shanghai's Bund under contract to play at the plush Canidrome Ballroom 逸園跑狗場 in Shanghai. Buck's band was the first American jazz band to come to Shanghai under contract, although individual American musicians had visited, including the jazz singer Midge Williams* who performed at the swank Canidrome in 1933, one year before Buck's arrival. At that time, most of the bands at Shanghai's many nightclubs and cabarets were Philippino or White Russian. Buck played in Shanghai for two years and had a major impact on the development of jazz in Shanghai.
Buck enjoyed Shanghai and things went well at the Canidrome ballroom until one night a white,lowlife bouncer from the Venus Club, Jack Riley, was drinking at the Canidrome and beckoned Buck to his table. As the newspaper reported it the next day, in Damon Runyonesque prose:
"The place is the Canidrome. The time is 11pm Tuesday. Buck Clayton's band is playing a lilting tune. The Hollywood Blonds are just about to put on a number. Mr. Jack Riley, ex-American sailor, who at one time was No. 1 at Riley's Bamboo Hut, now transformed into the Venus, and who a year ago sold his Manhattan Bar, famous gathering spot for the Asiatic Fleet, is sitting at a table with two girls...Some say Riley did not like Clayton's smile, others that Clayton asked Riley to tone down. Anyway blows were struck and Buck Clayton fell. Silence for a minute, then members of the band made for Mr. Riley.
The spotlight switches to the dance floor. Riley is eagle-spread and reports indicate that one of the band members sat on his chest and proceeded to pummel him. There was no panic because the very few guests that were there did not know whether it was part of the floor show or not. The curtain came down on this scene all too quickly, the battle being halted before it became serious. Casualties reported: Riley, slightly swollen face, plenty of body bruises; Clayton, a black (sic.) eye; other musicians minor bruises...Later Riley returned. No, he did not bring a gang with him. He came back with his hands in his pockets grumbling about some papers he had lost. He said nothing of the fight, perhaps because Mr. Riley is a hardy and courageous guy. (??!?) We remember Mr. Riley as an outstanding fighter in the Shanghai Volunteer Corps amateur bouts of a few years ago. He was plenty good, tough and game."
Due to this fracas Buck's contract with the Canidrome was terminated and he was left stranded in Shanghai with no funds to return to America. But there was more than one dance hall in Shanghai and Buck soon found work in a less upscale club, The Casanova Ballroom, which had a more Chinese shopkeeper clientele. There he arranged and played Chinese pop songs as well as his own style of jazz.
I knew little about Buck until I read Andrew Jones' book 'Yellow Music', a fascinating history of the development of popular music in Shanghai in the 1920's and 1930's. Intrigued, and thanks to the internet, I made contact with the Buck Clayton Collection at the University of Missouri, in Kansas City where Buck started out his musical life. They kindly emailed me some images from Buck's photo album; pictures of the band standing on the stage of the Canidrome, Buck and his band clowning around with a rickshaw, and one untitled photo of a large, ugly, sprawling white building which I assumed must have been the Canidrome.
But where was this Canidrome, and what became of it? Today there are a number of old nightclub dance halls remaining in Shanghai, most notably the Bailemen 百樂門 in Jingan District, which was recently lavishly refurbished and where the old Yellow Music is still played, as sedate, self-conscious ballroom dancers pirouette on the floor. I asked around and was told that the Canidrome was somewhere in the French Consession.
Looking at my Taiwan pirate copy of the guidebook 'All About Shanghai' which had been mouldering on my bookshelf for years, I found it was the 1934-35 edition, published by the University Press in Shanghai while Buck was here. On page 42 I found an ad for the Canidrome Ballroom, and a photo of the ballroom with the notation; "Music by Teddy Weatherford, Presenting Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen,". On page 77 I found a list of Cabarets and Ballrooms with the Canidrome's address at 1189 Rue Lafayette (todays Fuxing Lu). I walk this street often and but had never seen any building resembling the image in the photo sent me.
Curious as to where the name originated I googled the web and came up with many Canidrome websites, all in Macau, where there is still a venerable Canidrome in operation. The main business of both the Shanghai Canidrome then and the Macau Canidrome now was and is greyhound dog races. Of course, I now realized, the 'Cani' of Canidrome must be from the word canine. Greyhound racing and gambling was a lucrative business, in old Shanghai and I suppose the ballroom attached to the Canidrome provided solace and entertainment for customers who had lost money to the dogs, and now could lose even more to the charming hostesses.
Asking a few friends I was told the Canidrome used to be where the Flower Market now is on Shaanxi Nan Lu, but that it had been torn down long ago.Late Saturday afternoon, October 11, 2003, after fortifying myself with a cup of java and an old fashioned donut at Mr. Donut on Huaihai Lu, I strolled south on Shaanxi Nan Lu. At the Fuxing Lu crossing I could see nothing remotely resembling the old Canidrome, so I continued on to the the Flower Market. On previous visits I had not paid much attention to this nondescript metal beamed structure, with two floors and a cavernous ceiling disguised by canvas squares and wide metal staircases leading to a second floor
It looked faily old, but all old buildings look very old in Shanghai, and it could have been 30 years or 80 years old, I couldn't tell. Perhaps the stairways could have led to a balcony with an open atrium over a race track; it was certainly large enough. Over on one side there are concrete tiers, which could have been seats in a stadium with faded numbers painted on them. The railings on the stairways to the second level are decorated with metal grill work that looks more French than post-liberation Chinese design. But the building in no way resembles the photograph and even more important it is on the wrong road! The Canidrome was on Rue Lafayette, today's Fuxing Lu, not Shaanxi Nan Lu.
Retracing my steps north on Shaanxi Nan Lu, I turned right on Fuxing Lu and stopped at an old camera shop to inquire. They confirmed the dog racing track was originally just behind their shop but that today there was nothing left of it. This excited me beacause I felt I was closing in, and I know from experience that when someone in China says that 'nothing remains', this means that they don't know, are not interested, or perhaps don't want you to go there. In this case I assumed the former.
Twenty meters east of the camera shop is a long dead end road leading southward. I walked down this road past an internet cafe on the left. It was getting late and the light was fading. Just past the internet cafe I came to a large metal gate tightly shut. I found the entrance to a school on the left, walked in, past a couple of buildings and out another gate by a pile of garbage and there looming directly in front of me was the Canidrome, just as ugly as the photo, but not nearly as white! It is delapidated, grimey, a discarded relic of the past. I tried to snap some pictures in the gloom but it was too late and I determined to return the next day.
Armed with umbrellas, it was a rainy Sunday, and interested friends who joined me, we walked to the Canidrome. On the right side of the building we found a domed structure. Entering we found a large ballroom that is now being used as a martial arts gym. My heart pounded as I pictured Buck on the bandstand and skirmishing with 'Mr.' Riely on the dance floor, but then as I looked around more carefully it was clear this was not the ballroom where Buck played. The column and ceiling details were not the same as the photographs.
The main entrance to the Canidrome is in the central,tallest section on the building. Inside is a large ancient metal grilled elevator going up four floors. There was only one attendant on duty, it being Sunday, and she said the building was used by the Shanghai Puppet Theater group. On the second floor we came upon another large ballroom and this is the one where Buck Played! The layout has been changed a bit and the room is shortened a third by a stage at one end. Half the ballroom is taken up with storage of the Puppet theater's cases and props.
The ballroom is dark and dingy today but if you listen carefully you can hear the faint sounds of Buck Clayton's trumpet and his Harlem Gentlemen belting out 'Buckin' The Blues' and the swishing of silk dresses gliding around the ballroom., and the fainter sound of of Derby, Buck's wife singing the blues.
After Buck Clayton left Shanghai, he went on to become a major force in jazz as trumpet player and arranger for Count Basie and his own small combos. He died in 1991 at the age of 80. He always said the happiest days of his life were those he spent in Shanghai.
* "Midge and her brothers formed a song and dance act. The "Williams Quartette" and performed in churches and theaters in the San Francisco Bay area, including amateur night at the Lorin Theater. Roger Segure,a music student and globetrotting pianist living in Oakland, became their arranger and manager. In 1933, they all departed for an engagement at Shanghai's swank Canidrome. From China, the Quartette went to Japan where Midge and her brothers performed in clubs and dance halls. In February 1934, Midge made the first five sides of her recording career, singing her songs' lyrics in both Japanese and English. George Yoshida, in his book Reminiscing in Swingtime, stated that Midge "played an influential role as the prototype jazz singer at the beginning of the Japanese swing era." (From the website Hidden Treasures from the Archives of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, Calafornia.)