Swing and Vintage Culture in China
Vintage culture and swing have developed hand-in-hand in China during the last years. To document this trend, we explored vintage shops in the Gulou area of Beijing and interviewed two emblematic members of the vintage and swing community, who go by the names Leather shoes bro and Yanyan. Leather shoes bro teaches Lindy hop swing at Swing Beijing, and Yanyan is a very active member of the group. She goes by the stage name Shirley Tempest when she performs with the company Moonglow Burlesque.
China Pictorial(cp): What is the relationship between vintage style and swing in China?
Leather shoes bro(lsb): I discovered vintage clothes when I was a student in the UK in 2005. Actually, I started buying second hand clothing because it was cool and cheap, and then I started to really dig into genuine vintage items. And through vintage culture, I discovered swing. I never danced before (unless random disco moves count) and really started around three years ago. By then, soon after discovering swing, one of my swing partners left Beijing. When she came back she was amazed: “Wow, we were beginners together and now you are a teacher!”
Yanyan(yy): I actually had the opposite experience. I first fell in love with swing dance and then started to wear vintage clothes. Some swing events encourage or require people to dress vintage, so at first I was a bit compelled to do so, and now it’s become part of my style. Actually, the swing and the vintage communities partially overlap at an international level, but not as much as they do in China, especially in Beijing.
CP: How would you explain that?
LSB: Vintage stores and swing dancers work hand-in-hand. For instance, we have close ties with MEGA, a store in Gulou. It is how I found out about swing: This place introduced me to Leru, the Russian woman who taught almost all of us in Beijing, especially after Edmund, the American-born Chinese who founded Swing Beijing, left the city. Actually, it is precisely because things started really small with swing and vintage together in a friendly mood that we have such an overlap.
YY: People who start with swing are introduced to vintage style. Leru also does her own vintage clothes, and many of us pick up some vintage designs and go to the tailor to get exactly the clothes we want. One difference between authentic vintage and swing is that sometimes we can’t wear real vintage items for dancing because they are old and fragile, too hot or something else that make them inconvenient. So the tailor or new clothes with a vintage vibe are good alternatives.
People who discover vintage clothes feel that this culture is not only about appearance, and that they are missing something essential. So they pick up swing dance. It makes you really feel this culture.
In the end, things work like a total lifestyle and I think it is the main point. It is impressive how it can change someone’s life. Some of our members joined as very timid people who never left their flat during the weekend and used to wear plain clothes. After some time, they go to concerts, dance, have a sophisticated look and they feel their lives have become much more interesting and colorful.
CP: As you mentioned, some foreigners like Edmund and Leru had or have a big influence on the swing community in Beijing and China. What was their role? What is the proportion of Chinese and foreign people in the community?
YY: At the beginning, Swing Beijing was a group of expats. Then Edmund got a Chinese friend who started promoting it to the Chinese. Swing Beijing grew tremendously. We have more than 300 peo-
ple in our social media group ( Wechat), but not everyone is in it. For bigger events, we can attract up to 200 people at the same time. The interesting thing is that the Chinese fueled this growth. Now they account for 80 percent of the community. This big change started about a year ago, so it is recent.
LSB: I would add that the Chinese who join us usually have experienced some Western culture before. And, some foreigners keep on playing a big role. Of course there is Leru, who is the most experienced teacher and also created Moonglow Burlesque, but I am also thinking about musicians like the Hot Club of Beijing which is a mix of foreigners and Chinese. By the way, there is an international swing community and I attend three to four events abroad every year. So I meet people from countries that have a much longer history with swing. The good thing is that we are getting more recognition. For example, earlier, if we wanted to invite a foreign teacher for a workshop, we had no choice and had to take the only one who was willing to do it. Now people are excited about how swing develops here and we can choose our guests.
CP: How do you think Swing is likely to develop in Beijing and China?
LSB: That is a good question and I don’t have the answer. What I can say is that we are a young community, which is purely hobby-based. No one is at it full time and we don’t do things for money. I have a day job in a telecom company and Yanyan is doing finance. If it keeps growing, it could become my main activity, but it is hard to say now. The situation has its pros and cons. Compared to other places where I have been, the major difference is that we have only one such community. Other countries might have seven or more. There are real swing companies and a lot of competition. It is good for improving the level of the dancers, but being together – laid back and based on friendship – without thinking of profit also has its charm.