Swing and Vin­tage Cul­ture in China

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text and photographs by Lau­rent Hou

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.

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