Shanghai Cabaret comes to Auckland

Ready for an East-meets-West immersion into 1920s and '30s Shanghai? Australia’s cabaret star Sophie Koh, who is Kiwi-born, performs as Shanghai Mimi in Auckland this week. Koh speaks with Asia Media Centre. 

Koh gets ready backstage | Image: Claudio Raschella

According to Sixth Tone, in the 1920s and '30s, Shanghai was known as a city of sin: a “Paris of the East” famous for its rich nightlife and debauchery. It was the other cabaret capital of the world; a place where the idyllic fishing village of Shanghai was transformed into a bustling city of late night jazz clubs.

Auckland-born Sophie Koh, a musician based in Melbourne, will embody that 20th Century Shanghai fantasy in her hometown this week, as she performs as “Shanghai Mimi” at The Civic on 15 and 16 September 2022.

“I’m an indie pop artist,” says Koh, who has released four albums but never performed in the cabaret style until two years ago. “My parents are Malaysian Chinese, my grandparents were born in China and moved to Malaysia around the 1920s,” Koh says. “Mum grew up singing these kinds of songs, and anyone in the Chinese diaspora would know them. Given my grandmother left China around the time they were first sung, this is like going full circle.”

The Shanghai Mimi Band’s first ever New Zealand performances thus represent an exciting return to home for Koh. “Growing up in Auckland, I wanted to be white,” she says. “And when I had my own children, I started to wonder why I was singing The Sound of Music to them and not songs in Mandarin.”

Koh in the gold dress | Photo: Supplied

Through the process of researching and performing as Shanghai Mimi, Kohfeels like she is doing her younger self justice for not appreciating her Chinese roots. “But I don’t want to only revisit old songs. And you don’t need to speak Mandarin to enjoy the show. Even kids like it.”

Few know that Shanghai was one of the epicentres of jazz in the first half of the 20th Century. “It was the best of New Orleans and New York,” says Koh. “It was Chinese folk music, oriental melodies, mixed with American big band.”

For a 2022 audience, Koh takes what she knows about the era and creates her own idea of what it would have been like as a jazz singer in Shanghai 100 years ago. “The fantasy is glitter, gold, red, smoky bars, saxophones…” she says. “I want to reintroduce this music to people. It’s a celebration.”

Yet as an indie pop singer, Koh had never even worn heels. “Fake eyelashes are definitely a new thing for me,” she laughs. “But all that dressing up in costume – like putting on a gold dress – fees so ME now. I’m embracing the role.”

This show will be the first Shanghai Mimi performance in New Zealand | Photo: Supplied

To those who remain worried about their ability to enjoy a bilingual show, Koh comments, “Why does cabaret have to be in English? Or in another European language like French? Shanghai in the 1920s was when East and West collided and that’s at the heart of the show.”

As a Chinese-presenting female, singing in Mandarin, on stage in a gold dress, does Koh feel a responsibility to the Chinese-Kiwi and Chinese-Australian communities? “The question of where I’m from comes up constantly – from the stage to taxi drivers. There’s an assumption about being from the outside looking in.

“There is pressure, but I really hope the Chinese diaspora, an audience that might not speak Mandarin, will feel they belong with these songs. Even if they know nothing about Shanghai in the 1920s.”

Embodying the character | Photo: Supplied

Koh hasn’t seen performances like hers often, so there’s power in representation, too. “I don’t see this on stage. People sometimes start crying at the songs because they heard them on the radio growing up. Growing up my mum would sing these songs in the kitchen, but I didn’t know what they were back then.”

The performances of The Shanghai Mimi Band are part of Auckland’s cabaret season, which also features a lot of burlesque performers. “It’s amazing to be around burlesque,” Koh reveals because of its gender diversity and inclusion of indigenous artists. “I don’t take my clothes off, but it’s really something being around the other performers who do.”

Koh believes cabaret are more welcome than ever in a post-pandemic world because of the intimacy of performances. “In cabaret, you own the space. You know every angle of the room and the audience is small – 50 to 100 people. I walk through the crowd, touch their shoulders, and sing directly to them. A community is drawn there.”

This is particularly important for cities like Auckland and Melbourne (where Koh lives) because of the harsh lockdowns they have endured. “Cabaret is the opposite of how we’ve been living the last two years,” she adds. “One of my fellow artists I’ve seen get naked, ask people for consent to hug them, and eight out of 10 times they’ll literally jump up to do it. People really need it.”

Koh performing in Sydney | Photo: Supplied

- Asia Media Centre