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And the band played on

Shanghai's artists fixate on the past, while investors look to the future

The Old Jazz Band is a fixture at Shanghai's Fairmont Peace Hotel. (Courtesy of Fairmont Peace Hotel)

It was one of those chilly, crystal-clear Shanghai nights in early January and the city's two waterfront skylines -- one futuristic, the other historic -- were glittering inimitably at each other across the Huangpu River, luring two very different species of visitor.

On the Pudong side, in the ultra-modern Lujiazui financial district, where three of the world's 25 tallest skyscrapers rub shoulders, 2,400 investors had booked out the Shangri-La Hotel and most other nearby five-star accommodations for Swiss banking group UBS's annual China conference. Their motivation: to glean insights into what the future holds in these volatile times for the world's second-biggest economy.

Across the water on the Bund, the curving sweep of grand colonial-era architecture constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries when Shanghai was controlled by Western powers, tourists and moviemakers were equally fervently throwing themselves back in time.

Of particular fascination: the landmark, art deco 10-story Fairmont Peace Hotel. There in a dimly lit bar, six members of the world's oldest jazz band -- average age 82 -- were wowing cocktail-sipping patrons as they and their forebears have, political conditions permitting, since the hotel opened in 1929.

Fronted by a female vocalist a generation or two their junior, the bow-tied bandsmen's repertoire this evening included the hauntingly evocative 1940s number "Ye Shanghai" (Shanghai Nights) and, perhaps equally appropriately, the "Casablanca" classic "As Time Goes By."

Meanwhile beside the hotel, an entire street had been closed off and turned into a movie set complete with rickshaws, vintage cars and other pre-revolution memorabilia.

Nostalgia for Old Shanghai has long held a fascination for Chinese and Hollywood filmmakers. In 1987, the Peace Hotel featured in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun." In 1991, it was the backdrop for "Center Stage", an award-winning Hong Kong biopic about the tragic 1930s Shanghai-born silent film star Ruan Lingyu.

Members of the Peace Hotel’s Old Jazz Band, average age 82, have seen huge changes in China over their lifetimes. (Courtesy of Fairmont Peace Hotel)

Chinese actress Gong Li strutted her stuff there in 1995 as a 1930s nightclub singer and gangster's moll in Zhang Yimou's "Shanghai Triad." A decade later, so did Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson in James Ivory's "The White Countess."

Hotel publicists are being untypically discreet about the latest movie shoot, but it's whispered that the glamorous Gong has once again been spotted gliding through the hotel's lovingly restored public spaces.

As for me, a spectator at both the investor conference and the jazz bar, and having inadvertently also stumbled onto the movie set, I ended the night standing on the Bund, shivering in the January cold, gazing out across the river to the bauble-adorned Oriental Pearl Tower and pondering whether Shanghai's turbulent past held any clues to the country's future prospects.

On almost this very spot in 2010, I had interviewed the legendary British investor Anthony Bolton, who had just set up the Fidelity China Special Situations investment trust after delivering 19.5% annual returns for the previous 28 years with a U.K.-focused fund. Despite being described in the Chinese tabloids as the "God of Stocks," Bolton never replicated anything like that success in China. He retired four years later having delivered just 5% returns over the entire period. But one of Bolton's investment philosophies stuck in my mind: the old Mark Twain-attributed bromide -- that history never repeats itself, but it does sometimes rhyme.

Zhou Wanrong, 97, might agree with that. The oldest member of the Peace Hotel's Old Jazz Band, he was born in Wuhan in 1920 when Sun Yat-sen's nationalists ruled China and moved to Shanghai in his teens after the invading Japanese occupied his home town. Shanghai then was a world center of capitalism and ostentatious consumerism, where entertainment -- licit and otherwise -- flourished to a jazz sound track. Dubbed either the "Pearl" or the "Whore" of the Orient (depending on your perspective), it was indisputably under foreign control and had been since Britain forced the Qing dynasty to sign the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing and allow so-called foreign "concessions."

The Japanese occupation of Shanghai killed the fun for a while, but by 1947, Zhou was back playing trumpet with band leader Jimmy King. Following the Communist victory in 1949, Shanghai's night life withered and the versatile Zhou joined the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the music died almost entirely. Zhou and his fellow musicians only realized the upheaval was finally over when they switched on the radio one morning and heard Beethoven's Fifth being played.

Then in 1980, following Deng Xiaoping's reforms, the Peace Hotel -- opened in 1929 as the Cathay Hotel by British tycoon Victor Sassoon -- decided to relaunch its jazz bar. Ever the survivor, Zhou became the bandleader and he and his old timers have been playing ever since. Even when a stroke felled him, Zhou merely switched from trumpet to maracas and continued to front the band, albeit these days only occasionally.

I first saw Zhou and his band play in 1993 -- a fine rendition of Glen Miller's "Little Brown Jug" sticks in my mind. Since then, Shanghai has transformed itself again. From the vantage point of the Peace Hotel, the band has watched it happen as Pudong's rice fields across the river became China's Manhattan-like high-rise financial center and Shanghai once again became a symbol of wealth and designer chic. In Zhou's lifetime, history has indeed rhymed, but only after some desperate times.

Shanghai is China on steroids. Yet over the years, investors who visited here have seldom been completely at ease for fear that the China boom someday just as spectacularly bust.

This year may just be an exception. At the UBS China conference, both investors and speakers seemed cautiously upbeat, certainly more so than when I attended in 2017. As Wang Tao, the bank's chief China economist, joked during a presentation: "This is the first year that I haven't been asked by clients whether China is about to crash."

In a country that's now a world leader in everything from fintech to artificial intelligence, does China's history offer any clues to its future prospects? Perhaps not. Or perhaps when the Chinese rollercoaster embarks on its next scary plunge, it's reassuring to know that the country has come though much worse during the lifetimes of six resilient old jazz men.

William Mellor is a Hong Kong-based writer and former Beijing correspondent for Bloomberg News.

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