In August of 2009 I googled “music live bar shanghai” during dinner one evening in Hongkou. Live Bar was the first result and only a few blocks away. Upon my arrival the owner Lao San put a fifth of Jack in one hand and a guitar in the other. We’ve been friends ever since.
The 25th of August marks the seventh year of Live Bar in Shanghai; if any reading this remembers previous Live Bar anniversary shows they will know this is an event not to be missed. In honor of this occasion it was recommended I interview Lao San. I agreed on the condition I would be given instructions on how to conduct an interview. The below is the result.
老Lao Bi: How’s Xiao Fan?
Lao San: Still living
About two weeks ago Lao San invited a group of us to dinner on a Sunday as his new born daughter had made it to the 100 day old mark. These dinners are great as the host is able to move the group back to his bar for open mic 民谣 which on most occasions dilapidates into a free for all chaos. This particular evening while at Live Bar Xiao Fan opted to use the bathroom on the second floor of the building; hit his head on the toilet seat, and bled out for about an hour until the Security making their rounds noticed the blood coming out of the urinal stall.
Lao Bi: So this is the 7th year of Live Bar. It all began on Kunming road – no, actually the first Live Bar you opened was in Zhuhai, correct?
Lao San: Correct –my brother 老二 and I opened it together in 2001. Then in 2005 we opened up the Live Bar on Kunming road.
Lao Bi: How did you pick the Hongkou/Yangpu area?
Lao San: Right, how did we pick this area? Oh, I remember, Lao Er got a shitty old bicycle and rode around Shanghai for about three months. Couldn’t find a suitable space in any other district, or space were we could host the shows we wanted to. Finally he found the spot on Kunming road.
Lao Bi: It was that difficult? There were no other Live Houses back in ’05?
Lao San: There were, but not specifically geared towards having bands playing live music – maybe just some of the old ones like Hei Shazi; Kao, I guess it would be easier to say at that time there was no Mao (in Shanghai).
Lao Bi: So you were the first to have a Live House to have underground bands in Shanghai?
Lao San: No, I can’t say that – there were a few when I got here, but they always seemed to shut down pretty fast. Usually for the normal reasons; not making money, real-estate got sold out from under them.
Lao Bi: Which brings me to ask why did Kunming shut down?
Lao San: The whole block got sold; they turned it into a high-rise or something. I had to relocate up to Guo Shun Dong road up by Wu Jiao Chang
I actually remember that period; it was definitely not a fun time for Lao San. It was the summer of 2010 during the height of the World Expo. During those six months while Lao San was trying to find a new space amidst skyrocketing rental prices he had to negotiate bribes and guanxi with local police, local mafia and landlords. At times these could all be one person. Towards the end of fall that year I got an excited call from him that he had finally found a space. When I arrived at what now is Live Bar Lao San was standing in an empty cement room with absolutely nothing in it but a pile of sand and cement in the center. He hired a small work crew to help him install the second level, and pretty much built the stage and bar himself. When I asked him what he planned to about the floor he replied, “Shit, looks good to me, this ain’t no five star hotel”.
Live Bar as it was...
Lao Bi: You think you will continue Live Bar for another seven years?
Lao San: I’ll keep doing it until I can’t anymore
Lao Bi: What change have you seen in the Shanghai music scene over the past seven years?
Lao San: I’ve seen a huge change.
Lao Bi: As in?
Lao San: In bands breaking up. Got to get a job sometime.
Lao Bi: And musically?
At this he started to formulate an answer then paused, smiled, and gave a small shrug.
Lao San: Bands come and go; in Shanghai we have gotten a nice wide spectrum of each style.
Lao Bi: Which bands are you enjoying currently?
It was suggested I ask this question; not one I would ever ask myself as it puts my friend in the dilemma of allocating ‘face’ to certain parties while ignoring others. I asked it anyway just to give him shit, and also no one else was around
Lao San: Do you mean domestic or foreign bands?
Lao Bi: Let’s just consider any bands that come through Live Bar…
Lao San: Chinese or Laowai?
Lao Bi: At your discretion
Lao San: Oh, well, in that case I got to say I really I love those Laowai bands; which ones exactly I can’t really say because the English names are hard for me. Excuse me I’ve got a phone call……
So there you have it, Live Bar's 7th year anniversary is this Saturday (25th August) - here are all the details you need to know - Event Listing
WORDS: Lao Bi / Lao San
PICTURES: Lao Bi