The Civic’s Wintergarden is a 1920s smoky jazz club when I come to watch the Shanghai Mimi Band. Thick red curtains are draped behind the band, fog machines send shapes curling through the moody spotlights. Shanghai Mimi herself, 许舒慧 Sophie Koh, makes the diva’s entrance she deserves. I can’t help snapping a picture of her posing glamorously on the stairwell in her sequined gown. She also does an outfit change halfway through the show, and I eat it up.
时代曲 (shidaiqu) is a seamless fusion between Chinese folk music and American jazz. The band is from Melbourne, and Koh’s cultural tapestry is rich, stretching from China to Malaysia to Singapore to her birthplace, Aotearoa. 时代曲 is fusion music becoming even more infused with complexity and history with every performance.
It’s hard to articulate the romance of live jazz. The band is skilled and familiar— – I love to watch musicians communicate with nods and raised eyebrows and telegraphed breaths. Sort of like listening in on a particularly interesting conversation on the bus. They’re doing it in public, so you can’t really help overhearing, but at the same time, it’s more fun because it’s not meant for you.
It’s especially romantic hearing live jazz sung in both of the languages you grew up speaking – it’s something I’ve never experienced before, and it is enthralling. Koh is a skilled singer and an even more skilled performer. She switches effortlessly between the bird-like head voice characteristic of Chinese folk music, and a low, chesty purr one expects in jazz. The stage set aside for her is small, so she makes the whole room her stage, walking amongst the tables of people sipping champagne and nibbling off of charcuterie boards. But she’s not only walking through the audience, she invites us in, too. During a rendition of ‘月亮代表我的心’ (‘The Moon Represents My Heart’), a famous love song by Teresa Teng, Koh hands the microphone to anyone who wants to sing. At least four4 people have a go, even one person who has to look up the lyrics on their phone. The last brave performer ends his solo by thanking Koh for singing in our language.
Throughout the show, Koh pauses between songs to set the scene, silky smooth voice expounding on the history of the music. Shanghai was an international music hub in the 1920s. ‘Paris of the East, New York of the West’, they called it. I don’t like that phrase—Shanghai is not an exotic copy of Paris, or New York. Shanghai is its own city, with a rich history that shouldn’t be defined by the white man’s shorthand. There are a lot of stories to tell, and Koh makes sure to take the time to tell us some of them.
One of these interludes is different—it’s Sophie Koh’s story.
Her grandmother was from Fujian, sent off to Malaysia to be married to a man she’d never met. When she arrived, she struggled to communicate—she was illiterate, and didn’t speak Malay or Mandarin. She worked in a cigar factory to put all twelve of her children through university. One of those children was Koh’s father, who went to the University of Auckland.
This is Koh’s first time visiting Aotearoa in 20 years, and it is also her first overseas performance. She tells us that some of her relatives are sitting in the audience. Her tears don’t impede the resonance of her voice as she sings a song that’s close to her heart. She translates the lyrics to English…
Don’t ask me where I’m from
My home is far away