SHANGHAI MERMAIDS DRAGON BALL
WRITER TEJU COLE ONCE SAID that each part of New York appears to be made of a different substance, with each seeming to have a different psychic weight, a different air pressure.
If that is the case, then to fully experience the city is to be a student of meteorology. What I mean to say is, to explore New York is nothing short of divining how the people and streets and air of each part of the city come together to create their own unique climate systems. But a forecaster’s mind is not enough. To study the weather is not only to embrace the unexpected, but to revel in it.
10:00PM, SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 25TH – CHURCH OF THE HOLY APOSTLES
All of this is to say that when Manuel and I enter the Church of the Holy Apostles for Shanghai Mermaid’s Dragon Ball, we did not expect what was inside. In stark contrast to the scenes outside – shivering, stilettoed partygoers in their uniform mini-dresses queuing up outside a popular nightclub a street over – there is an altogether different atmosphere inside the basilica.
Perhaps now would be a good time to explain what Shanghai Mermaid is. Upon first glance, the organization holds themed, throwback costume parties. Yet, the central conceit of Shanghai Mermaid is its mission to uproot attendees entirely, and abscond with them – to Shanghai them, if you will – to different geographies and time periods. In this case, the Dragon Ball is an escape to the “Paris of the East” in the 1930s, set during a gathering of international socialites.
It is clear, upon our entrance, that the Dragon Ball is nearly a theatrical production. Paper lanterns line the columns; streaming red linens bridge the arches. The tables are center pieced with what seem to be decorative artifacts. Shanghai lounge music by Miss Ling alternates with live jazz by the Sneak Thievery Orchestra and Mara Kaye.
Manuel and I flock to the cash bar, and leave with elderflower-based cocktails in hand. As we wander through the expanse, Manuel spots a professor whose Egyptology class he had once audited – almost unrecognizable in her meticulous costume. We linger at her and her husband’s table, making merriment and people-watching. The guests rather seem like characters: an underworld kingpin, a displaced Russian aristocrat, a visiting Japanese geisha, a British socialite, a lounge singer, a French sailor, a taxi dancer. The costumes are tasteful, and not culturally appropriative. As Manuel and I get ourselves acquainted to other the guests, we uncover that some of them have what seem to be rehearsed alibis.
All this intersects for an atmosphere that is coyly anachronistic, at once a winking acknowledgement of the eclectic absurdity of the Dragon Ball’s elements and an unabashed commitment to the theme.
Suddenly, we look to the side entrance of the basilica, around which there seems to be a procession forming. And then I recognize the visiting Japanese geisha – whom I had previously thought was only a guest – now brandishing a flaming sword. Unbeknownst to me, this particular guest is Masae Cathy Satouchi, a Japanese ritual fire artist.
After the ritual fire performance, the smell of smoke and sulphur lingers, the air having been changed for it.
This performance, as well as those that follow – burlesque by Calamity Chang and Amber Ray; ribbon dance by Ling Tang – are pleasant surprises, an unexpected maelstrom of innuendo and grace.
These performances quickly become the centers of conversations among the guests, and in our collective admiration of these acts, we find ourselves in the society of new friends. While conversing with a successful metals exporter from Beijing, we spot Juliette, the mysterious architect behind Shanghai Mermaid. Ever the elusive type, she remains for a drink and a brief, fleeting exposure – and then she is gone.
At this point I check my automatic, whose earnest hour hand is a reminder that this parlor party must come to an end.
Perhaps this is testament to the quality of the production behind the Dragon Ball. For one night, Shanghai Mermaid has created its own climate system within the Church of the Holy Apostles, in which guests are fully immersed in the unique air pressure and psychic weight of Shanghai in the 1930s.
The lights come on, and I leave the basilica. Outside, the air is crisp, cold. There is not a hint of smoke lingering. Bemused that it is three o’clock in the morning, I nearly forget that I am still in Manhattan.
Shanghai Mermaid’s deliberate mission is to transport an entire group of people not only through space, but time. It is fitting that I should lose track of both while there.
Great for: Those who value immersive settings and themes, live performances, and high-quality costume parties.
Shanghai Mermaid holds soirees about two times a month. Tickets start at $25 depending on the event. To learn more about their next party visit ShanghaiMermaid.com.
We were invited guests to this event, however, the opinions are our own.