Beneath a string of antique Chinese lanterns, a bartender with a thin mustache shakes cocktails in the Django, the cavernous jazz club in the basement of the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca.
“I feel like if I walk back through that door, I’ll be back in the present,” a woman dressed in a dark gown, her hair pulled up into a vintage coiffure, tells LLNYC, pointing to a mirrored exit behind the bar. “I don’t want to go back.”
As we talk, Grammy Award winner Fernando Otero and his Enigma Tango Quartet begin to play another set. Walter Perez and Leonardo Sardella, stars of the queer-tango scene, attract a small crowd of onlookers as they glide across the dance floor.
“I see a lot of 1920s in the room,” the well-dressed partygoer adds, sneering at some of the other guests’ formal wear. “And that woman’s look is a little 1938, don’t you think?”
Nineteen thirty-eight would be only a slight faux pas here, because we’re in Buenos Aires in 1936 — that is to say, we are at a Shanghai Mermaid party.
Founded as an illegal, underground party in a basement in Dumbo 10 years ago by Juliette Campbell, Shanghai Mermaid has become a fixture of New York’s artistic party scene.
“I never really thought it would be something I would do for a living. It was just a daydream,” Campbell tells LLNYC in the living room of her small Soho walk-up. The room is carefully decorated in a sort of French Orientalist style. Her shirt reads, “I am a mermaid.”
Police would often be at a loss during raids
on Shanghai Mermaid — they would storm
in only to discover a black-tie crowd holding
stemware and listening to jazz.
“I thought, ‘I want to have a club that feels like Paris in the ’20s!’ I had no idea that would be a popular thing,” recalls Campbell, a former Broadway actress.
Shanghai Mermaid, which hosts events themed to ultra-specific times and places (Marrakech in 1930 or Mexico City in 1929), started at a time when most assumed NYC nightlife was dead and buried. Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg seemed to have won the war against late-night revelry. But with the classic cocktail renaissance, a mixture of nostalgia and ennui among the city’s bon vivants bloomed into something unexpected: the rebirth of creative nightlife.
“I feel like it was a collective unconscious thing,” Campbell says. “I didn’t know anyone doing it, but I am sure it was twinkle in a lot of people’s eyes.”
Today, experiential, decadent underground parties are everywhere, from House of Yes’s sex-positive romps to You’re So Lucky and the Danger’s immersive performance spectacles. But what sets Shanghai Mermaid apart is its commitment to celebrating the glamour of world cultures. Shanghai Mermaid regulars are also devoted to authenticity. That means black tie is good, white tie is often better, and you should probably consult a fashion historian at Parsons about lapel widths in Paris in 1930 before you come.
Campbell hosts four blowout Shanghai Mermaid balls a year, and once a month, she takes over the Django for a night.
“I produce a lot of world music,” Campbell says, referring to the geographically specific musicians she books for her cosmopolitan events. “I’ll do a flamenco evening and then a tango.”
But capturing the essence of a specific place and time comes with challenges. On a recent Tuesday at the Django, a group of serious tango aficionados got wind of her Buenos Aires party. They filled the dance floor with ballroom experts and complained about the playlist, creating a slightly intimidating atmosphere for the less initiated.
Campbell shrugged with an air of slight exhaustion. “You can’t please everybody,” she says leaning against the bar with her first drink of the night.
But, in fact, Campbell hopes to please many more. Since 2013, Shanghai Mermaid has been basically nomadic, popping up in warehouses and churches, with the occasional residency. From 2009 to 2013, Campbell operated a speakeasy called the Red Lotus Room in Crown Heights. After developers bought the building, Campbell was set adrift.
“It was during the Bloomberg administration, so it was amazing that we got away with it for so long. At first, the police department wasn’t that thrilled with us, but eventually they were pretty cool because they thought we made the neighborhood safer,” Campbell says, recalling that the police would often be at a loss during raids on the illegal Brooklyn club — they would storm in only to discover a black-tie crowd holding glass stemware and listening to hot jazz. “Nightlife has taken a beating with the corporatization of New York,” she adds.
But encouraged by the enduring success of her events, Campbell says that the next step is to open a permanent club once again.
“I love hosting, and I think it would be really fun to do it every night. You can skirt a lot of laws if you are a private club,” she says. “I don’t want it to be pretentious. I’d have artist memberships. It would be on a sliding scale. But I want people to be invested in it. I guess the idea has grown up, just like me.”