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[Shanghai Undercover]: The Chinese Club Promotion Game

The smoke and mirrors behind the free alcohol and tables...
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Antonio Chang (not his real name) offered to take us into the clubbing world to reveal exactly what he did as a "promoter" in Shanghai's nightlife industry. What follows is his own words, elucidating the different kinds of clubs in the city, the strategies and business models they use to make money, and the role of race politics on the dancefloor (or booked table). All names and places in this article have been changed.

All illustrations by Francine Yulo.

If you are white and you like to go clubbing, there is a good chance someone has approached you, offering you free alcohol and maybe even a table for you and your friends. Maybe you took them up on that deal, went out, got wasted, and had a wicked time. Now that guy -- The Promoter -- is your guy. He gets you into all the hottest clubs with endless drinks. But who is he really? What is going on behind the scenes? And who is paying for all of this?

Enter into the promotion game, a world of deceit, backstabbing, and shady characters. I did a stint in it myself, and this is how it works.

The Clubs

In Shanghai, you have your underground clubs, your "Western-style" clubs, and your "Chinese-style" clubs. The underground clubs are the ones with bad toilets, cheap drinks, and are sometimes actually under the ground. The Western clubs are the ones with dress codes, a mixed crowd, and typically have a cover at the door. The Chinese clubs have dice -- if you see dice, and the music is so loud you can't hear them shake, you're in a Chinese club. And there's one more distinction -- the Western and Chinese clubs use promoters to help get people in the door.

Note: The "promoters" I refer to are not DJs or crews pushing their own events, but rather people contracted and paid to bring "customers" to clubs so they look busy and more "international". Their biggest clients are Chinese clubs, but Western clubs rely on them too.

The business model for Western clubs is simple -- get as many people in as possible, and have them buy drinks (or better yet, bottle packages). To help this process along, clubs give promoters their own passwords so people can get in for free or at a discounted rate. This password is also the way that the clubs track how many people the promoter brought in.

In general, Western clubs don't care what their guests look like, so long as these guests are in and spending money. I've brought in non-aesthetically pleasing guests and legions of Asian college kids, and it doesn't matter -- Western clubs paid me all the same. The opposite is true for Chinese clubs. Their designs reveal their true intentions -- tables, tables, and more tables.

To get a table at a Chinese club, patrons are expected to spend a minimum of 2000-3000rmb, depending on the venue, but many will spend 10,000rmb or more, easily. The people buying the tables are kids with rich parents, big bosses, and occasionally, friends splitting the cost. This is where the real money is. But these clubs have to compete with each other, and that means they need certain types of people in their clubs.

The first type is obvious -- females. Generally, the girls you see in these clubs are in-house paid models that work for a starting commission of 600rmb per table. Table-buyers choose a girl then pay to sit and drink with them. Girls that do not get selected do not get paid. This is why you walk into these clubs and see loads of attractive females girls looking bored and scrolling through their WeChats. They haven't been chosen yet and aren't making a dime. How much they make depends on a couple factors. Foreign club models can get paid 1000rmb or more, depending on the club. Qian Qian, a Chinese club model whose WeChat moments are filled with pictures of modeling jobs at car exhibitions and TV show sets, once told me that she makes 800rmb instead of 600rmb because she has Russian ancestry. I didn't buy the Russian ancestry story but I believe the club bought it and paid her extra for it.

The club also needs Chinese youngsters. A lot of the table-buyers are older or at least in their 30s, and clubs want to appear trendy, and more importantly, busy. No one wants to go to an empty club. Even on Mondays, you never know when some rich fuerdai is going to show up, ready to drop G's. Most Chinese clubs have in-house promoters that bring in friends throughout the week. The clubs provide cheap, premixed, alcohol, so these local kids can roll dice all night long. But that's about all they do. They drink, they play dice, and they stick to their tables. It's not enough.

The clubs need something else. They need foreigners. In their minds, they specifically need white foreigners. The old tropes that white foreigners are high-class, high-status still holds strongly in Shanghai's nightlife industry (not as much as before, but certainly still the case outside of major cities). Some club managers believe that white foreigners bring an "international" atmosphere to the club. If these white people like the club, then the club must indeed be good. Clearly not the case, but that's the thought process.

In addition to adding "status" to the club, foreigners also go apeshit on the dance floor. They tend to be a really happy lot, good for getting way too fucked up and therefore "getting the party going". Chinese customers generally aren't much for dancing, especially if no one else is dancing yet. But foreigners don't give a shit. They'll go up there and start doing the Macarena to Korean rap songs -- they have zero shame. They breathe life into the party and brighten the atmosphere of the club.

An interesting question is if clubs actually need white people. They certainly believe they do (otherwise, this industry would not exist), but this quality of getting hype and turnt up obviously doesn't only apply to white people. If a club hired some pro Chinese dancers to start dance parties every night, they'd probably achieve a similar result. The status aspect of white customers may not be as important as clubs seem to think.

But how does a club go about getting white people? They can't rely on their in-house promoters to bring in foreigners -- they don't speak English and aren't part of that crowd -- so what do they do? They hire promotion companies.

Promotion Companies

Shanghai has about five big promotion companies, and Chinese clubs contract these companies to bring white people in on a daily basis. The clubs will pay anywhere from 50-100rmb for each white person the promotion company brings in. At some clubs, promotion companies can also bring in females for the same price. The preference is on Asian females, but females of other races can sometimes work especially if they are going in with white people. Alejandro, a club promoter at XXXX that took me out one night, put it to me like this, "Chinese girls will count even without foreigners. Black ones are in a more shady area." There you have it.

Shanghai has a lot of nightlife options, so promotion companies entice patrons with free alcohol and tables. The alcohol is either extremely cheap, locally made brands or mystery alcohol poured into high-end bottles. The mystery alcohol can range from just alright to a vomit-filled two-day hangover, or worse. The sparkling wine offered is sometimes okay, but bottled beer is probably the safest, though this is not usually an option.

Chinese clubs are not making a profit off the foreigners, who are usually young students. Table-buyers are the main source of income, but this requires a certain amount of foreigners to keep the club lively. Too many foreigners will cost the club and take up space, but too few means there's no party vibe. That means that clubs often give the promotion companies minimums and limits on the number of people they bring. If a promotion company brings under the minimum, they don't get paid for anyone. If they go over, they are only paid up until the limit. This means the promotion companies have to constantly shift people around and pre-plan the number of people they bring to each club.

Just getting foreigners in the club is often not enough. At Western clubs, promoters are paid for each person they get into the club, but for Chinese clubs, promoters are paid for each person that goes and stays at the club until the designated time -- usually people need to get in before 12am and stay until 2am. Then there is often an "after-party" at some clubs that goes from 2.30-4am. This makes promoting for Chinese clubs a long and difficult job.

The unusual needs of Chinese clubs means promotion managers have to keep an eye on each club, making sure minimums are met and maximums aren't exceeded. They watch over their own group of promoters, checking in with them regularly. Manager salaries are based on how many people their promoters bring and if they are hitting targets in addition to their own promoting. If they do well, they can make three to four times the salary of a promoter.

Promotion companies often falter and fall -- there is fierce competition in the industry. Alejandro told me one story where two promotion companies were competing for the same contract from a club. During the trial period, one of the companies paid guests to go to the club, 100rmb each. This, of course, packed the club and the company was awarded the contract even though they wouldn’t be able to ever reproduce those results again.

Sometimes promotion company owners put too much trust in their employees. Giving a manager too much responsibility, like picking up the club’s payment and redistributing it down the line, might result in that manager walking away with two months pay for half the company’s promoters. This is what happened in the company I worked for and it nearly brought it to its knees. During this moment of weakness, another company came in and siphoned off some of our promoters.

In these promotion companies, the owners or partners do not usually work as promoters themselves. Their job is to negotiate contracts with the clubs and identify trustworthy managers who can bring in more promoters and keep numbers up. Thus, the bottom rung of the promotion game is the promoter.

The Promoters

Promoting is tiring work. The day starts at 10pm and can go until 4am. The pay for starting promoters at Chinese clubs is around 15-25rmb per guest. Top promoters can make 25-40rmb per person. The few who do this full time and have serious skill can make 15,000rmb per month or more. But most don't come close to that much. Average promoters make a couple thousand a month. Those who do it five nights a week might make double that. And since promoters are the lowest level, they take shit from everybody -- their own managers, the club managers, the drunk guests. Everyone.

On the night I went out with Alejandro, I arrived at the club early and gave his password. The woman at the door didn't write down his name and my number of guests and just started handing us bracelets. Later in the night, Alejandro told me that the woman was a manager in his company and she counted us as her own guests and not his. This kind of thing happens a lot, not only from the managers but also from promoters stealing guests from other promoters.

So far it sounds like a shit job, but there are some significant reasons as to why people promote. One reason, as Alejandro puts it, "it's a job where I get paid to party". Alessandra, who works at [another company] says she does it for her friends, "To get them into the club and have fun together." And for some promoters, especially those just doing it on the side, that’s reason enough.

There is also the benefit of quickly building a huge social network. "I get to know tons and tons of amazing people from all over the world, which I’m still friends with… a lot of opportunities to meet people, even famous DJs or singers, and dancers", says Alessandra. There are other perks, too, such as seeing shows and concerts for free. And these are good fun reasons to be a promoter.

But that's not all there is to it.

Promoting is status. A minute ago you were just some student or intern, but then you got this crazy job and now, when the night falls, you magically become… a PROMOTER. You know all the managers at the clubs. Entire sofa tables are opened for you. Bottles appear out of thin air with the wave of your hand. You make the party happen. From the perspective of new people in town and those who just don't know better, you're somebody important, and that makes you feel important. People want to be your friend, and women want to sleep with you. And that kind of lifestyle can be quite appealing.

But eventually those people catch on, especially when the promoter is constantly harassing / texting / WeChatting people to go to the club. This is what ultimately makes promoting a dangerous job, not just for the body -- with that fake alcohol and those crap hours -- but for the soul. This job encourages one to exchange their relationships for money.

Soon enough, promoters start seeing dollar signs in their friends, but only their white friends. Non-white friends can come with (sometimes), but if a promoter brings them to the club, the general rule is that they have to bring double the number of white people. That puts promoters in uncomfortable positions when Asian or black friends want to join, and promoters have to come up with some excuse to not let them. There have been some awkward situations when non-white foreigners get turned away at the door after their white friends have already gone in.

Sometimes people don't realize that the promoter is doing this for money. They'll ask the promoter – who seems to know everything and everyone in Shanghai -- to recommend a club to go to, and the promoter has to choose between being honest or making money by recommending the dingy, piece-of-shit club that they got assigned to that night. They usually choose the latter. That isn't to say all promoters are bad people, but in China there is a saying, "walking along a river often will eventually get your feet wet". That’s a rough translation, but basically, hustling changes you, and when a job constantly encourages you to be a douchebag for cold hard cash, it becomes difficult not to become one.

So next time a promoter comes to you, offering free drinks and a table, realize that this person is making money off of your presence, and their world is a little warped. Realize that nothing is free, and you'll be working as a drunk white stooge for the club and the fat cats at the table that are footing your bill.