Donald the Jazz Man, and how his new home, Shanghai, relaxes him

Straightforward Donald from America feels Shanghai's prices have been going up too fast, but the musician still likes living in Shanghai and enjoys his relaxed life here.

Holin’s words:

With a vintage pipe in hand and a Panama hat on his head, Donald from Chicago is an artist, and he looks just the part. He's been in Shanghai for 15 years, where he makes a living making what he loves: music.

Like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, Donald has his own stylish uniform. I saw him three times, and no matter whether it was a hot summer day or in the middle of winter, Donald always wore a business suit with a white shirt inside, and a Panama hat on his head. Even during our interview indoors he kept his hat on.

Donald told me a funny secret: there’s no tobacco in his pipe. He has quit smoking many years ago because of his ex girlfriend. But he still likes to carry it with him, even puffing on it from time to time to experience some of the calming effects.

“Are you related to Michael Jackson?" I had to ask, since they have the same style, both are musicians, they come from the same part of America, and they share the same surname.

“No… but I saw Michael singing on stage when he was only five,” Donald answered like it was just yesterday. “He’s really gifted.” 

Holin Wang / SHINE

Name: Donald Jackson
Nationality: American
Job: Music Director at Waldoff Astoria Hotel
Years in Shanghai: 15

Holin: Hey, Donald. Would you please share with me the reason you came to Shanghai 15 years ago? Do you still remember the situation?

Donald: I came to play at the Westin Hotel on Henan Road, I played in the first band there when it first opened. I came here for the job. 

I really had a problem coming here because when I got to Beijing — at that time there were no direct flights from Chicago to Shanghai — there were some problems and my double bass was taken from me, because I had to have someone meet me in Beijing, which I didn’t have. They gave me a piece of paper, and the people from the Westin Hotel had to pay US$2,000 to get it out of customs! 

Holin: Oops, it was really memorable. Was that your first time to come to an Asia city?

Donald: No. I first came to Asia in 1987, to Singapore. I think that’s 30 years ago! I think the management from that hotel in Singapore was involved with the hotel here, so that’s how: I knew somebody that knew somebody, so that’s how I came here. 

Between those times I played on cruise ships and in Las Vegas for fifteen years.

Holin: Why did you pick Shanghai as your ideal city to live for a long time?

Donald: I love Shanghai. I fell in love with being here. I love the beautiful ladies, and there's a lot to do here too! 

Holin: You must have plenty of interesting or impressive stories related with Shanghai, right? Share with me one or two.

Donald: Coming here made me rethink everything I’d ever learned and where I was from. In America they don’t even show too much about any other cultures, in the media and stuff, so it made me rethink everything I learnt before. 

I’ve met a lot of people that I probably wouldn’t have met in America, so here as a foreigner, I’ve probably met more people, even more people from America than I normally would meet or talk with back home. It’s the same thing as if you went to America and saw another person from Shanghai, you’d probably talk to them, whereas here you wouldn’t.

Holin: Yes, it’s the truth. How do you spend your weekends or leisure time in Shanghai?

Donald: Well I really like to study. I’m not the kind of person that actually goes out too much, I’m mostly home. 

I study constantly all day, music, or watching YouTube, different styles of music. I study most of the time, even after finishing work at night, I’ll be up watching videos or reading a book. So I don’t really go out to leisure places.

Holin: I might know your answer to my next question, but which place in Shanghai do you like best? Besides your home, tell me more.

Donald: I like JZ Club, I go there sometimes. Sometimes to play, sometimes to jam on Friday and Saturday nights. I might go sometimes after work to play sometimes, so that’s nice. 

And I like HEYDAY (a jazz bar) and Shake (a restaurant with music shows)… these new clubs. Most of the time if I go after work, I’ll go to places with music to meet the musicians. Most people, after work, come to one place. I will always see people in the business there, you see?

Holin: Oh, I see. Still back to your work. Your world is filled up with music. That’s good. Which road do you like best? 

Donald: Jinling Road, because it’s got music stores. That’s where I mostly go and I have a lot of friends that own stores there. That’s the one I like the most, that’s my favorite road. It’s like early Shanghai, very 1930s, 1920s — more vintage type. To be honest that’s the reason I love that road, because of the musical instruments. 

Jinling Road, the whole road is filled with music stores, whereas other places just have one store, not really a whole road. 

Holin: What did I say? Music again. Cool. And what elements of Shanghai or China make you love here?

Donald: I like China, because I can relax and hear myself thinking more than I can in America. America has a lot more stress. I feel it more now than I did when I first came — when I first came there was less stress and probably less foreigners, you know. That’s probably why there’s more stress. But most of the time I can hear myself think because I don’t worry about the things I worry about back home.

Back home in America you gotta watch your back, you know, you got bad gun laws and all that stuff, so you gotta watch it, you gotta be careful. 

I just love being in China. I’ve been travelling a long time. I worked in Beijing for a couple of years, too. I worked in Hangzhou for a while as well. A couple of the places I can’t really remember the names of.

Holin Wang / SHINE

Holin: The opposite question, any elements you hate here? 

Donald: One thing I’ve noticed that’s changed that isn’t attractive is that the rental prices have gone up, and I think maybe too fast. Something that’s 4,000 yuan (US$623.66) and then jumps to 8,000 this year, I don’t wanna criticize but I’m just saying, the rental price is so different. 

When I first came something that was 1,500 is now 6,000. Maybe I shouldn’t say that, huh? Because I’m living here so I shouldn’t complain!

Holin: You can say anything! That’s your feeling, it's not complaining. Anything else?

Donald: No, that’s it. Well… if you knew where I came from… it’s a lot less stress here for me so there’s not much I can complain about. 

Holin: Compared to your country, or anywhere else you’ve lived for a while, are there any shortages in Shanghai? 

Donald: I think Shanghai has grown a lot, but it was like in a pioneer stage before. Like the wild west or something, it was just developing. But Shanghai is moving a lot faster, because they can build faster. They’ve caught up. 

But when I first came here, there was just me and maybe one other American musician. We were pioneers, you see what I’m sayin’? 

When I first came we were just starting something. But China has done maybe 25 years of work in a few years. 

When I first came here, jazz wasn’t so popular. But now, there are many Chinese musicians playing now. That wasn’t around when I first came. That’s the big difference, you see?

Holin: What you said is something affirmative, right? I mean is there anything you want to change in Shanghai? Maybe somewhere else you saw something they did well that Shanghai doesn’t do so well at?

Donald: Not really, just the rental prices. I wish the prices were lower. I know a lot of people that are moving outside of Shanghai — once you get too high, you lose the things that attracted people here. 

Now, there’re people leaving because maybe it’s not as attractive as it used to be. If it was just a little bit at a time… 

Holin: So sad… Do you have some impressed memory during your life?

Donald: I miss the exchange rate not being the same as it was when I came here, and that’s nothing to do with China! I mean, I miss my girlfriend I broke up with from Hong Kong… I never knew Chinese women were as beautiful as they are! I’m a lot older than when I first came, things change as you get older. But actually, I was overwhelmed when I first came here, firstly from the amount of people that are here. There are a lot of cities in China that have a huge population but people in America don’t even know about them!

What does Donald want to say to his future self? Have a look! Donald is sending a message to his future self to watch ten years from now!

Filmed by Holin Wang and Joan Zheng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Translated by Jack Zhou. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.

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