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Festive Nanjing Road Recaptures Shanghai's Heyday

Aug 22, 2012
Originally published on August 22, 2012 8:34 pm

In the 1920s and 1930s, Shanghai was one of the world's most exciting — and notorious — cities. But all that came to an end in the middle of the last century, when the Communists took charge.

Over the past decade or so, though, a vibrant Shanghai has re-emerged. Today, it's a dynamic city of 23 million, with a skyline that dwarfs Manhattan's.

And on summer nights, the most vibrant place in town is Nanjing Road: China's Times Square. Thousands of people descend on the famed shopping street and stroll beneath pulsating neon signs, all set against colonial architecture that dates back to Shanghai's heyday.

Hawkers weave between the crowds, selling everything from laser pointers to strap-on roller skates with wheels that light up when they spin.

Perhaps what distinguishes Nanjing Road from many other walking streets is that it's a magnet for street performers. They aren't professionals who pass a hat after finishing up a number, but local amateurs who perform for the fun and the attention.

One Sunday night, steps away from a Haagen-Dazs store, a band is working through a set of Chinese songs before a crowd of several hundred. The musicians are playing drums, flute and the erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle.

"We are all musical illiterates, but we really like music," says Wang Hongping, who first met her fellow band members in a local park and now sings with them every weekend. "We common people get together and sing Red songs — Communist Party songs — just to enjoy ourselves."

Upon request, Wang breaks into an a cappella version of one of her favorites: "On Top of Beijing's Golden Mountain." One verse refers to Chairman Mao as a "golden sun, warm and kind."

Mao Remakes Shanghai

In fact, Mao Zedong hated this sort of Shanghai scene: riotous neon advertisements, scores of stores; a boisterous monument to capitalism. So, after taking control of the country, he put Shanghai into a deep sleep.

Wang herself grew up poor on a fishing boat. She moved here from the countryside in the mid-1990s, as Shanghai was reawakening. Now 45, she works as a barber and sells clothes. Wang says Shanghai has provided great opportunities — including mentoring from her fellow music-makers — that she never could have found back home.

"The Communist Party reformed and allowed us peasants to move to the big cities and realize our dreams," says Wang, wearing a blue and white polka-dot dress. "In the countryside, you could never find so many teachers who could teach you to sing."

Up the street, next to an "I Love Shanghai" sign, a dozen people appear to be country line dancing between a pair of planters. But the music is techno and blaring out of a speaker that runs off a battery.

"It's the 16-step dance, it's Chinese," says dancer Zhu Fengying, a retired crane operator who helped build Shanghai's second-tallest skyscraper, the Jinmao Tower.

Public dancing has a long tradition in urban China. In the morning, it's common for dozens of people to ballroom dance in public parks.

While the atmosphere on Nanjing Road is mostly joyous, there is a darker side. If you are a foreign male and walking alone, you can count on getting accosted by hookers. Constantly.

Most dress normally, pretending to be friendly locals offering a look around town. Rebuffed, they tend to turn desperate and blurt out as quietly as they can, "massage."

Nonstop Music

Most musical performers here are genuinely grass-roots, but the "Loving Happiness Band," a brass band of elderly men who wear matching bright red uniforms with epaulets, is a bit more polished.

The band is private but receives some government support, hence the five-star government emblem on the musicians' caps. Like other performers on Nanjing Road, they play for crowds of Chinese tourists, but never ask for money.

"The best thing about playing is it makes us happy," says Wang Geyuan, 73, who plays the saxophone. "If we're happy, the audience is happy."

Wang, a retired artist with China's People's Liberation Army, opens his case and displays his saxophone. An inscription says the instrument dates to 1936.

"This saxophone was made by an American company," he says. "It's not a very professional one. This is just a hobby."

As 10 p.m. approaches, security guards appear, signaling it's quitting time. As the summer crowds thin, the brass band knocks out one final song. It's one both Chinese and foreign tourists are likely to recognize: "Edelweiss," from The Sound of Music.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally, this hour, the latest entry in our series, Summer Nights. We've been exploring places that come alive when the sun goes down and, today, we head to China's financial capital, Shanghai. In the 1920s and '30s, Shanghai was one of the world's most exciting and notorious cities. All that ended when the communists took over.

But, in the last decade or so, Shanghai has reemerged. It's now a dynamic city of 23 million with a skyline that dwarfs that of Manhattan. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from China's Times Square, Nanjing Road.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's Sunday night on Nanjing Road and this is the most vibrant part of the city in the summers. Right now, I'm surrounded by thousands and thousands of people strolling along. Nanjing Road's kind of an assault to the senses. It's full of old colonial architecture, tons of neon signs and, if you can listen here, people come out and sing in the evenings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: Right here, there are about two, three hundred people gathered in a circle to listen to a band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: The instruments include drums, flute and the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle. Wang Hongping sings with the band every weekend (unintelligible) musicians playing in public parks.

WANG HONGPING: (Through translator) We're all musical illiterate, but we really like music. We common people get together and sing Red songs, Communist Party songs, just to enjoy ourselves.

LANGFITT: Wang sings me one of her favorites.

HONGPING: (Singing in foreign language).

LANGFITT: The tune is called "On Top of Beijing's Golden Mountain." This verse refers to Chairman Mao as a golden sun, warm and kind. In fact, Mao Zedong hated this sort of Shanghai scene - riotous neon advertisement, scores of stores, a boisterous monument to capitalism, so he put the city into a deep sleep.

In the mid-1990s, as Shanghai was waking up, Wang Hongping moved here from the countryside. Now 45, she works as a barber and sells clothes. Wang says Shanghai's provided great opportunities, including mentoring from her fellow music makers, something she never could have found back home.

HONGPING: (Through translator) The Communist Party reformed and allowed us peasants to move to the big cities and realize our dreams. In the countryside, you could never find so many teachers who could teach you to sing.

LANGFITT: If music isn't your thing, there's always country line dancing. In fact, that's kind of what it looks like. I've just walked up on a group of mostly women and a couple of men and it looks like they are literally country line dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: Two women, Zhu Fengying, a retired crane operator, and her dance partner, Gung (unintelligible), explain.

ZHU FENGYING: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: It's the 16-step dance. It's Chinese, they say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: As much fun as Nanjing Road is, there is a little bit of a dark side to the place. I've sometimes been here on my own and been hit up repeatedly by hookers. Fortunately, tonight, I'm just walking along talking into a microphone, so all I'm getting is a lot of stares and nobody's bothering me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

LANGFITT: Crossing the street, avoiding a trolley, I come across this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: It's a brass band of elderly men. They're wearing bright red uniforms with epaulets. Wang Geyuan, 73, plays the saxophone.

WANG GEYUAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: We're the Loving Happiness Band, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: The band is private, but receives some government support, hence the five-star government emblem on their caps. Like other performers on Nanjing Road, they play for large crowds of Chinese tourists, but take no money.

GEYUAN: (Through translator) The best thing about playing is it makes us happy and, if we're happy, the audience is happy.

LANGFITT: Wang, a retired artist with China's People's Liberation Army, opens his case and shows me his saxophone.

GEYUAN: (Through translator) This saxophone was made by an American company. It's not a very professional one. This is just a hobby.

LANGFITT: It says it was made in the United States in 1936.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: It's now almost 10:00 on Nanjing Road. Security guards appear, signaling it's quitting time. As the summer crowds thin out, the band plays one final song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.