The city goes front stage

By Ni Dandan Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-5 18:13:01

Old Shanghai enjoyed a plethora of entertainment - dance halls, horse racing, clubs, bars, restaurants abounded. But for some, the theater was the place to be seen and to see plays and performances and enjoy the glamorous side of culture.

The Carlton Theatre was paid for by the British and opened on February 9, 1923 on Park Road (today's Huanghe Road) and was often referred to as Shanghai's premiere theater. After that new theaters sprang up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. In 1930, almost every month saw the birth of a new theater - the Penglai Theater in January, the Guanghua Theater in February and the Nanking Theatre in March.

Some of these classic venues have remained in their original locations and continue to shine - like the Lyceum and Majestic theaters. Some have new names and some have moved - the Shanghai Concert Hall did both, changing its name from the Nanking Theatre and being moved in its entirety 66 meters to a new foundation.

And one of the city's major cultural venues, Shanghai Culture Square, was originally the Canidrome, a greyhound racetrack built in 1928.

The Lyceum Theatre today Photo: CFP

The Lyceum Theatre today Photo: CFP

Fulfilling dreams

After Shanghai became an open port for trading in 1843, the city was a lure for thousands of foreigners who wanted to fulfill their dreams in a new country. By 1870, more than 5,000 men and women from Europe and the US had settled here working mainly for the 500 hongs (foreign business houses) then established. They brought not only a range of new merchandise and trading systems but Western ideas and culture.

After work they wanted to relax and for many, dancing and boat cruises on the rivers were not enough. Some of the younger people keen on theater formed amateur theater groups and rehearsed and performed shows in warehouses. The two major troupes were The Rangers and The Footpads and they merged in 1866 to become the Amateur Dramatic Club of Shanghai.

They bought a plot of land on today's Yuanmingyuan Road in Huangpu district and built a simple wooden plank theater there - the first Western-style theater on the Chinese mainland.

The theater, the Lyceum Theatre, opened on March 1, 1867 but almost exactly four years later, it burned to the ground. The Association of Western Taxpayers in Shanghai raised money and a new theater was built on today's Huqiu Road, not far from the original site, in 1874. This three-story European-style opera house had world-class acoustics and was then acclaimed for its magnificence.

Although it was primarily used by the Amateur Dramatic Club, others staged concerts, plays, ballets and operas there. It was, until the end of the 19th century, almost exclusively a haunt for Westerners.

Later the Chinese developed a taste for modern theater with its elaborate settings, stage lighting, special effects and costumes. The Chinese also adopted some Western theater business concepts like numbered seating and ticketing.

Cinemas blossom

From the 1920s, Shanghai's cinemas began to blossom and the live theaters faded. The Lyceum was a shabby shadow of itself and was empty for long periods. In 1929, the then owner of the theater sold it for 175,000 taels of silver and looked for a new site to rebuild the Lyceum.

This was found on the intersection of today's Maoming Road South and Changle Road. The new Lyceum was opened in February 1931 when the then British consul-general used a golden key to unlock its front doors.

The new Lyceum theater saw some historic performances and performers - like the first comeback show for the legendary Peking Opera performer Mei Lanfang in 1945 after he had refused to appear on stage anywhere during the eight years of the War of Resistance against the Japanese Aggression (1937-45).

In 1960, the former Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai watched a folk dance performance The Small Swords Society presented at the theater by the Experimental Opera House of Shanghai.

The theater was renamed the Shanghai Arts Theatre in 1952 but its original name was restored in 1991. Today the theater looks as elegant and glittering as it ever did, accommodating 680 in its auditorium and offering producers and directors the latest in lighting and stage effects. At night with its front and foyer lit up, the theater looks as glamorous as it ever did.

Gone to the dogs

Greyhound racing first emerged in the US and the UK and it arrived in Shanghai in the 1920s, another attraction for people who wanted the thrill of gambling. In 1928, a greyhound racetrack opened in the former French concession. It was called the Canidrome. But the Canidrome, originally a popular haunt for gamblers, bookmakers and adventurers has been reshaped, reimagined and renamed several times over the years. Today it is Shanghai Culture Square, one of the largest theaters in Asia capable of staging Broadway musicals.

Although the Canidrome was known as a greyhound racetrack, it was much more than that. The Canidrome included hotels, restaurants, ballrooms, a football field, and an open-air cinema. It was a popular entertainment venue in the old days.

After the War of Resistance against the Japanese Aggression, greyhound racing was banned but the Canidrome continued to exist albeit in a very different role. In the early days after the city's liberation, it was the preferred choice for the newly-established government to stage major meetings and gatherings - its size and facilities were ideal for this. On December 5, 1949, a major meeting of delegates from all walks of life was held here and was addressed by the then mayor Chen Yi. It continued to be used for performances as well although there was only a temporary stage.

In the early 1950s, the place was an important political venue. At that stage Shanghai had a population of more than 6 million. Every time a meeting or performance occurred in the square, 1 in 400 Shanghai residents would be found there. However, it became pressing to renovate the open-air venue and turn it into a more hospitable indoor center. In April 1952, the city government approved the rebuilding of the Canidrome into what was first named the "People's Culture Square" and later renamed "Culture Square."

In 1954, an auditorium capable of accommodating 15,000 people was built inside the square along with the largest stage in Shanghai, covering more than 1,000 square meters. The square was unique for its size, simplicity and multifunctional facilities. Later the complex added a large exhibition hall of more than 7,000 square meters, a library and a reading room.

Many of the Culture Square workers now retired vividly recall their days there in the 1950s and 60s when the country's leaders, including Mao Zedong, were frequent visitors, listening to and talking to Shanghai representatives.

The interior of the Shanghai Culture Square Photo: CFP

The interior of the Shanghai Culture Square Photo: CFP

Becoming cultural

In the 1950s and 60s, Culture Square was a center for culture. In 1955, Galina Ulanova, one of the world's greatest ballerinas, led the Bolshoi Ballet Company to Shanghai to dance at the complex. In the early years after China's liberation, the cultural exchanges between China and Eastern Europe were common and many major companies appeared in Culture Square.

In those days the actual city government hall was comparatively small and the city trade union hall could hold at most 2,000 people. In contrast, Culture Square could accommodate more than 10,000 at a time. Although the huge venue was not ideal for everyone with pillars blocking views and the sheer size meaning some audience members only caught a little of what was being staged, it was a popular venue. For Shanghai people, it was a big occasion to have a night out there.

But in the winter of 1969, the complex was set on fire - the biggest fire in the city for a long time. A lot of older folk recall the fire and thousands went down to look at the blaze. The fire was lit during the height of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). This was no ordinary auditorium. It had been a center of Shanghai's political life - at one stage it was known as "the Cultural Revolutionary Square." The fire destroyed the building but it didn't vanish. In 1970, China's late premier Zhou Enlai personally ordered that Culture Square be rebuilt.

In October 1970, the new Culture Square was opened. Without pillars this time, this structure supported the city's largest roof although seating was reduced from the original capacity of 15,000 to 12,000.

On screen

From 1971, the square, once a primary venue for politics, turned into a theater for entertainment and art. In May 1973, thousands flooded into the theater to view the North Korean revolutionary opera The Flower Girl.

In 1976, a huge movie screen was installed in Culture Square and the venue became the premiere cinema of the city, screening first-run films before they could be seen anywhere else. When the Romanian movie Stephan the Great was screened in 1976, it was nearly impossible to find a ticket. Other major hits of the period included the Yugoslavian films Bridge and Walter Defends Sarajevo. Soon the square was showing films from Japan, the UK and the former Soviet Union.

But even after it had become the city's largest cinema, Culture Square still hosted political events from time to time. On November 24, 1977, more than 12,000 representatives of teachers and students and the city's education officials convened here to discuss and criticize the crimes committed by the "Gang of Four."

After the Cultural Revolution, many artists and performers who had been banned from working at their careers returned to the stage, winning back their self-respect at Culture Square. Many Chinese and foreign theatrical and dance companies performed there.

But the place was not well-equipped to deal with the excesses of Shanghai's summers. In 1988, there was only one live performance there for the whole year - the Brigham Young University's Young Ambassadors' singers and dancers. That was the last live show at the square.

The venue didn't reopen as a cultural center. It became a very different attraction in 1992 when the city became swept up in stock exchange fever. The square was refitted as the city's largest temporary stock exchange. Then in 1997, the square had another role, being transformed into a flower market which became famous throughout the country.

The flower business vanished in October 2005 and builders began working on yet another Culture Square - this one the most modern and progressive yet. The square is now bringing some of the latest musicals and musical theater to the city.

A stunning edifice that hides its 2,011-seat auditorium and stage largely underground, it has already presented hit shows like Mamma Mia along with jazz and classical music concerts and will bring to the city the widely acclaimed The Phantom of the Opera.

The Shanghai Concert Hall lights up brilliantly at night. Photo: CFP

The Shanghai Concert Hall lights up brilliantly at night. Photo: CFP

The big move

On April 15, 2003, a distinguished 73-year-old building began a dramatic and extraordinary journey to a new home. To make way for the Yan'an Road Elevated Way, the entire Shanghai Concert Hall was raised 1.7 meters and moved southeast 66.46 meters, and then raised again by another 1.68 meters onto its new site.

The building was gradually shifted to its present home at the intersection of Yan'an Road East and Xizang Road Middle over 20 months. The relocation of this 5,650-ton structure was also the largest project involving the shifting of a cultural relic in the history of Shanghai.

Soon after it reopened on September 26, 2005, many residents were welcoming it back - the acclaimed traditional venue for classical music had been restored successfully. Chen Xieyang, a leading Chinese conductor, has conducted orchestras around the world and rates the concert hall up there with the best. "Except for the Vienna Golden Hall, the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Boston Music Hall, the Shanghai Concert Hall compares with any other concert halls in the world for the quality of sound."

It became the country's first dedicated concert hall, but this was not the original intention - it was first built as the Nanking Theatre in 1930 and was meant to be primarily a cinema.

In the 1930s, music, especially Western classical music, was not well-known or popular. In those days, the Shanghai Municipal Council Symphony Orchestra was the only professional musical group in the city. The orchestra first played at the Nanking Theatre in 1932. Later on the orchestra's summer festival performances became regular and popular events at the theater. In the 1940s, musicals and local Chinese operas also found a home there.

In 1950, the theater was renamed the Beijing Cinema and in 1959 its name changed again to today's Shanghai Concert Hall. The building underwent major renovations in 1973 and 1991. Since its reopening in 2005, the Shanghai Concert Hall has presented quality classical music performances alongside Chinese folk music and jazz.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai, Meeting up with old Shanghai

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