The accordion collector

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-16 18:18:01

The squeezebox is enjoying a revival among young and old Chinese musicians

Chen Zhaojie plays accordion for old neighbors. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

The accordion is not an instrument one hears often anymore in Western music, but here in China, where traditional musical instruments of all origins thrive in schools as well as park pick-up bands, the squeezebox remains a favorite among young and old alike.

Chen repairing an accordion Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Chen Zhaojie, a 70-year-old native of Shanghai, is not just a lifelong novice accordionist, but also the holder of an extensive collection of antique aerophones. A visit to Chen's 80-square-meter home in Jiading, which also serves as his workshop, reveals an impressive assortment of over 150 different classic accordions.

The accordion was invented and popularized by German folk music in the 1800s before spreading across Europe and finding a warm reception in countries such as Italy and Russia. When Russian refugees fleeing the start of the World War II settled in China's northeastern provinces in the early 20th century, Chinese were exposed to this unusual but upbeat bellows-driven instrument.

Chen tunes an accordion. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Perhaps due to its similarity with the thousands-year-old sheng, a Chinese bamboo-pipe mouth organ - which some argue is a direct ancestor of the accordion after missionaries brought the first sheng to 1700s Europe - accordions were a natural hit among Chinese musicians.

Impresario Chen heard his first accordion in 1961, when he was 16 years old. In those days, Western instruments were still quite rare, but the accordion had replaced the piano as a staple of Chinese military orchestras, who constantly toured the country performing patriotic tunes for the proletariat.

Following the founding of the first Accordion Society of China in 1963, accordions became all the rage among musically inclined Chinese youth such as Chen, who was working for 15 yuan a month. Chen spent two years to save up 30 yuan for his first accordion, a secondhand Baile, a Shanghai brand.

"I rode two hours by bike all the way from Jiading to Huaihai Road to buy that Baile," said Chen, who has kept and maintained his prized instrument all these decades.

In every corner of Chen's apartment one can find accordions. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Since his retirement 10 years ago, Chen has devoted all of his free time and money to collect and repair old accordions, including the German and Italian brands that he was never able to afford when younger. He also spends a large part of his golden years traveling across China, especially to the far north and south, in search of antique accordions.

"I tend to spend more money on transportation than on the accordions themselves," he laughs.

According to a brief history of accordions in China compiled by, the 1980s saw the greatest number of accordion competitions, conferences and concerts held in China. At that time, sales of the Tianjin-based Parrot brand, which claims to be the first Chinese manufacturer of accordions, soared.

His notes record the history of this Baile accordion - "it was made in 1980 and repaired in 2013, and its keys are very good quality." Photo: Yang Hui/GT


Today China boasts the highest number of piano-and-button accordionists than any other country in the world. And while the instrument is admittedly playing second fiddle to the piano and the violin among music students, it is still taught as a regular course at many mainland universities and music conservatories. Even at primary schools in Shanghai one can often see 8-year-olds lugging around large accordion cases to their music class.


Chen can't stop talking when being asked of questions about accordions. Photo: Yang Hui/GT

Most recently, 2015 was declared China Youth Accordion Year by the Chinese Musicians Association Accordion Society and the Children's Palace of Beijing. The association hopes to keep the tradition alive by encouraging more Chinese youth to add the squeezebox to their musical repertoire.

Chen himself hopes that one day he can place all of his accordions in a music museum for everyone to appreciate as well as help promote the development of China-made accordions. "The accordion is a fabulous instrument and its culture deserves to be widely spread," he said.

Global Times

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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