Thu, Jul 08, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Shanghai as a cultural epicenter?

The city certainly has high ambitions, but many wonder whether the software existsto make all the grand new cultural structures keep humming

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Shanghai

Wan Jingjing performs during rehearsal for Wild Zebra at Shanghai's Grand Theater. With newly built cultural institutions like the Grand Theater, Shanghai is hoping to find its spot as one of Asia's major cultural centers, along with Tokyo and Hong Kong. There are many, though, that say time, and not new buildings, will determine whether Shanghai becomes a vibrant cultural city.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

With its bold and luminous cut-glass design, the Shanghai Grand Theater can stake a claim to being the heart of this city, and the dazzling impression it makes fits this pulsing business center's glittery self-image to a T.

On a recent evening here, as a full house settled in to watch an entirely Chinese production of a Broadway-style dance theater show, Wild Zebra, the opening event in an international dance competition, the city's vice mayor delivered a booming inaugural exhortation that recalled the style of party cadres past.

Shanghai, he announced stiffly, is moving toward the great goal of creating a modern international culture center in Asia. His language was perhaps a bit blunt, but given Shanghai's cultural ambitions, it was difficult to gainsay the message for exaggeration.

For as long as the Communist Party has ruled China, Shanghai has suffered a deep inferiority complex in relation to the capital, Beijing. The early 20th century was Shanghai's moment in the sun, when it had a global reputation as a flashy and fleshy sin city with top-flight Western architecture and a cabaret culture to match.

But much of what was most vibrant then was derived from abroad, at a time when the country was carved up into imperial concessions, and Shanghai was China's main door to the world. Before that, Shanghai, a mere infant of a city, had hardly registered in the long tableau of Chinese history.

Nowadays the city's cultural profile is changing as fast as its skyline, which barely 15 years ago was a drab and low-slung jumble and today ranks easily as one of the world's most fantastic. Determined to raise the city to the level of regional rivals like Tokyo and Hong Kong as well as Beijing, Shanghai officials have made culture a major priority.

Beijing has its Forbidden City, its prestigious national schools and museums, its centuries-old neighborhoods that breathe Chinese culture, none of which Shanghai can realistically challenge. But like Tokyo, all but destroyed in World War II, this city is making a virtue of its newness.

As a cornerstone of the revival, which began in earnest in the early 1990s, the Shanghai government spent US$226.8 million, an immense sum in a country still classified as a developing nation, to build a world-class cultural complex in the center city. The recently built structures include the Shanghai Grand Theater, the equally striking Shanghai Museum -- in the shape of an ancient Tang vessel -- and the Shanghai Art Museum.

The city's investment in premium performance and exhibition spaces, though still modest in comparison with major Western artistic centers, has given Shanghai not only a blush of self confidence but also a cockiness in its rivalry with Beijing.

"Shanghai can already attract talent from all over the country, in fact all over the world," said Chen Feihua, director of the Shanghai dance school that created Wild Zebra. "Our production values are broader and fit international tastes. Wild Zebra has toured on the best stages of Europe, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and other cities, and there is a business element to this that is very particular to Shanghai."

Build and hope

Shanghai's strategy of build and hope the visitors come seems to be gathering momentum but draws mixed reviews even among the city's artists, who are debating how the city goes about becoming a world-class cultural center.

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