Shanghai is a city that connotes modernity and rapid economic development. Its inhabitants are known both within and without its confines as upwardly mobile, career-oriented, and financially minded. Tourists come to see bright lights on East Nanjing road and the lavishness of the Bund, both symbols of recent industrialization. What the city lacks, it is commonly believed, is historical and artistic culture.
By comparison, Beijing is thought to be the heart of artistic expression in China, encompassing everything from traditional practices to metal bands and reggae.
Novelist and musician Liu Jian is of another opinion. The difference between the two cities, he maintains, is that “Beijing is flashy. Shanghai is pragmatic.” Author of the semi-autobiographical novels Rock Soldier and Memories of a Wandering Singer, Liu has experienced life in both cities and insists that Shanghai’s art scene does not lack any of Beijing’s creative luster.
“In Beijing, artists like to meet up and talk for hours on end. Artists here are too busy living or getting things done,” he said.
He further explains that the economic growth of recent years has served to make Shanghai a desired destination for people of all fields. With over 3 million immigrants, the culture of Shanghai is becoming diversified, nuanced, and complex.
“This is an ‘immigrant city.’ So different cultures and ideas meet up here,” Liu added. “That coupled with all the business and financial success makes being an artist here lively and international.”
Local stage performer Joe Sang echoes Liu’s sentiments. The last twenty years have seen increased interest in personal expression. Internationally touring shows, in particular, have grown in popularity.
“Sometimes a good production can run more than one year and have more than 100 performances,” states Sang. “This was very rare until the past few years.”
In the last five years The Lion King, the Phantom of the Opera, and Chicago, as well as other Broadway productions, have been performed before Shanghai audiences. Himself a member of the jiu ling hou, China’s 90’s generation, he believes that the future of the arts rides on the backs of the youth.
“They are more open-minded than the [older] generation,” says Sang, “and easier to accept what is new and exotic.”
His theatre group, Universal Joy Improv Society, enjoys increasing success among the local student population, a fact that is encouraged by reduced student ticket prices.
But many have complained that Chinese youth, while sometimes technically skilled, lack the creative drive necessary to rival their overseas counterparts. Practical matters such as fierce job competition, rapidly increasing living costs, and parental pressures to marry quickly and save money for the future destroy many young people’s dreams to survive off their creative works.
“Many youths have no choice but to give up their imagination and lead a life they never wanted,” states Liu Jian.
Brent Shen, founder of artistic education project +box, sees another problem. Chinese youth “try their best to create something not understandable by common people… [rather than] deliver actual thoughts and meaning,” he states. “They lack the ability to make art simple and friendly.”
His project +box is currently traveling to 10 cities to get young people to ask 1000 questions and aims to eventually seek ways to answer them. Their goal is to increase the level of self-reflection and awareness in China’s contemporary youth. Based in both Beijing and Shanghai, Shen has also experienced the divide between the art cultures, particularly that of the youth.
“I really don’t think you can learn or create art in a lab or brainstorming with friends,” says Shen, echoing Liu’s sentiments. “Art is life and life is art. We should observe and discover things from life details.”
Photographer and counterculture advocate Fei Yi thinks that the issue for artists in Shanghai is in part battling with growing pains of a society modernizing at such a rapid pace. Surviving on one’s art in an industrializing nation is “full of impulsiveness and doubt,” she states “and sometimes you feel really restricted.”
Traditional Chinese education based on memorization stifles the creative energy of the nation. But the internationalization of Shanghai has caused it to “abandon traditional thought and construct a new modern way of thinking,” she states. “Outsiders bring cultural elements from home… [and] provide a diverse, fruitful environment.”
The future still has a long way to go, however and artists continue to struggle to find their place in society. “It’s difficult,” states Fei, “but if we can pull through it to attain what we want… we just might discover a whole new kind of motivation.”