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November 13, 2010

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Chongming: Color me beautiful

A picture is worth 1,000 words and 100 paintings on exhibition are depicting the multiple faces of Chongming Island, from wetlands and forests to fishermen and hairy crabs. Fei Lai checks them out.

More than 40 noted artists from the Yangtze River Delta area have painted Chongming Island with its sea views, wetlands, lakes, villages, forests, rolling hills and shipyards.

Around 100 of their works are exhibited, giving different views of the scenic but developing island county.

Curator Huang Sheng said it was the first time that so many well-known regional artists, many of them professors, had taken part in an event on Chongming,

Coming from Shanghai and Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, they have varied styles. They usually work on their own and have little contact with each other. But in the Chongming project, they communicated extensively over a single theme: the eco-island.

Chongming is flat and green with panoramic views, but no dramatic mountains and cliffs.

In addition to natural beauty there are wharfs, vessels and marine construction that are part of the new view, Huang said.

In the past, the island was home to urban "educated youths" who had been sent to rural areas for reeducation from farmers during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

"The strong rural feeling has never left the island and today tourism has made it prosperous with a mix or rural and modern elements," the curator said.

At the exhibition, Pan Honghai paints the place where he caught hairy crabs when he was a child - a powerful memory of his early years. Pan is honorary president of the Zhejiang Fine Art Academy. He was born in Shanghai and now lives in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang.

He used to live in Meilong Town in Shanghai's Minhang District. "Compared with people living downtown, I was a rural and 'aboriginal' guy. Chongming feels so familiar to me, it's like being home.

"It is beautiful because of its being original. I can breathe fresh air here and I'm so delighted to see the blue pure sky again."

Another painter, Han Peisheng, has always wanted to visit Chongming Island. He is vice president of the Zhejiang Association of Oil Painters and a native of Yuyao, Zhejiang.

He painted three oils of Chongming: a wetland scene, a sunny riverside and a scene of the young "rusticated" city youths who moved there in the 1960s and 70s.

"My first impression of Chongming is one of fertile land, sound climate and grand natural views," Han said. "It is an island of peace."

Tan Genxiong, an art professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, knows Chongming very well.

"When I went to the island in 1971 to do farm work at Xianghua Town, it took me four hours on ferry from the downtown to my destination," he said. "Things went even worse if you encountered a storm since you couldn't even take a ferry."

But great changes have transformed Chongming into a tourist destination with convenient transport and abundant agricultural products, he observed.

Professor Wang Haohui from the Nanjing Art Institute, at first found it difficult to depict the island since it didn't have steep mountains and unusual rock formations. But when he started painting, he was touched by the island's purity and simplicity.

"The land is calm, existing in peace with nature and humanity," Wang said. "Trees, grasses, wetlands and small boats all contributed to an unspoiled scene."

The exhibition is part of the 13th Chongming Culture and Art Festival; it will later tour Zhoushan and Hangzhou in Zhejiang, Suzhou and Nanjing in Jiangsu.

The culture and art festival, which just concluded, featured professional artists and folk artists of all kinds.

Events included a singing competition, performances of pipa, a four-string Chinese lute, and a symposium on Chongming dialect and cultural development.

A private museum preserving Chongming's traditional folk music has opened in Gangxi Town. Fei Lai reports that its band regularly performs traditional music and seeks new tunes.

Traditional folk music on Chongming Island dates back around 1,400 years and musicologists are collecting old scores and records - and striking up a band - to keep the sounds alive.

To preserve Chongming folk music and jiangnan sizhu music played by string and woodwinds, a Chongming entrepreneur has established the Shanghai Yanggang Folk Music Museum. The establishment along the Yangshan River in Gangxi Town opened last May. Admission is free.

Jiangnan is the region south of the Yangtze River, the luxuriant "land of fish and rice." The region is also famous for silk (si) and bamboo (zhu). Sizhu refers to music of string (originally silk string) instruments and bamboo flutes, and other wind instruments.

The museum has also established a band with 30 musicians to keep the music alive and help educate people about the importance of traditional music.

The museum was established by Yang Gang, the board chairman of Shanghai Yanggang Electronic Co Ltd. He is enthusiastic about traditional music and pleased to establish what he believes is a cultural first in Shanghai.

"We are in touch with grassroots people and serving society," he said, "so we not only preserve but also develop folk music. The band and creative team at the museum are dedicated to bringing the art to more listeners."

The museum contains four exhibition areas.

The jiangnan sizhu section covers the history, important artists and their works, as well as contemporary works.

The Chongming Folk Song features ballads with pronounced local characteristics. It exhibits early publications about folk songs, drama and opera.

The Antiques section contains old instruments of many kinds, documents, manuscripts, musical scores and old Bakelite records. It has collected around 1,000 scores and old recordings.

The fourth section is a performance stage where the museum's folk band plays both traditional and contemporary works.

Lack of awareness and preservation made it difficult for the museum team to collect instruments, scores and various artifacts.

"It is our responsibility to find the lost items and preserve them," said Yang. "It was our first priority before we actually opened the museum. We used all possible means to find historic old recordings, scores and records."

The team collected valuable instruments such as the erhu (two-stringed fiddle) played by chief erhu player of the Shanghai Folk Orchestra for the first time in Beijing; the dulcimer played by a Chinese band in America in 1935; and wind instruments played by the son-in-law of Li Hongzhang, China's statesman in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Then Yang realized that without a folk music band, there would be no way to fully engage the public.

"We had to form a professional team in which everyone was enthusiastic about folk music. They are ambassadors of folk music."

He sought the advice of senior musicians.

Most band members are scattered around Chongming, while some live in Pudong New Area. They rehearse at least once a week and always draw crowds.

The band performs at cultural events around the city, has taken part in folk music competitions and held a community sizhu concert in Chongming.

"We don't want only to inherit, but also to innovate and create new songs so folk music will flourish forever," said Yang Yueqi, a member of the museum's creative team.

"As society develops rapidly, people's taste in music changes as well. So while carrying on with the classics, we must also inject new elements to attract a wider audience."

Yang has been performing jiangnan sizhu music for five decades and says that for a long time it was passed down orally and through demonstration, not by writing scores.

"To get new sizhu music on stage before more music lovers, musicians have to make 'new dishes' by adding visual and audio effects.

"We're encouraging composers to work out more new pieces and hope that more performers will join us," she said.

With support from the Chongming County government, the museum recently published a series of books on Chongming folk music. Museum founder Yang says there's much to do to keep folk music alive.

Shanghai Yanggang Folk Music Museum

Address: 801 Sanshuang Road, Chongming Island

Tel: 5967-0000, 5967-1188

Admission: free


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