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April 14, 2011

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Shows of old Shanghai

OLD Shanghai variety shows with a blast of nostalgia will be staged nightly at the Gong Stage of the Shanghai Great World entertainment complex starting May 1. Xu Wei reports.

The Great World Entertainment Center was a seething six-story fun house in the 1920s and 30s, and it was said you hadn't seen Shanghai if you hadn't visited that palace offering 24 hours of every imaginable form of diversion.

The playground of earthly delights at Xizang and Yan'an roads has long been cleaned up and turned into a modern entertainment complex. Starting on May 1 nightly variety and cabaret shows will be staged at 9pm at the renovated Gong Stage. The latest technology and LED screens provide a 3D experience.

Dancers in brightly colored qipao will stroll along shikumen (stone-gated) lanes and singers will present the classics famous in the 1930s.

"Night of Shanghai," "Wandering Singer" and "Rose" - made famous by legendary actresses and singers Zhou Xuan and Li Xianglan - will be performed again.

Song and dance, acrobatics, cross-talk, stand-up comedy, magic, sketches, opera excerpts and many other forms of entertainment will be offered following "Kaleido," a multimedia spectacular about the possibilities of China's future.

Backdrops will depict alleys, nightclubs, the Bund and other famous sights.

Chen Jizhen, initiator and producer, says the shows will bring back memories and give visitors a glimpse at the city's fabled nightlife.

On his first visit to Shanghai in 1988, Chen was awed by the magic mirror and acrobatics at the Great World entertainment Center. The native of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, was 15 years old and decided then that he would return.

"The Great World is a cultural and historical landmark of Shanghai and its role in the entertainment industry is unmatched," Chen says.

The shows are mainly aimed at people from 18 to their 50s who like to go out on the town. The two-hour show fills the time between dinner and party or clubbing.

Tickets will average around 100 yuan (US$15.30). A ticket package with "Kaleido" performances is under consideration.

The lineup will include the city's famous comedians, such as Pan Qianwei, Shu Yue and stand-up comedian Zhou Libo.

"With a long history and terrific design, the theater is a perfect place to stage old Shanghai performances," says Zhou who performed on the Gong Stage 25 years ago.

Built in 1917, the Great World entertainment Center in old Shanghai staged simultaneous, all-day performances of music, film, Chinese opera, magic, acrobatics, folk arts, circus acts and fortune-telling. It also featured a hall of distorting mirrors imported from the Netherlands and drew huge crowds.

There was gambling, massage, dance halls and bars, even a 24-hour bank, which was essential for gamblers. There were birds and crickets, barbers and mid-wives. The open-air center had arcades, games, ice-cream parlors, restaurants, shops and herbal medicine stores.

The Gong Stage in the complex was built in 1927 in European style. Over the decades it changed hands from entrepreneur Huang Chujiu to Shanghai gangster Huang Jinrong and then the government, which was appalled at the decadence.

It later staged approved and uplifting performances for the public.

Given its ideal location at Xizang and Yan'an roads, the theater used to be one of the four major Peking Opera theaters in Shanghai, together with the Tianchan (Yifu) Theater, Gengxin Theater and Wenming Stage.

During the golden age of Peking Opera in the 1920s and 30s, masters Mei Lanfang and Men Xiaodong performed there, as did many other leading lights.

At the theater in 1936, Mei and movie star Hu Die also entertained Charlie Chaplin and together they watched the Peking Opera "Burning Paradise."

Renovation lasted around six months and was completed in September at a cost of more than 20 million yuan. It now seats 788 theater-goers.

It has the latest in audio-visual equipment and technology, nostalgic decor and innovative stage design, according to Wan Yan, a Great World official.

Unlike other theaters, the Gong Stage will be turned into a 24-hour theater with performances appealing to every taste. In addition to "Kaleido" and the old Shanghai nostalgia shows, there will be students' daytime performances and multimedia Peking Opera.

The second floor is a museum about the history of the theater, including photos, stage costumes and props.

Shanghai history expert Xue Liyong says the Great World and the Gong Stage were once a symbol of Shanghai and witnessed the rise and fall of the city.

"There was a popular saying that 'you cannot claim to have been to Shanghai without visiting the Great World'," Xue says.


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