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August 13, 2011

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Jewel in the culture crown

THE newest addition to the entertainment scene is the spectacular Shanghai Culture Square, site of the old flower market and originally a greyhound race track.

After five years of construction, there's a new jewel in the city's crown of top entertainment venues. The just-opened Shanghai Culture Square is set to become an Asian Broadway.

At least that's the hope for the spectacular and largely underground facility with state-of-the-art technology and the capacity to stage whatever Broadway has to offer, and more.

The square - dominated by a partly submerged oval-shaped theater - occupies a mega block roughly bounded by Fuxing, Yongjia, Shaanxi S. and Maoming S. roads in the former French Concession.

The multi-functional theater covers 65,000 square meters, including 57,000 square meters underground. It seats 2,010 guests and features underground parking and shops.

A greyhound racing track was originally built here in 1928, closed in 1949 along with other gambling venues, then used for mass political rallies, later for Peking Opera and other performances.

In 1997 it was turned into the Shanghai Flower Market. The market closed in 2005 and the city invited bids for an ambitious culture center.

The old buildings were then torn down and replaced by the new Culture Square which recently made its debut in the "Music in the Summer Air" festival running through August 31, staged partly in the new venue as well as other sites around the city.

Stepping into the underground hall with a "great wave" design, Maggie Wang was awed by the setting.

"It's so beautiful and modern, it's totally changed," says Wang who used to visit the old Culture Square in the 1960s and 70s.

"The site may be just the flower market for many young people, but for us is one of the top entertainment spots in Shanghai and probably China," says Jiang Yong, age 55, who used to live in the neighborhood.

"We were thrilled whenever we got the chance to see performances there, and I was proud that I was a teen musician of the Children's Palace at the time," says Jiang.

In its heyday, the old entertainment site contained hotels, restaurants, shops, sports grounds and an outdoor movie theater, among other entertainments.

The main auditorium was known for a vast unobstructed space where the Moscow National Theater Ballet used to perform. The Korean opera "Flower Girl" was also performed there.

"It was so big that if you were at the back you could hardly see the performers on stage but we were all swept up in the excitement with thousands of people," says Wang. Huge electric fans kept the air moving, he recalls.

But the curtain came down in 1988 after the Brigham Young University Troupe performed. In 1992 it became a stock exchange and in 1997 a flower market.

"It's too bad that the site with so many memories was abandoned for so many years, but now it's time for residents again to enjoy themselves," says Le Shengli, general manager of Shanghai Culture Square.

Demand gap

The city of around 20 million people has only 97 theaters, 66 story-telling venues, 89 art troupes and 244 performance organizations, according to the Shanghai culture administration.

There's a huge gap between the demand for cultural activities and the number of venues qualified for good performances.

The Shanghai Culture Square is the latest in the attempt to meet the need, along with the Shanghai Grand Theater, Oriental Art Center, Daning Theater and Mercedes-Benz Arena.

A number of theaters are not simply all-purpose stages, they are multifunctional or targeted to specific audiences with specific equipment.

The Shanghai Culture Square used to be the venue for most classical and popular performances and there was easy public access. "And so it will be today," says Le.

The square will be the venue for classical musicals, which are increasingly popular, as well as symphony orchestra concerts and evening parties.

It can be turned into an ice-skating rink and water stage; it has cannons and sprayers for rain and dry ice.

Audio equipment is extended into the seating area to help extend the stage experience.

But some music lovers say the acoustics are inadequate.

Sound is collected from the entire hall, rather than the stage, and this destroys the music, says Sally Zhang, a 35-year-old lover of classical music.

To celebrate its opening, the Culture Square will present classical musicals including the Chinese version of "Mamma Mia!," "Ultimate Broadway" and "Notre Dame de Paris."

The management is considering lowering some ticket prices to attract more visitors, according to general manager Le.

More new theaters

The Daning Theater, which opened last year in Zhabei District, is focusing on small-and medium-size performances for chamber music and stage plays. It seats 1,100 guests.

It was built to help compensate for lack of theaters in the northern part of the city, says Chen Yitian, vice president of the Shanghai China Performing Arts Agency that operates the theater. It is still considering what type of performances are most suitable to the area.

"We have staged more than a dozen various kinds of performances to learn more about the audience's taste," says Chen. So far stage plays featuring well-known actors and traditional ballet have proved quite popular.

The Mercedes-Benz Arena, which was built for the 2010 World Expo, has proved successful as a venue for various performances and sporting and athletic events since it opened in January.

It has a capacity of 18,000 seats for a grand stage, ice skating arena and other entertainment.

Many major venue projects around the world struggle to be sustainable after the global events for which they were built. The arena was working on sponsorship and programs long before the Expo concluded last October, says Guy Ngata, general manager of the Mercedez-Benz Arena.

It has presented performances by Faye Wong, The Eagles, "Walking with Dinosaurs," and "Art on Ice." In around a year it has accommodated about half a million visitors, says Ngata.


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