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The Piano Man - Collecting on a grand scale

LI Cong collects fine old pianos, meticulously restores them and installs systems that play anything from grand sonatas to ragtime. He's bringing his collection of 80 instruments our way, reports Nie Xin.

Li Cong enjoys a long list of titles - collector, musician, businessman, gourmet - and the multitalented fellow embraces them all.

In arts circles, Li is respectfully called "Brother Cong" ("Cong Ge"); in business field, he is known as "Brother Fa" ("Fa Ge"), as he has another name - Li Mingfa.

On a recent rainy morning, Brother Cong was sitting in a private club on Yueyang Road in Shanghai where many artists and celebrities congregate.

"Let's have a cup of tea," says the distinguished collector of antique musical instruments who now lives in Hong Kong. He discussed his passion for collecting and his plans to relocate his huge collection stored in Canada and display it in the Shanghai area. He plans a museum.

Last October, nine of Li's antique pianos (the oldest 150 years) were displayed at the International Musical Instruments Exhibition in Shanghai.

Visitors were awestruck by the concert grands, baby grands, harpsichords and others in the percussion family.

"It was amazing," says Li, a 56-year-old Shanghainese who owns an IT company. "I'm glad so many people like and appreciate antique instruments."

Those pianos are just a small part of his collection of around 80 - some made of rare woods, some worth around half a million US dollars.

Most of the collection is in Canada where Li and his colleague Chen Huiguo carefully store them in Chen's temperature-controlled facility.

Chen, once a technician for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, is now chairman of the Piano & Keyboard Center in the United States.

Li and Chen search for fine but damaged old pianos throughout Europe and in the US and Canada. The prices are low. Then they lovingly restore them - that's the real fun.

"I never buy those restored old luxury pianos for US$300,000 or US$400,000," says Li. "The value mostly comes from our restoration."

Many now have electronic functions so they can automatically play the classics, jazz, blues, ragtime, whatever suits the occasion.

In China, and Asia, the only known private museum of antique pianos is Shu Zhuang Yuan on the island of Gulangyu in Xiamen, Fujian Province. It has 70 to 80 pianos, but only around 20 are really precious, says Li.

By the age of 20, the Shanghai native had made 100 musical instruments with his own hands, ranging from Western instruments like the bass, cello and violin to Chinese traditional instruments such as erhu (two-stringed fiddle), pipa (Chinese lute), yueqin (lute) and muqin (xylophone).

He plays the piano, violin, cello, erhu and other instruments.


Li also collects antique furniture, especially from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

He is a gourmet of traditional Chinese cuisine, and in the 1980s opened a restaurant on Nanchang Road, one of the first private restaurants at the time.

Multi-talented Li is an author and poet, preparing to publish his poetry and essays of more than 1.6 million words, mostly about his travels.

At 20, Li began to travel the world and develop his IT business in China, Japan, the US and Canada.

Now he planning to return to Shanghai from Hong Kong.

"I was born and raised here, these are my roots and for me the cultural background of Shanghai can never be replaced," says Li.

He's looking for a suitable place for his piano collection - 80 are a lot - and he wants to open a museum.

Li has looked at Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, Weihai in Shandong Province and the ancient water town Zhujiajiao in Shanghai.

Li prefers his hometown.

The city government is turning the ancient town into a cultural center for World Expo 2010. Around 100 celebrities, including composer Tan Dun, film director Chen Xiaogang and actor Zhang Guoli, have been invited to open studios.

"Old architecture, bridges, rivers - it's the ideal place for me to build my own cultural empire," says Li. "There are also many sweet memories of my childhood in old Shanghai."

Another reason for moving home, he says, is the cost of collection. "In the West, collecting antique pianos is very expensive, especially because of restoration and exacting storage requirements," he explains.

About 10 years ago, Li bought one of his favorites, a Steinway made in the early 1900s.

The wood from northern Europe was so precious and rare, with a tiger-skin pattern, that Steinway & Sons produced only two of them, Li says.

One disappeared due to the turbulent wartime and Li purchased the other 10 years ago for US$30,000.

However, he spent US$100,000 on repair and restoration, and it's now worth US$500,000, he says.

"Collecting is not merely about market value," says Li. "The construction, style, workmanship, history and culture are more important."

He especially likes the installed electronic systems that make the keyboards play anything from Bach to "Maple Leaf Rag."

"They can play classical, jazz, blues, and any kind of music that suits the atmosphere," says Li. "They are brought to life again."


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