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May 7, 2012

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Street artists may be legalized

STREET artists are commonplace in New York, London and Paris, adding what some would call a unique cultural touch to urban life. Now Shanghai is poised to give sidewalk talent a higher profile in the campaign to enrich city heritage.

Municipal legislators are considering a law granting street artists the legal right to play music, sing, dance and exhibit artworks on certain streets.

"It's time for Shanghai to break the restrictions and open up public areas to encourage the booming number of street artists who should be considered an important part of a city's cultural vigor," said Luo Huaizhen, vice president of the China Theater Association, who is also among legislators supporting the legal change.

The challenge is to draw a line between legitimate artists, who often put out caps or guitar cases to collect small change from grateful passersby, and outright beggars, whose panhandling is a constant annoyance to the public.

Under the proposed law, performers would be evaluated on their artistic skills in order to be licensed as bona fide "street artists."

Although they are technically banned now, street performers do appear regularly in some busy areas such as People's Square, the Lujiazui financial zone and Zhongshan Park. Interviews with some of them point to the difficulties lawmakers face in crafting the new law.

A one-eyed man stumbles onto a subway train, pushing through the crowds with a begging bowl in his left hand. In the other hand, he holds a cheap microphone as he starts singing a familiar old song.

"Ah..." he sings along, "If everyone shares a bit of love, the world will turn into …." "Heaven," the last word of his song, is interrupted by the wailing of a baby on his back.

A few passengers toss him a coin or two, hoping he will disappear. It's obvious his presence is unwelcome. "Shut up and get off the train," yells one angry person.

Some passengers obviously believe that he is faking blindness. That's not uncommon among "professional" beggars at city Metro stations.

The question for legislators becomes: What do you do with a legitimate, talented artist who is also suffering from disability and poverty? Is he or she a beggar or a street artist?

True artists bristle at the idea of being lumped with beggars as public nuisances. They want their talents recognized as a legitimate way to make money.

Delight of passers-by

In the Lujiazui area, a young man sits in front of a shopping mall, plucking his guitar to the delight of passers-by who throw coins into his guitar case.

Tuo Tuo, 25, came to Shanghai six years ago from his hometown in east China's Shandong Province with nothing more than the guitar on his back.

A four-hour stint in the shopping mall earns him about 300 yuan (US$47.58). Each donation moves him a small step closer to his dream of setting up a musical instrument shop and perhaps buying an apartment.

Tuo said he is pleased that the city may be about to recognize the value of street artists.

"I have been looking forward to such a regulation for years," he said. "As a struggling street singer, I have never had any legal or social status."

He's grown used to running battles with urban management authorities who try to drive him from the streets. He risks fines if he is caught "illegally blocking" a public space.

Beyond that, Tuo also has to fight with other street artists for prime performance spots.

He's dubious about any evaluation system required to declare his activities legal.

"Who will be the judge?" he asked. "Will we be put on a stage just like that Talent Show, where the judges and audience give us thumbs up or thumbs down? If we fail the evaluation, will we be forced to keep dodging the authorities on the streets?"

Hard questions.

A member of the urban management team responsible for keeping panhandlers off the streets, who asked to remain anonymous, said team officers are often accosted by the people they are trying to disperse from crowded areas.

Difficult to implement

"They argue that they are artists and not beggars disturbing passers-by," he said.

"It will be very difficult to implement," said the official.

Any future law, he said, must provide clear guidelines defining street artists and where they are allowed to perform.

In 2006, a singer named Guang Hui opened the city's first shelter in a suburban area. About 300 street singers were allowed to perform there and live freely. The only income came from the 30-yuan ticket to each performance.

But few Shanghai residents were interested in traveling a long distance to buy a ticket to a show of nobodies, and the shelter closed last year.

Tuo said he would like to see the government provide artists with a "movable stage" that could be transported to plazas in various districts.


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