China's Financial Capital Tries To Become A Cultural Capital

Aug 25, 2015
Originally published on August 25, 2015 10:34 pm

Inside Shanghai's cavernous Yuz Museum, there's a two-story metal box.
And inside that box: a fire hose dangling from a chain.

Every hour, the hose fills with water and dances about, spraying in a frenzy for just one minute.

"It's like a Chinese dragon," says Karen Cong, who's 25 and works in digital advertising.

Private museums like the Yuz are sprouting up along the riverfront in Shanghai, part of a government plan to build a Museum Mile on the waterfront and help turn China's financial hub into a cultural capital as well.

Cong is here to take in some art installations and get a little perspective on her own life in this frenetic city of 24 million.

The installation with the spraying fire hose is called Freedom. It speaks to her.

"To me, it has a lot of explosive force. People need these kinds of outlets," she says. "People probably say they lead a regular life, with the same rhythm. You have to do this at this time, this at that time. Then you may need things outside that pattern. You need a point when you can just let yourself explode. Just like the hose."

A decade and a half ago, there weren't many places in this city to interact with art and just, well, think.

The Yuz Museum, which opened last year, is part of a government effort to change that.

It Began With A Tweet

The genesis of the Yuz was improbable. It started with a complaint on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.

"I complained that we're going to do something good for the society," says Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian art collector and philanthropist.

He was trying to build a museum in his adopted hometown and it was maddening.

"It's so difficult in China," he said. "We cannot buy the land. If we buy the land for commercial, it's so expensive."

A top official in Shanghai's Xuhui district saw Tek's tweet complaining about the situation and eventually offered him the use of an old aircraft factory, rent-free.

"So, he invited me and I was the first to say 'yes,'" he adds.

The Yuz is now part of a growing number of private museums along the old industrial waterfront called the West Bund.

They include the Long, which features traditional Chinese art. There is also a DreamWorks complex with movie-production facilities, a convention center and restaurants, scheduled to open next year.

Creating A Destination

Chen Anda, who works for the state-owned company that's developing the area, says the government is building a destination.

"Our goal for the West Bund is to create something like London's South Bank or Paris' Left Bank, a concentrated cultural district," Chen says.

It's a nice spot, upstream from Shanghai's old colonial riverfront. There's a boardwalk promenade with a climbing wall. They're also building a park and jogging area on an old airport runway.

"I think everyone was very pleasantly surprised when they saw this development open up," says Steven Harris, who owns the art gallery M97 and has lived in Shanghai for a decade.

"People go jogging, walk their dogs. It's lovely," he says. "It's a little like being on the Hudson or the East River. So, you get nice breezes. They did a great job."

Liu Heung Shing, a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist with The Associated Press, was recruited by the district government to open a museum here, and he became the founder of the Shanghai Center of Photography.

Liu says one reason for this public-private partnership is that local officials know their core competency lies in areas like infrastructure, not museum curation.

"They've very smart actually," he says. "They think if we can't do it as well, why don't we give the private sector a try."

The number of visitors is still small and the West Bund has a bit of a startup feel. Liu doesn't have much of a staff at his museum and does lots of work himself. That includes picking up trash and sweeping the floors.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In China, Shanghai's skyline has been changing for years. Now there's a new effort to change the city's waterfront. Private museums are sprouting up along the riverbank in Shanghai. They're part of a government plan to build a Museum Mile to help turn China's financial hub into a cultural capital. NPR's Frank Langfitt takes us there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Inside Shanghai's cavernous Yuz Museum, there's a two-story metal box. And inside that box - a fire hose dangling from a chain. Every hour, the hose fills with water and dances about, spraying in a frenzy for just one minute.

KAREN CONG: It's like a Chinese dragon.

LANGFITT: This is Karen Cong. She's 25 and works in digital advertising. Cong's here to take in some of the art installations and get a little perspective on her own life in this frenetic city of 24 million. The installation with the spraying fire hose is called "Freedom." She says it speaks to her.

CONG: (Through interpreter) To me, it has a lot of explosive force. People need these kinds of outlets. People probably say that they lead a regular life with the same rhythm. You have to do this at this time, this at that time. Then you may need things outside that pattern. You need a point when you can just let yourself explode, just like the hose.

LANGFITT: A decade and a half ago, there weren't many places in this city to interact with art and just, well, think. The Yuz Museum, which opened last year, is part of a government effort to change that. The genesis of the Yuz was improbable. It started with a complaint on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.

BUDI TEK: I complained that we are going to do something good for the society.

LANGFITT: This is Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian art collector and philanthropist. He was trying to build a museum in his adopted hometown, and it was maddening.

TEK: It was so difficult in China. We cannot buy the land. You know, if we buy the land for commercial, it's so expensive.

LANGFITT: A top official in Shanghai's Xuhui district saw his tweet and eventually offered him the use of an old aircraft factory, rent-free.

TEK: So he invited me, and I was the first to say yes (laughter).

LANGFITT: So this all started with a message on Weibo?

TEK: Yeah. I complained.

LANGFITT: The Yuz is now part of a growing number of private museums along the old industrial waterfront called the West Bund. They include the Long, which features traditional Chinese art. There's also a DreamWorks complex with movie-production facilities, a convention center and restaurants scheduled to open next year. Chen Anda, who works for the state-owned company that's developing the area, says the government is building a destination.

CHEN ANDA: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: "Our goal for the West Bund," he tells me, "is to create something like London's South Bank or Paris' Left Bank, a concentrated cultural district." It's a nice spot, upstream from Shanghai's old colonial riverfront. There's a boardwalk promenade with a climbing wall. They're also building a park and jogging area on an old airport runway. Stephen Harris owns M97, an art gallery, and has lived in Shanghai for more than a decade.

STEPHEN HARRIS: I think everyone was very pleasantly surprised when they saw this whole development open up. People go jogging, walk their dogs. It's a lovely - you know, a little bit like being on the Hudson or the East River. So you know, you get nice breezes. They did a great job.

LIU HENG SHING: My name is Liu Heng Shing. I'm the founder of Shanghai Center for Photography.

LANGFITT: Liu is a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist with the Associated Press. He was also recruited by the district government to open a museum here. Liu says one reason for this public-private partnership is local officials know their core competency lies in areas like infrastructure, not museum curation.

LIU: They're very smart, actually. They think if we can't do it as well, why don't we give the private sector a try?

LANGFITT: Crowds are still small, and the West Bund has a bit of a startup feel. Liu doesn't have much staff at his museum and does a lot of the work himself, including picking up the trash and even sweeping the floors. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.