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When culture sells

(Shanghai Daily)

08:47, September 09, 2011

Illustration by Zhou Tao

In a city that changes at bewildering speed, it seems meaningless to bemoan the disappearance of old things from our life. Still, the recent news that an established art form is losing ground in Shanghai has aroused some nostalgia and reflection.

The Oriental Morning Post reported last week that a shu chang, literally "literary theater," in suburban Shanghai was on the verge of closure, and had long been in dire financial straits.

In an open letter to the city's political leadership, many aged aficionados of Suzhou ping tan, a genre of storytelling featuring ancient legends told in Suzhou dialect and tunes played on a pair of stringed plucked instruments, called on officials to help the struggling theater.

Tai Ri shu chang is the place where old folks while away the hours every day by watching ping tan performance, schmoozing, drinking tea and nibbling sun flower seeds. Admission costs 3 yuan (44 US cents) and one can stay as long as he or she wishes.

For many of the theater's patrons, ping tan, the art they grew up listening to, is sadly fighting a losing battle to survive the times.

It is a financial challenge to run these old-style theaters with paltry gate revenues that can barely cover operational costs. Tai Ri's desperate situation is true of many similar ping tan theaters in Shanghai, a few of which have been knocked out of the business.

Sixty years ago, enjoying ping tan was the second most popular form of entertainment, only after seeing movies. Sixty years on, there are only 60 shu changs left in Shanghai, a tenth of its number at its heyday.

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