There’s Still a Bit of Old China Left in Glitzy New Shanghai
Shanghai has a scintillating skyline, a thriving economy verging on capitalism, and a nouveau-riche citizenry that dresses in the most fashionable attire and owns the latest electronic gadgets, but to a large degree it has lost its Chinese soul. Except for the thousands of Chinese who choke its streets and sidewalks, Shanghai could be a large, modern city anywhere in the world. I was disappointed that it seemed to have turned its back on such a rich cultural heritage and was about to write it off as boring until I decided to wander around Old Shanghai one evening. All the shops and office buildings in tthis fairly new neighborhood were built to resemble traditional Chinese architecture, right down to intricate roof tiles and eaves decorated with fire breathing dragons. Neon-outlined buildings reflecting mirror images in surrounding lily ponds and hundreds of illuminated fish lanterns strung overhead were pretty, but I was more interested in the shrill whistles, clamorous clanging, and raucous laughter emanating from a small side alley.
Rounding the corner I discovered half a dozen customers sitting on stools with their foreheads plastered to a large wooden box, a replica of a Chinese peep show from the 19th century. Layang Pian, or Xiyang Jian as the art is more commonly known, roughly translates to “pulling foreign picture cards,” which refers to a set of theatrical scene pictures which the showman could set into a viewing position by pulling a string. Sometimes he would perform with puppets or pictures outside the box and then charge people extra to look through the holes.
This art form was nearly lost in China. Fortunately one artist, Weitan Shi, still studies the traditional art and performs in Old Shanghai, merging the ancient form with modern features that include cymbals, electric lights, and microphones. It’s not quite like the Xiyang Jian of old, but it lends some badly needed Chinese character to Shanghai.