Art Rivalry
Reviving an age-old feud,
Beijing and Shanghai fight for
the title of cultural capital

by Hannah Beech
Time Asia

inside Shanghai's Grand Theater

When Shanghai held the soft opening of its new art museum last month, it was more than a celebration of culture. The converted colonial building with state-of-the-art lighting and sleek marble and wood walls is also a direct challenge to Beijing, Shanghai's eternal rival for the title of China's cultural capital. The museum is simply the latest in a building spree that has taken dour, dusty Beijing by surprise. Just two years ago, the visiting Cleveland Orchestra had to play in a Shanghai gymnasium because there were no appropriate venues. But today the city boasts the new art gallery, an elegant museum for antiquities, a luminous $150 million theater and one of the largest libraries in the world. A $200 million science center is planned for 2001. "Shanghai's museums and cultural centers don't just aim to be the best in China," says Chen Xiejun, executive director of the Shanghai Museum. "We're competing to be among the best in the world."

Beijing isn't about to concede the battle, however. For one thing, the capital is counting on its cutting-edge artistic tradition to outshine Shanghai's flash and cash. After all, when the lights go down, Beijing shakes off its stiff exterior and begins to pulse with live-band bars, wild performance art and enough Peking opera to keep the conventionalists sated. Shanghai's building frenzy has also galvanized Beijing's bulldozers and jackhammers. Although its bars and salons breed a raw artistic energy, the capital lacks infrastructure worthy of the city's talent. Its showcase Forbidden City Palace Museum, for instance, offers only dusty exhibits obscured by money-saving, low-watt bulbs. All that changed last week with the start of construction of Beijing's National Theater, a glitzy $420-million monument to modernity just minutes from the imperial splendor of the Forbidden City.

Designed by French architect Paul Andreu, the voluptuous glass and titanium complex will encompass an opera house, a 2,500-seat theater, a 2,000-seat concert hall and an experimental theater complete with rotating stage. Former Premier Zhou Enlai first conceived of a national stage in 1958, but plans languished during both the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and the no-frills practicality of the Deng Xiaoping era. It took karaoke-loving President Jiang Zemin to convince the geriatric State Council that Beijing needed to replace its fraying theaters with a new cultural landmark. It's the city's biggest undertaking since Mao Zedong's mausoleum was built in 1977.

Beijing sorely needs such a complex if it hopes to attract the top-flight performances that have begun flocking to Shanghai's Grand Theater. The top venues in Beijing, the Great Hall of the People and the Century Theater, are such acoustic nightmares that Luciano Pavarotti publicly despaired for the future of opera in the Chinese capital. By contrast, when Tan Dun performed the China premiere of The Gate at the Grand Theater last month, Shanghai's glitterati were thrilled by the crystalline sound. "There's nowhere in Beijing that could have done justice to this performance," says accountant Ellen Tan, who paid $85 for her ticket--more than the average Chinese makes in a month. "The aisles would be dirty and the audience would be full of old bureaucrats who wouldn't know when to clap."

Such arriviste snobbery seems to have hardened Beijing's resolve to do whatever it can to foil its rival. When Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma was scheduled to join the Tan Dun extravaganza, Beijing reminded Shanghai that all international performers first had to be vetted by the Ministry of Culture. Two weeks before the performance, Beijing was still dithering. "The Shanghai government had already given its approval," says Jane Huang, executive director of the Committee of 100 Cultural Institute, which organized the multimedia event. "But with Beijing taking so long, Ma pulled out of the show."

And forget about Shanghai getting any financial help from Beijing. While some other regional theaters receive central government subsidies, the Grand Theater receives nothing. That means that while performances in Beijing are packed with freeloading senior cadres and official media types, Shanghai must find paying customers and corporate sponsors. Much of the cash flow for the arts comes courtesy of Shanghai businessman Bonko Chan, who has almost single-handedly revived the city's cultural scene. The flamboyant, self-styled impresario has funded half-a-dozen operas, including Aida and La Traviata. "I made a $100 bet with friends that I could bring world-class opera to Shanghai," says Chan, 36, who runs a state freight-forwarding company by day. "I won the bet, but I spent half-a-million dollars in the process."

For the moment, Beijing is still a bigger draw for young artists and performers - even though a lack of theaters limits many dance and music troupes to just one or two shows a year. "It's hard to be a starving young artist in Shanghai because the city is so expensive," says Lorenz Helbling, owner of Shanghart Gallery, one of the city's few private art spaces. More importantly, despite its legion of stern-faced cadres, Beijing somehow is more receptive to avant-garde impulses. "If a writer wants to publish something with sensitive content, he'll have much better luck trying in Beijing," says Wang Zhousheng, a writer and associate research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Sciences.

Shanghai's notoriously conservative culture czars have already foiled several big-name events. In an embarrassing episode two years ago, the Shanghai Culture Bureau banned one of the city's opera troupes from participating in a Lincoln Center Festival production of The Peony Pavilion because it was deemed "pornographic" and "superstitious." When American jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra toured China in February, Shanghai's cadres almost barred the Grammy - winning musician from performing at the Shanghai Center Theater. Jazz, they sniffed, just wasn't serious enough to merit such an exclusive venue. Marsalis faced no such problems in the capital. "In Beijing, there are so many cadres from so many different ministries that we could play them off one another," says a promoter involved with the event. "In Shanghai the channels were much narrower, so there was less room for negotiation."

Ultimately, the question is whether Shanghai's money will win out over Beijing's moxie. Awash with cash, Shanghai is perpetually dabbling in new ventures. Internationally acclaimed painter Chen Yifei is contemplating collaborating in a production of La Bohème this fall. Composer Tan Dun has already agreed to a China premiere of his next opera, Tea, in Shanghai in 2002 (with help from Bonko Chan and his advertising team). Beijing remains secure, however, knowing that its inventive film studio and avant-garde dance and music groups far outstrip Shanghai's talent. "Beijing will always be the cultural center of China," says Chan. "But with money to import top stars, Shanghai has the potential to be the international arts capital of Asia." Such diplomatic equivocation isn't likely to dampen the rivalry between the two cities. But at least it provides the possibility of a world where Beijing can rock and Shanghai can roll - and all of China can move to the beat.