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Professional street performers should improve pedestrians’ lives
By Doug Young

AFTER years of living with too many things that were anything but entertaining on our city streets, I was pleasantly surprised this week to read about a new initiative to bring some true entertainment to the streets of Shanghai.

This new initiative could eventually see dozens or even hundreds of semi-professional performers begin plying our sidewalks, parks and other outdoor pedestrian areas, providing some fun and different entertainment for people moving about the city in their daily routines.

Some further reflection on the subject made me realize just how often I write about the many nuisances and even dangers that lurk in the public places like sidewalks, parks and subways used by Shanghai’s millions of pedestrians.

This weird hodgepodge of obstacles runs the range from beggars and cars that park on our sidewalks to noisy singers and dancers who fill our parks.

The chaotic landscape today is the direct result of China’s rapid transformation from state with a planned economy to a more civil society underpinned by free markets.

Nuisances like subway beggars on the streets would have been quickly removed by police in China 30 years ago.

Now they are treated with far more tolerance, even though many of their activities are illegal. I have to commend the city and our police for their more tolerant approach to handling these people, even as I often silently complain to myself about the nuisances they create.

Shanghai has taken great steps to improve life for the city’s pedestrians in the last decade, through measures like widening and repaving sidewalks, improving the public transport system and keeping parks open later and removing admission fees.

The latest initiative takes this drive one step further by trying to add an element of fun to our city’s outdoor public spaces with the introduction of high-quality street performers.

The city formally launched its drive this week by licensing eight people to perform on designated sidewalks and in open spaces of the popular Jing’an District commercial area.

Such performers, who are allowed to collect donations for their efforts, include dancers, magicians, acrobats and other artists. The initial eight licensees were chosen over the past year from a group of more than 100 applicants, and some earned up to 1,300 yuan (US$213.11) during their first two days of work.

This kind of high-quality street performer is quite common in the West and is an important part of the landscape in many major cities.

I remember visiting Salzburg, Austria, in the 1980s and being impressed by the many talented music students who performed on the streets, and also the many artists who drew complex chalk drawings on the sidewalks.

When I lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s, several areas near my home in Santa Monica were famous for their pedestrian streets filled with dancers, singers, mimes and other performers. Such artists were also often licensed by local governments and attracted big crowds, especially families with children.

A leap across the Pacific to Shanghai reveals quite a different landscape, with our public spaces populated by performers who are mostly a “nuisance” rather than providers of any real entertainment.

Nuisances in streets, on subway

The classic example are the karaoke singers who ply our city’s subways, often women walking through the cars with young children holding their hands or babies slung over their backs, always looking for donations.

Then there are the disfigured people who also ply our subways and sit on city sidewalks, sometimes playing classical Chinese instruments like the erhu (two-stringed bowed musical instrument) or dizi (Chinese flute) very poorly as they also beg for money.

Last but certainly not least are the retirees who love to sing and dance in our city’s parks and big open spaces, though these people are usually outside for their own fun rather than seeking to entertain anyone else.

Streetside hawkers selling local snacks could probably also be considered a form of entertainment, presenting pedestrians with yet another obstacle as they try to move about the city’s sidewalks and parks.

Most of these people are unregulated, and the many obstacles they pose makes me quite sympathetic to local city officials who have to deal with their presence without being overly harsh.

Hopefully this new initiative to introduce professional, high-quality street artists will be quickly expanded, kicking off a movement that will see the current crop of unlicensed, low-grade performers gradually pushed out.

I personally look forward to seeing some of these performers in the months ahead, and hope the city will continue its efforts to clean up our sidewalks, parks and other public spaces to make them more pedestrian friendly.

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