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Lack of celebrities reflects city’s fall from its entertainment perch
By Doug Young

A recent brouhaha in the US over the naming of an outsider as New York’s celebrity “ambassador” got me thinking about who could fill the role of a similar city spokesman for Shanghai.

After all, such spokesman is a great promotion for big cities like New York or Shanghai to outsiders, representing many positive and distinctive aspects of local culture like language, mannerisms and general attitude.

But what happened next was quite unexpected, as queries to several friends made me realize that Shanghai doesn’t have too many people who could fill such a role, despite its status as China’s biggest city. My friends explained that many aspiring actors and musicians now gravitate to Beijing.

City officials are trying to change that perception, most notably through recent tie-ups with two of Hollywood’s biggest names: Disney and DreamWorks. But both are focused on child-oriented entertainment, and it really would be nice if Shanghai could do more to revive some of its tradition as a center for cutting-edge film, music and other cultural activities.

The news story that started me down my road of discovery was quite frivolous and typical of the entertainment industry.

The ruckus began when pop singing sensation Taylor Swift was selected as the new global welcome ambassador of New York City. People who follow US pop music will know that Swift is a homey singer with a heavy country music influence — hardly what one would expect of a typical hard-edged New Yorker.

Swift recently bought a Manhattan condo but lacked any previous New York connection, having grown up in the state of Pennsylvania before moving to the southern state of Tennessee at age 14.

Her selection raised loud objections from native New Yorkers, who said homegrown stars like comedian Jerry Seinfeld or street-wise movie star Jennifer Lopez could have represented the city much better.

That got me thinking about my adopted city of Shanghai, and who might best represent the city’s spirit in a similar promotional campaign. I’ll admit I’m not a big watcher of local movies or TV shows, which perhaps is why I couldn’t think of a single star whose image is closely associated with Shanghai.

The same was true for singers, and after much thought the only local stars I could think of were two celebrity athletes: basketball star Yao Ming and track-and-field star Liu Xiang.

I have nothing against either of these athletes, though Yao’s soft-spoken style and Liu’s recent Olympic debacles seemed to make them unsuitable for the ambassador job. So for more choices I turned to a few of my friends, including local Shanghainese and also out-of-towners who have lived in the city for at least the last five years.

I was somewhat surprised to learn most of them had equal difficulty naming anyone with the proper credentials. Most agreed the three most suitable choices were a group of well-known local actresses, all over 50 years old. Those included local TV legends Xi Meijuan and Pan Hong, both around 60, who were well known to both my older and younger friends.

The list also included a slightly younger Joan Chen, who was the only name I personally recognized due to her role in a number of Western films, including “The Last Emperor,” released in 1987.

The only youngster candidate among the bunch was 32-year-old Shanghai-born Sun Li, who also goes by the name of Betty Sun, and is known for her roles in the more recent hit movies “Painted Skin” and “Fearless.”

City produced China’s early films

All that searching and querying left me a bit exhausted due to my unfamiliarity with the subject and also the lack of unity among my friends. But more than that, I was quite disappointed at Shanghai’s lack of representation among China’s contemporary glitterati. After all, this was the city that produced China’s earliest films and was home to its largest movie studios through the early reform era.

So, when and why did Shanghai start to lose its luster as an entertainment capital? That’s probably a question for historians and sociologists, though I think the city’s obsession with business and finance is at least partly the reason behind the loss of focus on cultural pursuits.

Higher mobility in China also plays a role, since people from smaller towns often couldn’t make the trip to big cities like Shanghai and Beijing in an earlier era when residency permits were highly restrictive.

At the end of the day, I suppose I should commend the city for attracting Disney and DreamWorks, which show it’s at least trying to regain some of its past glory as a center of cutting-edge culture and entertainment.

But it will take more than a little animation and a Disneyland to return the city to its former glory as an entertainment hub, and Shanghai officials should work more with local entertainers and artists to develop and promote a distinctly Shanghai culture that’s both fun and attractive to outsiders.

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