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Cinema’s coming rebirth stirs nostalgia
2014-12-16
By Qu Zhi

“HERE I had the first date with my husband and took our children for their first big screen experience. It was always the first option to enjoy quality time in Pudong,” she says, standing on a leaf-covered street in front of the cinema.

For many local residents in Pudong, the Dongchang Cinema on Laoshan Road W. is a place that holds warm memories.

“During the age when we fell short in both material and spiritual conditions, going to the cinema was among a handful of choices to entertain in the deadening routine of life,” Xu tells Shanghai Daily. “And Dongchang Cinema was the best, with a great environment and the most choices in this district.”

This first cinema erected in Pudong is set to be demolished next year to make way for a new art center. Recently, the cinema gave its final show dubbed “Coming Soon” as an art project. The project collected a group of artworks from across China and the world to present in the old space, including antique cinema machines, paintings and old photos.

Standing in a forgotten area of Pudong just steps behind the glitzy Lujiazui skyline, this historic cinema has been little used for a decade. Surrounded by narrow streets, street vendors and old residential buildings, the area looks like it has not changed in half a century. Under the eaves of the theater’s battered façade of grey and yellow tile, several senior citizens often gather to chat and play cards.

“They might be the only visitors to this cinema now,” says Gu Daqing, who is in charge of the theater.

In the autumn of 1973, the then 18-year-old Gu started to work in the cinema, first as ticket seller. Later jobs took him to the projection room, HR department and marketing until now taking charge of the whole thing.

In 41 years, from 18 to 59 years old, the man has never left the cinema for another job.

“During the heyday of Dongchang Cinema, there would be no empty chairs in the screening room with the capacity to hold 1,026 people,” he recalls.

In 1954, the then Huangpu District Cultural Bureau decided to build the theater in the Weifang community, and found investors to cover the 400,000-yuan (US$64,516) cost of the construction.

During the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), only revolutionary operas were played at the Dongchang Cinema and it was temporarily called the Qianjin (Marching) Cinema.

Return to the glory days

“It was during the 1980s when the cinema returned to its glory days,” Gu says. “Then we had many more choices and the right to play imported films.”

The cinema was initially a single-story building and was given a second floor in the 1980s. At that time it also expanded its offerings to include cafes and video rooms.

“When the cinema was first established, there were farms around it,” Gu says.

At its peak in the early 1990s, the cinema was open 23 hours a day, screening seven to eight movies. It reached an annual turnover of 1.7 million yuan.

“When the movie ‘Dream of the Red Mansion’ was released, people started to queue for tickets before 5 o’clock in the morning,” Gu recalls.

In those days, the area was one of the busiest places in Pudong, which was then administered by Huangpu District. At night, there were regularly long queues in front of the cinema.

“The reconstruction and development plan of the Pudong New Area in 1996 was the start of Dongchang Cinema’s decline,” Gu says.

With shopping malls and many other entertainment venues sprouting — including multiplexes with their range of movie options — old cinemas with just one auditorium and screen could no longer meet the needs of audiences.

“At the worst time, merely two people sat in the auditorium that could hold more than 1,000 people, and featuring one movie could not even cover the cost of electricity,” says Gu.

In 2004, the cinema was partially shut down. It still shows movies at times and retains a staff of 17 workers.

Old Shanghai was once a movie paradise — movie houses of various size across the city screened the latest movies from Hollywood as soon as they debuted in New York. The city once reportedly ranked eighth in the world among cities for cinema. Dongchang Cinema is one among many of the city’s original cinemas to have been shuttered.

“It’s not that we haven’t thought about renovation but we didn’t have the money,” says Gu.

Entering the foyer, one can see the building inside is worn. The printed ceilings have a dim shade of brownish yellow. On the walls of the ticket booth, old ticket-purchasing notices still hang.

The iron bars that form the ticket booth’s windows are rusted.

“The whole building was based on the style of Soviet architecture, and though it was reconstructed once, you can still see some of the old style,” Gu says.

Turning into an art center

In a year, it will be rebuilt as the Lujiazui Contemporary Artwork Exhibition and Exchange Center.

“The architectural style will be changed, with a more modern touch. But we will keep some of the old chairs, projectors and other old objects as nostalgic exhibits in different places of the building,” says Hua Linglei, vice manager of Shanghai Pudong Media Group, which is responsible for this revamping project.

Though tuning into an art center complete with artist studios and galleries, Dongchang Cinema will still keep its function of showing movies, Hua says.

“Compared to Wall Street, we find Lujiazui doesn’t have as many as places to appreciate art and culture. So we decided to turn this historic cinema to an art center for the elites working around to easily get close to art,” he says.

Not everything in the old cinema will be changed to aim for the high-end market.

“We will also hold exhibitions, events for children and art lectures for the neighbors,” Hua says.

For Hua, the small lanes and narrow streets around the cinema are something to be cherished “as a very little area in Pudong that is very suitable for strolling.”

“So with the development of the new art center, I hope that the businesses around Dongchang Cinema will be improved as well. Instead of vendors and grocery stores, some boutique shops and cafes can open in this area,” Hua says.

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