SHANGHAI residents born before 1995 would all remember one place in the city where families could enjoy an entertainment outing at a very low price.
It was called Shanghai Great World. Located near People’s Square and Huaihai Road. The site offered movies and live performances, games, artisan demonstrations and plenty of snacks. Children were especially mesmerized by the 12 huge funhouse mirrors at the gate, which distorted their images into too fat or too thin.
Shanghai Great World disappeared in 2004. For years, there have been rumors that it might reopen, but the gates to the site have remained closed.
Lingering nostalgia is not for naught. A new Great World is going to open next year, this time in Minhang’s Qibao Old Town.
Zhu Feng, a former singer at Shanghai Great World, is the general manager of Qibao Great World and the architect of the revival.
“I still remember the splendid times we had on the stage,” said Zhu. “There were always big audiences and hearty applause. I want people nowadays to be able to relive that experience, and I also want to produce a platform for folk arts that are dying out.”
Qibao Great World will be located in a three-story, traditional Chinese-style building on Yuqian Street. Just like Shanghai Great World, it will feature a central outdoor stage.
Attractions will also duplicate the forerunner. There will be small cinemas, stage performances, snack bars and restaurants. There will be an arena for people to compete for Guinness-style records in Shanghai. There will be karaoke and video game rooms. Even the trademark funhouse mirrors will be back.
The return of the entertainment icon is a godsend for former Great World performers, like Zhou Songgen. He is the director of Oriental Unique Talent, the once resident performance troupe at Shanghai Great World. It’s comeback time for performers who once enthralled audiences with Chinese opera, songfests and folk art shows.
Resurrect the lost glory
At its height, Oriental Unique Talent boasted 108 performers and craft artisans. After Shanghai Great World closed, some of the performers dispersed but many remained in the city.
“When Great World was over, the average age of the performers was 60,” said Zhou. “Most of them lost their incomes. It was a hard time.”
Some 70 of the original performers are still with Zhou. They have eked out a meager living by performing in parks, shopping malls and on pedestrian streets. They even managed to take shows to the United Arab Emirates six times.
Even though they were scraping by, the group’s members still gave free performances in nursing homes.
“When we perform in elderly care homes, we ask only that they provide a meal and cover our transport cost,” said Zhou. “We really enjoy those outings because seniors, unlike many young people, understand our performances and our history.”
The troupe, which is now settling into Qibao, has recruited new members and now numbers more than 300.
Zhou has already mapped out detailed performing schedules, with stage shows every morning, afternoon and evening
Artisans displaying their talent in crafting folk arts will also be part of Qibao Great World.
Xu Jialin, 72, a porcelain and glass engraver, said he’s been following Zhou around since Shanghai Great World closed. Despite feelings of discouragement, he has soldiered on rather than abandon work he loves. Qibao has given him a new lease on life.
“I really want to inspire people to learn engraving,” he said. “Young people who show initial interest tend to vanish when they learn that it takes days to finish one piece of work. I hope the demonstrations in Qibao change that and ignite interest.”
Zhou said he knows that traditional shows need to be spiced up a bit to attract younger people. New elements, like hip-hop, will be added, he said.
Zhou and Zhu said their desire to resurrect the lost glory of Shanghai Great World means they will have to forego income until the new venue proves successful.
“Zhu isn’t asking us for rental fees and we aren’t charging him appearance fees,” Zhou said. “We need to see how it all goes before worrying about money.”