Where have all the beautiful memories gone

Updated: 2011-07-23 08:01

By Xu Xiaomin (China Daily)

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In days when brand new high-speed trains have stopped hitting headlines and newsmakers like media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and British politicians have become "news breakers", thanks to the phone-hacking scandal, the closure of a small opera house in Shanghai is not even a storm in teacup. But for Shanghai residents, it is a typhoon.

Yalu Shuchang, a 91-year-old theater, known for Suzhou pingtan (an art form in which one or two actors sing and tell stories with simple musical instruments), will be closed later this summer because the community where it stands will be shifted. Local media reports say it is the last professional pingtan opera house in downtown Shanghai.

Pingtan, with its tender singing and interesting storytelling style, used to be the second biggest source of entertainment in Shanghai. In the 1940s and 1950s, Shanghai was home to 600 professional pingtan houses. I still remember that when I was a child, my grandma used to take me to a nearby pingtan house almost every weekend. Like going to church, it was a routine for many Shanghai residents.

I was not as fascinated with pingtan music and storytelling as I was with the beautiful qipaos (mandarin gowns) the actresses wore. The dim light and smoky air, and the actresses with long curvy long hair and shining green satin qipaos are the memories that haunt me when I think of pingtan. It was my introduction to "fashion".

The old community where my joint family lived has long gone, replaced by new apartment buildings. Like many other things past, the beautiful music and the local pingtan house that it wafted out of have also disappeared in thin air. In their place, stand small stores selling DVDs and mini cinemas playing videos of Hong Kong kungfu movies.

It's more than just the pingtan houses that have been erased from Shanghai's collective memory. I feel that all architectural traces of my childhood have vanished in the past 20 years. My kindergarten, primary school and grandparents' house can now be seen in only hazy, sepia photographs. In place of the beautiful pond on my middle school campus stands a tall new office building.

The pace of construction in the country is just blinding. No wonder, the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of The Economist, reported recently that 1.8 billion square meters of residential floor space was built in China last year. At this rate of construction, China could build a city the size of Rome in just two weeks.

But for many Shanghai residents or residents of other cities, the Rome in their heart is being torn down everyday. Han Han, a young writer in Shanghai, lamented on his blog: "It seems Shanghai residents, or for that matter all Chinese people, are not supposed to reminisce."

But what will happen if all the memories of our childhood and youth are gone? Some people may argue that a city should first meet its residents' basic demands, such as transportation and housing. In China, the "special national situation" has long been used to explain almost everything and as an excuse for the rapid pace of urbanization. But doesn't cultural protection fit into the special national situation?

Is our national situation really that special? Is it special enough for us to sacrifice everything for new high-rises?

I would say every country, even the most developed in the world, has its own "special situation". But it should not be used as a pretext to purge historical heritage or metaphors of a city's traditional culture - and that too in a painfully short time. Of course, we need a developed economy, but we also need emotional comfort, which, among other things, comes from memories and familiarities.

It's time the authorities gave serious thought to striking a healthy balance between economic development and emotional comfort. To raze everything and build a new Rome is easier than maintaining Rome with all its historical and cultural glory.

I wonder if years later, Shanghai residents would only be able to go to Xintiandi, a fashion hub featuring refined and, to me, fake Shanghai-style architecture, to search for their childhood memories. If so, it would be a tragedy of Grecian proportions, for a city without cultural heritage is like a man without memory.

The author is director of the China Daily Shanghai News Center.

(China Daily 07/23/2011 page5)