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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally, this hour, the latest entry in our series, Summer Nights. We've been exploring places that come alive when the sun goes down and, today, we head to China's financial capital, Shanghai. In the 1920s and '30s, Shanghai was one of the world's most exciting and notorious cities. All that ended when the communists took over.

But, in the last decade or so, Shanghai has reemerged. It's now a dynamic city of 23 million with a skyline that dwarfs that of Manhattan. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from China's Times Square, Nanjing Road.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's Sunday night on Nanjing Road and this is the most vibrant part of the city in the summers. Right now, I'm surrounded by thousands and thousands of people strolling along. Nanjing Road's kind of an assault to the senses. It's full of old colonial architecture, tons of neon signs and, if you can listen here, people come out and sing in the evenings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: Right here, there are about two, three hundred people gathered in a circle to listen to a band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: The instruments include drums, flute and the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle. Wang Hongping sings with the band every weekend (unintelligible) musicians playing in public parks.

WANG HONGPING: (Through translator) We're all musical illiterate, but we really like music. We common people get together and sing Red songs, Communist Party songs, just to enjoy ourselves.

LANGFITT: Wang sings me one of her favorites.

HONGPING: (Singing in foreign language).

LANGFITT: The tune is called "On Top of Beijing's Golden Mountain." This verse refers to Chairman Mao as a golden sun, warm and kind. In fact, Mao Zedong hated this sort of Shanghai scene - riotous neon advertisement, scores of stores, a boisterous monument to capitalism, so he put the city into a deep sleep.

In the mid-1990s, as Shanghai was waking up, Wang Hongping moved here from the countryside. Now 45, she works as a barber and sells clothes. Wang says Shanghai's provided great opportunities, including mentoring from her fellow music makers, something she never could have found back home.

HONGPING: (Through translator) The Communist Party reformed and allowed us peasants to move to the big cities and realize our dreams. In the countryside, you could never find so many teachers who could teach you to sing.

LANGFITT: If music isn't your thing, there's always country line dancing. In fact, that's kind of what it looks like. I've just walked up on a group of mostly women and a couple of men and it looks like they are literally country line dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: Two women, Zhu Fengying, a retired crane operator, and her dance partner, Gung (unintelligible), explain.

ZHU FENGYING: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: It's the 16-step dance. It's Chinese, they say.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: As much fun as Nanjing Road is, there is a little bit of a dark side to the place. I've sometimes been here on my own and been hit up repeatedly by hookers. Fortunately, tonight, I'm just walking along talking into a microphone, so all I'm getting is a lot of stares and nobody's bothering me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

LANGFITT: Crossing the street, avoiding a trolley, I come across this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: It's a brass band of elderly men. They're wearing bright red uniforms with epaulets. Wang Geyuan, 73, plays the saxophone.

WANG GEYUAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: We're the Loving Happiness Band, he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: The band is private, but receives some government support, hence the five-star government emblem on their caps. Like other performers on Nanjing Road, they play for large crowds of Chinese tourists, but take no money.

GEYUAN: (Through translator) The best thing about playing is it makes us happy and, if we're happy, the audience is happy.

LANGFITT: Wang, a retired artist with China's People's Liberation Army, opens his case and shows me his saxophone.

GEYUAN: (Through translator) This saxophone was made by an American company. It's not a very professional one. This is just a hobby.

LANGFITT: It says it was made in the United States in 1936.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: It's now almost 10:00 on Nanjing Road. Security guards appear, signaling it's quitting time. As the summer crowds thin out, the band plays one final song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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