Tourism Threatens China's Piano Island A musicians' enclave, a tiny island boasting the highest per capita concentration of pianos in China, is struggling to find its place in an increasingly commercialized nation.
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Tourism Threatens China's Piano Island

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Tourism Threatens China's Piano Island

Tourism Threatens China's Piano Island

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's an answer to file away the next time you're trying to win a trivia contest. The question is: Which tiny island boasts China's highest per-capita concentration of pianos? There is an answer. The answer involves a musicians' enclave which is trying to find its place in an increasingly commercialized China.

Reporter Lauren Keane went there.

(Soundbite of ocean waves)

LAUREN KEANE: Gulangyu. Even this island's name is musical. It means drum wave island. Locals named it after the sound of the waves that crash into caves along its craggy shore.

The tiny island is a quick ferry ride from the coastal metropolis of Xiamen, which used to be a foreign treaty port known as Amoy. Gulangyu's first pianos arrived when the port opened here in the mid-1800s; Christian missionaries brought them for the churches they built here.

China has exported goods through Xiamen for centuries. If tiny Gulangyu exports anything, it's pianists.

(Soundbite of piano music)

KEANE: Many of China's best were born and raised on this tiny isle. Take the Yin family, for instance. World-renowned pianist Yin Chengzong lives in Manhattan now, but he called Gulangyu home. His brother, Yin Chengdian, founded the music school here and he's lived on the island for almost 70 years.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. YIN CHENGDIAN (Pianist): (Through translator) This is the Gulangyu song. It's about how beautiful it is here, how if you stand on the top of the hill you can see forever.

KEANE: Yin says Gulangyu's natural beauty gives good musicians the creative space to become great musicians. The cobbled streets here are narrow and winding, and they're lined with ivy-covered pastel house and graceful willow trees which are home to hundreds of songbirds. Everyone walks. No cars or bikes allowed. It would be hard not to make beautiful music in such a beautiful place.

But there are signs that this little musical utopia is yielding to outside pressures. Gulangyu has preserved its musical tradition for generations -through foreign occupation, political repression, and now tourism.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

KEANE: Dozens of souvenir shops, new hotels and a McDonald's line the narrow main streets. Visitors from China and beyond crowd onto the island every day. How will a peaceful artists' enclave withstand that tide?

Mr. CHENGDIAN: (Through translator) It's hard to say. These days, I see a lot of people selling things. It's all hustle and bustle. In my student days before I retired, all that wasn't so popular yet. There were more family recitals then.

KEANE: Those informal family recitals still happen once in a while.

(Soundbite of piano music)

KEANE: On this particular evening, 23-year-old professional pianist Fang Si Te plays a four-hand duet in her living room with one of her younger students.

Ms. FANG SI TE: (Through translator) And probably, when I was still in my mother's stomach, I already had special feelings about music. I started trying different musical instruments. And it was just having fun at first, but then I just fell in love with the piano.

KEANE: When she's not teaching or studying herself, she works as a guide at the island's piano and organ museums, demonstrating rare instruments for tourists who pass through.

Ms. TE: (Through translator) These days, with the economy developing, many people are not as interested in classical music as before. If they play, they don't play for the sake of music, but they play because they think later they can make a lot of money.

KEANE: Fang's mother watches carefully from the corner. She fiercely defends classical music's intrinsic value. She can't play the piano. Her own musical education was cut short in the 1960s, when the Cultural Revolution forbade playing Western instruments and music.

These days, she sings to the tunes her daughter plays. On this evening, her 10-year-old niece, Wang Ling Jie(ph) joins in.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing)

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) At that time, no one even had the chance to keep studying. Some people here, in order to keep playing, they'd close all the doors and the windows and pull all the curtains. They'd even set their pianos not to make any sound.

KEANE: Tears come to her eyes as she recalls the day the law changed. Her family's piano had been silent for almost 10 years.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) That day, just hearing it, it made me feel like crying. Even now, sometimes, when I see my daughter playing here, it makes me want to cry I'm so moved.

KEANE: She worries that Gulangyu is losing its greatest attribute to commercialization.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) Music, and sometimes music education, they've become commodities. I think that's really a shame. Of course I'm not saying music can't be work, but if you are playing music, it should be something spiritual.

KEANE: Gulangyu pianist Huang Sanyuan makes his living at the intersection of art and business — he manufactures pianos for export. He has some interesting side projects, too.

(Soundbite of music box)

KEANE: His latest is a piano-shaped music box to market to Gulangyu tourists, and a rather unique tourist attraction.

Mr. HUANG SANYUAN (Pianist): (Through translator) I'm planning an exhibit at my factory on how pianos are made. It'll be like the underwater world. There's a long glass corridor where people can walk through and look through the glass and watch the pianos being made. I'm hoping this will support the music business here.

KEANE: Another wave of commerce, one of many breaking steadily along this island's shore.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Keane in Fujian Province.

(Soundbite of piano music)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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