China's Financial Capital Tries To Become A Cultural Capital : Parallels Private museums are sprouting up along Shanghai's riverfront. The city that lures people seeking their fortune is also attempting to become a destination for art.
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China's Financial Capital Tries To Become A Cultural Capital

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China's Financial Capital Tries To Become A Cultural Capital

China's Financial Capital Tries To Become A Cultural Capital

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In China, Shanghai's skyline has been changing for years. Now there's a new effort to change the city's waterfront. Private museums are sprouting up along the riverbank in Shanghai. They're part of a government plan to build a Museum Mile to help turn China's financial hub into a cultural capital. NPR's Frank Langfitt takes us there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Inside Shanghai's cavernous Yuz Museum, there's a two-story metal box. And inside that box - a fire hose dangling from a chain. Every hour, the hose fills with water and dances about, spraying in a frenzy for just one minute.

KAREN CONG: It's like a Chinese dragon.

LANGFITT: This is Karen Cong. She's 25 and works in digital advertising. Cong's here to take in some of the art installations and get a little perspective on her own life in this frenetic city of 24 million. The installation with the spraying fire hose is called "Freedom." She says it speaks to her.

CONG: (Through interpreter) To me, it has a lot of explosive force. People need these kinds of outlets. People probably say that they lead a regular life with the same rhythm. You have to do this at this time, this at that time. Then you may need things outside that pattern. You need a point when you can just let yourself explode, just like the hose.

LANGFITT: A decade and a half ago, there weren't many places in this city to interact with art and just, well, think. The Yuz Museum, which opened last year, is part of a government effort to change that. The genesis of the Yuz was improbable. It started with a complaint on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.

BUDI TEK: I complained that we are going to do something good for the society.

LANGFITT: This is Budi Tek, a Chinese-Indonesian art collector and philanthropist. He was trying to build a museum in his adopted hometown, and it was maddening.

TEK: It was so difficult in China. We cannot buy the land. You know, if we buy the land for commercial, it's so expensive.

LANGFITT: A top official in Shanghai's Xuhui district saw his tweet and eventually offered him the use of an old aircraft factory, rent-free.

TEK: So he invited me, and I was the first to say yes (laughter).

LANGFITT: So this all started with a message on Weibo?

TEK: Yeah. I complained.

LANGFITT: The Yuz is now part of a growing number of private museums along the old industrial waterfront called the West Bund. They include the Long, which features traditional Chinese art. There's also a DreamWorks complex with movie-production facilities, a convention center and restaurants scheduled to open next year. Chen Anda, who works for the state-owned company that's developing the area, says the government is building a destination.

CHEN ANDA: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: "Our goal for the West Bund," he tells me, "is to create something like London's South Bank or Paris' Left Bank, a concentrated cultural district." It's a nice spot, upstream from Shanghai's old colonial riverfront. There's a boardwalk promenade with a climbing wall. They're also building a park and jogging area on an old airport runway. Stephen Harris owns M97, an art gallery, and has lived in Shanghai for more than a decade.

STEPHEN HARRIS: I think everyone was very pleasantly surprised when they saw this whole development open up. People go jogging, walk their dogs. It's a lovely - you know, a little bit like being on the Hudson or the East River. So you know, you get nice breezes. They did a great job.

LIU HENG SHING: My name is Liu Heng Shing. I'm the founder of Shanghai Center for Photography.

LANGFITT: Liu is a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist with the Associated Press. He was also recruited by the district government to open a museum here. Liu says one reason for this public-private partnership is local officials know their core competency lies in areas like infrastructure, not museum curation.

LIU: They're very smart, actually. They think if we can't do it as well, why don't we give the private sector a try?

LANGFITT: Crowds are still small, and the West Bund has a bit of a startup feel. Liu doesn't have much staff at his museum and does a lot of the work himself, including picking up the trash and even sweeping the floors. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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