Chinese SEZ is also land of thousand pianists

June 11th, 2008 - 11:36 am ICT by IANS  

By Madhusree Chatterjee
Xiamen (China), June 11 (IANS) In a corner of the crowded Zhongshan Road, one of China’s top 10 business streets located in the 12th century port city of Xiamen on the East China sea, 40-year-old Sen Tham Yen Sho plays his electronic piano on a makeshift stage against the backdrop of a Chinese eatery. Sen Tham’s self-composed scores are folksy, mostly traditional Chinese music set to modern disco beats. But not many in the crowd, mostly bemused Indian tourists who are cut off from the musician by cultural and linguistic walls, are willing to fork out 50 Yuan (Chinese currency) for his CD.

“I wish Indians could read Chinese and appreciate our country’s folk music. I have heard that Indians love music,” Sen Tham said in his broken English, mopping his weather-beaten face with a kerchief after an hour-long recital.

But Xiamen and the adjoining island of Gulangiu - known as the land of a thousand pianists because of their highest population of piano players (per family) in the world - have other booties to offer to brand-hungry tourists from India armed with fat shopping wallets.

Xiamen is one of China’s hottest “special economic zones” (SEZs) that the country has painstakingly built after the island was freed from Japanese occupation in the 1940s.

According to an estimate, the city, also known as the “Garden By the Sea”, attracts close to 15 million foreign visitors every year.

Xiamen, which now boasts of one of the highest foreign investments in China, was declared an SEZ in the 1980s. It traditionally dealt with leather, apparel, hardware, antiques and jades. It has 600 financial institutions and has trade links with as many as 162 nations, including India.

“But Xiamen is much more than just a business destination,” says 20-year-old Mary Fan, a local. Mary, who dresses like an American in short skirts and tight blouses, wears high-heeled shoes with stockings and is impeccably made up like her friends, says the islands live on music.

“Piano and string instruments like the cello and the violin are very popular here,” she says. The album of the month, according to Mary, is a four-CD compilation of “Red Folk Music”, a selection of folk instrumental numbers; and a sentimental album by Liu Sanjie, a half-Japanese and half-Chinese crooner.

The adjoining Hua Cheng Music Company is home to at least 70 gleaming black and brown Hamilton and Baldwin (companies) pianos. Their prices range from 10,000 yuans to 70,000 yuans depending on the wood and the keys used.

The shop, one of the largest chains of music instrument retail outlets in Xiamen and the Gulangiu islands, is 60 years old.

“Most people here play the piano at leisure. Almost every family in the Gulangiu island has a pianist and Xiamen hosts at least 10 piano concerts every year featuring American, German and local piano sensations like Ying Cheng Zhon, who comes home to Xiamen from the US every four or five years to take part in concertos,” says Xie, a piano historian posted in the shop. Hua Cheng Company sells more than 1,000 pianos every year.

According to Xie, the people of Xiamen and its neighbouring islands learnt to play the piano from the Turk settlers and the early Protestant Christian missions. “Even now, European piano teachers tutor our children at home,” he said.

The city’s obsession with the piano is best showcased at the Piano Museum in Shuzhuang garden, which has more than 100 pianos and interesting piano accessories.

Almost all the leading brands from across the globe are there for partaking on the glittering Zhongshan Road and the Dragon Head Street on the picturesque Gulangiu island, a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland. They are the islands’ business nerve-centres.

The 1.2-km long Zhongshan Road has 243 plazas and shops where green jade artefacts and ornaments vie for buyers’ attention with Chinese porcelain, musical instruments, antiquities dating back to the Ming and Tang dynasties and the best of branded apparel, accessories and beauty care products from across the world.

The hip street, opening up to the sea front, is dotted with trendy sidewalk cafes hawking local Chinese fast food and packed sea delicacies.

According to an estimate by the trade authorities in Xiamen, in 2007 the city’s GDP amounted to 137.5 billion yuan (approximately Rs.900 billion), an increase of 16.1 percent over the previous year.

The country’s location opposite Taiwan has helped draw investment. Over the last five decades, Taiwanese businessmen have pumped in millions of dollars in Xiamen and its adjacent areas.

At present, Xiamen is bursting with the euphoria generated by the coming Olympic Games in Beijing in August. A souvenir shop on Zhongshan Road sells Olympic bric-a-brac like T-shirts with the logo of Olympic rings, key chains, caps and medallions.

Bookshops like the Xin Hua Book Store have special sections devoted to the Games with titles like “Athens to Beijing (1894-2008″), “Mysteries of the Olympic Games” and “Concise Olympic Encyclopaedia”.

“We are excited about the Games,” says Aleka, a fifth-grader, who studies in a local English medium school. “We are a serious lot and I hate light stuff!”

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