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China's Financial Capital Tries To Become A Cultural Capital

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The Yuz Museum is one of the private museums that have begun cropping up along Shanghai's riverfront, part of a government effort to make the West Bund area a cultural destination. Here are recent works by Yang Zhenzhong, Shi Qing, and Yu Ji from the exhibition <em>Myth/History II: Shanghai Galaxy</em>.

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.

"It's like a Chinese dragon," says Karen Cong, who's 25 and works in digital advertising.

Private museums like the Yuz are sprouting up along the riverfront in Shanghai, part of a government plan to build a Museum Mile on the waterfront and help turn China's financial hub into a cultural capital as well.

Cong is here to take in some 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. It speaks to her.

"To me, it has a lot of explosive force. People need these kinds of outlets," she says. "People probably say 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."

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.

It Began With A Tweet

The genesis of the Yuz was improbable. It started with a complaint on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.

"I complained that we're going to do something good for the society," says Budi-tek, a Chinese-Indonesian art collector and philanthropist.

He was trying to build a museum in his adopted hometown and it was maddening.

"It's so difficult in China. We cannot buy the land. If we buy the land for commercial, it's so expensive," he said in a tweet.

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

"So, he invited me and I was the first to say 'yes,'" he adds.

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 is also a DreamWorks complex with movie-production facilities, a convention center and restaurants, scheduled to open next year.

Creating A Destination

Chen Anda, who works for the state-owned company that's developing the area, says the government is building a destination.

"Our goal for the West Bund is to create something like London's South Bank or Paris' Left Bank, a concentrated cultural district," Chen says.

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.

"I think everyone was very pleasantly surprised when they saw this development open up," says Stephen Harris, who owns the art gallery M97 and has lived in Shanghai for a decade.

"People go jogging, walk their dogs. It's lovely," he says. "It's a little like being on the Hudson or the East River. So, you get nice breezes. They did a great job."

Liu Heng Shing, a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist with The Associated Press, was recruited by the district government to open a museum here, and he became the founder of the Shanghai Center for Photography.

Liu says one reason for this public-private partnership is that local officials know their core competency lies in areas like infrastructure, not museum curation.

"They've very smart actually," he says. "They think if we can't do it as well, why don't we give the private sector a try."

The number of visitors is still small and the West Bund has a bit of a startup feel. Liu doesn't have much of a staff at his museum and does lots of work himself. That includes picking up trash and sweeping the floors.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

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