Sunday, Apr 30, 2017, 3:08 PM CST – China

Society

Street Performers

Freedom to be Managed

China is experimenting with licensing street performers to enliven its public spaces. However, with a large number of government departments involved in the process, things are moving slowly

One of the first eight street performers licensed in Shanghai performs for passersby, October 25, 2014 Photo by IC

A street performer in Shanghai Photo by IC

Another newly licensed Shanghai street performer at work, October 25, 2014 Photo by IC

Two street performers in Shanghai show off their licenses Photo by IC

In the plaza in front of the swanky commercial complex Shanghai Centre, one of the fanciest downtown shopping areas of China’s economic capital, singer Zhang Yi belts out jazzy tunes to shoppers accompanied by his guitar. Some passersby stop to listen and, occasionally, throw some loose change into his guitar case. Fifty meters from Zhang, Li Xionggang’s dexterous fingers shape Chinese zodiac animals out of empty cans. When people stop to ask Li how much his creations cost, he tells them to “pay whatever price.”

Not far away from Zhang and Li, conspicuously the only street performers in the area, security guards patrol the center’s main concourse, but none are interfering with the two men’s “business.” While elsewhere in China both would have likely been hauled away, Zhang and Li both hold licenses to keep the peace between them and local security forces. These licenses, granted by the Shanghai Performance Trade Association (SPTA), bear the legend: “License of Verified Performance of Shanghai Street Entertainer.”

Restoration

As long as it is not raining, legally licensed street performers appear on the Shanghai Centre plaza every evening from 5 to 7 PM. There are two other sites in the city’s Jing’an District where the government has approved street performances by licensed entertainers. So far, however, only Jing’an District has actually allowed such performances to take place.

Strictly speaking, unlicensed business or performances on the streets and in other public spaces are all illegal, according to Chinese laws and regulations. However, public busking is far from uncommon in the country, particularly in areas close to tourist attractions and retail spaces. In many cases, street performers have long been playing a “guerrilla game” with urban management officials.

Among China’s cities, Shanghai is well-known for its orderly and tightly managed urban environment. Yet, to Luo Huaizhen, a Shanghai native and professor at the Shanghai Theatre Academy, “orderliness” and “neatness” can also be interpreted as “monotony” and “boredom” when applied to a city.

“Since ancient times, there have been all sorts of acrobatics and performances on the streets and in markets,” Luo told NewsChina. “Many palace performers of the pre-Qin [Dynasty] era were selected from a pool of street performers.” Luo also speculated whether Shanghai should “give its streets back” to free artists, arguing that the municipal government should “restore the scenery a city should have.”

As one of China’s busiest cosmopolitan cities, Shanghai has a history of fostering a large number of street performers. According to a 1956 report by Xinhua News Agency, more than 1,500 street performers and 33 circus wagons were recorded to have performed in the city that year. However, as the central government pushed forward its plan to nationalize the economy, the entertainment industry fell entirely under government control, and the number of independent artists withered.

Luo Huaizhen has been lobbying to bring street performance back to Shanghai city life since he served as a deputy of Shanghai’s People’s Congress in 2004. That year, he brought a bill before the congress concerning the “Regulation of Shanghai Street Entertainer Management.” In his proposal, Luo suggested that the “regulation,” if passed, should officially acknowledge street entertainers, their particular art form and the nature of their performance, and designate space and time for such performances. Luo’s proposed bill also argued that the government should provide tax relief and funding for such performers. The bill failed.

In 2008, Luo and 11 other members of Shanghai’s People’s Congress resubmitted the same bill for consideration. This time around, it passed. However, enacting a regulation concerning China’s sensitive cultural sphere involves a more complicated coordination of resources and responsibilities than Luo had initially imagined. More than 10 government departments, including bureaus tasked with “cultural inspection” and “cultural management,” as well as the bureaus of urban planning and management, public security, traffic and taxation, all participated in the project. It was six years before the trial project licensing street entertainers tentatively launched in the city’s Jing’an District.

Management

On October 25, 2014, Shanghai’s first eight licensed street performers – who were also the first on the Chinese mainland – took up their “official” positions in Jing’an Park.

In the contract signed with the SPTA, street performers are required “not to set prices” or “sell” their services or performances, and are also prohibited from “begging.” Their licenses also need to be renewed every three months, while their performances need to occur at a strict, prearranged time and in an officially sanctioned location, with the content of all performances requiring official approval. Failure to stick to the rules will likely cause their licenses to be revoked.

China’s first group of licensed street performers are permitted to perform on average three days a week. They shift between the three locations currently available in Jing’an District, where they perform under the gaze of a “supervisor” between the hours of 5 and 7 PM.

Li Xionggang has been making his can sculptures for 17 years, and has a significant fan following. Though he started working on the street in 1998, he was quickly signed by a cultural agency which offered him a fixed pitch in Shanghai’s Chenghuang Temple, one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions. For Li, working in the three officially approved public locations in Jing’an District has meant a “return to the street.”

Unlike his fixed pitch, Li feels the street offers him more freedom and inspiration for his art. He arrives with a few ready-made pieces and then sculpts zodiac animals to order, while taking the opportunity to chat with passersby about his work. He has been working on one particular piece, titled “Memory of the Bund,” for a month, and has added to it according to public suggestions.

Zhang Yi was among the second batch of entertainers who received their licenses on June 1. These performers include three saxophonists, two guitarist-singers, one portrait painter and one craftsman. After one month’s “internship” on the street, these entertainers finally received their licenses.

Zhang Yi has been a guitar player and singer for thirteen years. He began his musical career performing in and around Beijing’s busy Xizhimen subway station. Gradually, he was offered opportunities to perform in bars, before relocating to Shanghai in 2012, where he began to give concerts and even perform at music festivals. However, he still enjoys what he calls the “freedom and romance” of the streets. “Many people left the streets and stepped onto formal stages and even grand venues,” he told NewsChina. “But, for me, the street is another grand venue. I need validation from the streets.”

But the government’s experiment in bringing art back to the streets is making slow progress, with few precedents for free, public performance in the People’s Republic. The involvement of so many government departments in regulating street performance also complicates matters.

Presently, the SPTA issues a performance roster according to schedules submitted by performers one week in advance. All 16 entertainers currently scheduled have to “work” strictly in accordance with the roster. However, many wonder if the “strict management” of street entertainers will constrict the art it is designed to promote, as it places restrictions on their creativity and freedom.

Also, precisely how the government will determine which varieties of performance may go on the streets and how much input officials will have in terms of content remain contentious. The miserly allocation of space, and other management issues, are also likely to be sticking points.

Yet on June 23, 68 individuals and groups of street performers, the first batch of this size received their government licenses in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. These entertainers are placed into three categories: performing arts, visual arts and creative craftsmanship. As the second city in China taking part in the trial licensing of street performance, Shenzhen, often a trailblazer for new economic and social policies, could enjoy more success than Shanghai.

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