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Two Cities, One Lasting Cultural Exchange

2010. 7 February

Chloe Veltman
( To many people who have never been to China, myself among them, San Francisco’s Chinatown — the oldest and one of the largest districts of its kind in North America — still largely represents Chinese culture, despite the popularity of films like
Zhang Yimou’s “Hero”; international tours by the country’s top ballet, opera and circus companies; and the fame of Chinese composers like Tan Dun. Most Bay Area residents see beyond the usual representations of Chinese New Year parades, dragon dances and Ming Dynasty vases gathering dust behind glass in museums. But even so, when lipstick-colored pagodas, soggy dim sum and mass-produced, paw-waving porcelain cats come to represent an entire civilization, it’s time to take a step back and look beyond the Disneyland view.

For years organizations like the Chinese Culture Center and Chinese Historical Society of America have been working hard to change this image by demonstrating a sophisticated view of Chinese culture that challenges clichés and pushes us to think differently about the relationship between our two nations. And the conventional notions of Chinese culture will continue to be challenged as San Francisco begins Shanghai Celebration, a yearlong arts festival honoring the longstanding cultural connection between the two cities through concerts, films, exhibitions, discussions and other special events.

Inspired by the 30th anniversary of San Francisco’s sister-city relationship with Shanghai, as well as by the 2010 World Expo there, an event of this scope is a significant step forward.

Leading the effort is the exhibition “Shanghai: Art of the City,” opening on Friday at the Asian Art Museum. In contrast to that institution’s last major exhibition of Shanghai art in 1983, which focused strongly on traditional representations of Chinese heritage, the new show surveys the tension between the forces of outside influences and the push to stay loyal to Shanghai’s own visual culture. The work on display extends from 1850 (when Shanghai emerged as an international city as a result of clashes over trade between China and Britain) to the present day, and it reflects an artistic perspective that is at once intrinsically Chinese and more international in scope.

For instance, a bedroom suite from the 1920s demonstrates a strong European influence, with its Art Deco-inspired asymmetrical contours and use of bold geometric shapes. But the furniture reveals Chinese interests too: it is built out of a locally grown rosewood and inlaid with a typically Chinese bamboo design.

Works by the 20th-century Shanghai painter Liu Haisu suggest the tension between newer, more Western-influenced styles and time-honored Asian approaches. Mr. Liu’s ethereal “Blue-and-Green Landscape” (1978) depicts a traditional Chinese scene with craggy mountains rising out of the mist, and delicate trees in the foreground. It was created using the standard scroll and ink, but he eschewed longstanding ideas about Chinese composition by painting the trees in bright reds and greens rather than muted hues and by arranging the foliage in horizontal clusters instead of opting for the more typical zigzag pattern.

Other local arts organizations involved in Shanghai Celebration are taking similar approaches. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music will be cementing its ties with its Shanghai counterpart on Feb. 15 with a concert featuring the acclaimed mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, who is based in San Francisco, as well as faculty members, students and alumni from both schools.

A graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Ms. Cao will perform new works composed by members of each institution. Instrumental pieces on the program include the United States premiere of “San,” a chamber music piece written for Western orchestral instruments that features Chinese elements like pitch-bending.

Later this month the Bay Area Chapter of the American Jewish Committee is mounting a photography exhibition, “The Jews in Modern China,” that will explore a little-known area of Shanghai’s heritage. It chronicles the lives of Jewish immigrants who came to Shanghai in the 1840s from countries as diverse as Russia and Iraq to avoid persecution.

In May the Chinese Culture Foundation is presenting a music festival in Chinatown that will combine traditional Shanghai opera with Asian-American jazz and, for an extra twist, Latin music.

Representations of Chinese culture in the Bay Area have come a long way since Chinese immigrants arrived in the middle of the 19th century to work the railroads and gold mines. The evolution in the understanding of Chinese culture in the Bay Area can be seen in, among other things, the changes that have taken place in the programming of art exhibitions and the developing relationships between arts organizations.

In previous decades the Chinese Culture Center imported works from China for display, like a 1979 exhibition of Chinese woodcuts; these days the organization is offering innovative exhibitions like last year’s “Present Tense” show, aimed at creating dialogue among the work of native Chinese, Chinese-American and non-Chinese artists.

“In the past, we were borrowing from museums in China for our exhibitions,” said Mabel Teng, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center. “Now the two cultures have merged, and the art reflects the old and new.”

Shanghai Celebration is a yearlong festival in San Francisco;