A world of entertainment is revived

The curtain is up again on a century-old amusement center the architect involved in its restoration remembers going to as a child
A world of entertainment is revived
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The restored Shanghai Great World is a century-old entertainment center.

A world of entertainment is revived
Xing Tonghe / Ti Gong

An illustration of the Shanghai Great World

“Shanghai Dashijie is a condensed world,” says architect Xing Tonghe, who headed the restoration of the century-old entertainment center that stands at the corner of Xizang Road and Yan’an Road M., close to the People’s Square.

Dashijie, or the Great World amusement center, was opened in 1917 by Chinese businessman Huang Chujiu, who amassed a fortune from marketing a brain tonic. He founded the Great World after retreating from an earlier investment, the New World Amusement Center on Nanjing Road.

“Huang always knew how to cater to the Chinese people,” says Zhang Yaojun, a researcher from Shanghai Archives Bureau.

“He faked a foreign doctor’s name, Dr T.C. Yale, on the bottle of his brain tonic as Chinese tended to trust foreign inventions and products. And the Great World offered the best-value entertainment in town for Chinese who could spend a whole day in the palace at an admission price cheaper than a movie ticket. Favorite Chinese entertainment forms, such as acrobatics and traditional operas in different dialects, were its main fare.”

The amusement center was a large building with a tower over the principal entrance, according to a story on July 21, 1917, in the North China Herald. A promenade completely surrounded a large open space for all kinds of amusement. There were many rooms set aside for diners, stalls, side shows and billiards.

“One of the great features is the provision for open-air amusement very much after the style of those places in Europe generally dignified with the title of ‘Luna Park.’ Here there will be roundabouts, where the merry celestial will experience all the thrills of a ride on a wooden horse, apparatus for aerial flights on the somewhat safe steel wire, a shooting gallery, panoramas reminiscent of the country fairs at home, cinematographic displays, a menagerie and a great wheel,” the report stated.

A world of entertainment is revived
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The signature tower can be seen from afar.

A world of entertainment is revived
Shanghai Great World / Ti Gong

The amusement center was reviewed as “a novel feature for China” though it was not so large, and its proportions were modestly small. Brilliantly lit with electricity both inside and out, the center formed an illuminated landmark at night.

Zhang says the center offered all-day entertainment. The acrobatics were in the open-air theater while a variety of Chinese operas were staged in up to 10 small theaters.

“It attracted an average of 15,000 visitors daily, and the number amounted to 25,000 during holidays. Most of them were middle- or lower-class Chinese men,” he says.

The Great World did good business, but Huang’s financial businesses were not running well. He was bankrupt after opening the Shanghai Day and Night Bank and was forced to sell all his enterprises to liquidate his debts. He died of a serious illness in 1931 at the age of 59. 

Huang Jinrong, Shanghai’s mob boss, took over the Great World the same year. He expanded the site, renovated the building and turned it into a comprehensive entertainment venue featuring dining, stage shows and shopping malls.

It then provided a platform for new talent — young singers, dancers and opera actors who would go on to become famous performers.

Many Shanghainese had fond memories of the Great World, especially 80-year-old architect Xing, who spent many weekends here when he was a primary school student in the 1940s.

“My grandfather, a senior employee of Li Dinghe brush pen shop near Dashijie, often took me there to spend a weekend afternoon. While he was admiring a Chinese opera, I would explore this multi-level emporium of entertainment by myself,” Xing recalls. “I climbed the balustrade staircases up and down, laughed in front of the distorted mirrors and watched performances in different theaters. Dashijie was so big in my mind when I was a boy, but it turned out to be not so big when I began surveying it before restoration.”

A world of entertainment is revived
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The Great World's most renowned open-air theater has become its major attraction.

The Great World was taken over by the Shanghai government in 1954 and renamed several times from the People’s Playground, Dong Fang Hong Theater to Shanghai Youth Palace.

It reopened once again in 1987 as a popular entertainment venue with its old name, the Great World. In 1992 the center started the Great World Jinisi Records, which sounded similar to the Chinese translation for Guinness World Records, and invited people from all over the country to break world records.

However, as new entertainment venues such as theme parks and aquariums mushroomed and young people weren’t interested in Chinese operas and folk art shows, the Great World was on the skids. In 2004 when many public places were closed down temporarily due to the outbreak of the SARS epidemic, the Great World shut its doors as well until it reopened in spring of last year after a decade-long restoration headed by Xing.

“Dashijie is a condensed world of Shanghai’s entertainment and cultural life. So before the restoration kicked off, there was fierce discussion over its future role, whether to turn it into a trendy cartoon park or maintain its traditional essence,” Xing says.

“The Great World was built for ordinary people since its very first day. It had also been a platform for young emerging artists who needed a place to perform and practice, some of whom grew to be stars afterward. It could be reverted to a modern cartoon park, but the original flavor would be lost forever. Cartoon city could be built anywhere,” he adds.

The Great World reopened on March 31, 2017 to exhibit intangible cultural heritage and attracted thousands of people every day. Many of them, Xing says, came to see the famous architecture.

“The Great World reflects the ordinary Chinese people’s needs for entertainment, which is one of the features of Shanghai culture. The change of the Great World mirrored the change of times in China, while the restored one is a cultural brand of Shanghai,” says Xiong Yuezhi, a historian from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

A world of entertainment is revived
Zhang Xuefei / SHINE

The original mosaic on the corridor has been well maintained.

About the building

Yesterday: Shanghai Great World
Today: Shanghai Great World
Architect: Zhou Huinan
Date of construction: 1917
Address: 1 Xizang Rd S.
Opening hours: 8am-5pm, Mondays-Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays; 8am-5pm, 6-9pm, Saturdays-Sundays
Admission: 60 yuan
Tips: Climb onto the promenade to admire an open-air performance just like architect Xing Tonghe did when he was a boy in the 1940s.

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