A savior of classical musical instruments

Zhu Ying
Now in his 70s, Feng Shuncheng has become an online sensation after several articles about his sophisticated life went viral
Zhu Ying

A shabby 10-square-meter shop on Zhaozhou Road in Huangpu District is filled with dozens of musical instruments. They vary from common Western items like violins, guitars and clarinets to Chinese instruments like the erhu and pipa, and to the more exotic rawap, a Uygur guitar, and dombra, a Kazakh stringed instrument.

They all await a 72-year-old man named Feng Shuncheng to give them a new lease of life.

Want to interview the owner of this musical instrument repair shop? Try your luck. Feng became so popular after several online articles about his sophisticated life went viral that he had to set up a lottery for reporters wanting to interview him.

I was the lucky draw winner, so I went to the head of the line.

It is not difficult to find Feng's shop. Just follow the sound produced by an instrument. The door of the shop features a guitar hanging upside down, on which Feng has written in English: "Buy and sell 2nd hand instruments/musical instruments exchange/repair, cosmetic, tuning, change string, piano transfer."

A savior of classical musical instruments
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Feng Shuncheng, 72, gives various old musical instruments a new lease of life.

On a hot summer day, three fans are whirring to stir up a bit of breeze inside.

"Air conditioning would crack the instruments, which are mainly made of wood," Feng explains. "I know this shop feels extremely crowded, but I am happy here. When I look at the instruments, I feel like I am seeing my own children."

Feng's parents originally came from Hong Kong and ran a business in Shanghai before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Earlier that year, Feng's parents planned to take their two daughters and leave Shanghai by ship.

His father exchanged four bars of gold for four tickets. However, Feng's mother discovered she was pregnant just a few days before their departure date. After already having lost two sons, she decided against traveling.

Feng, who was ultimately born in Shanghai, incredibly saved his family. The boat they had scheduled to board sank after a collision with another vessel, leading to the deaths of 1,000 passengers and crew members.

Because he brought good fortune to the family, the baby was named Shuncheng, meaning "smooth and successful."

The legendary story is merely the beginning of his epic life.

A savior of classical musical instruments
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Feng Shuncheng in his shabby 10-square-meter shop on Zhaozhou Road

The little "savior" was also a little troublemaker. He was forever taking things apart to see how they worked. His mother's German piano, a cuckoo clock, a Zeiss camera, a phonograph and a radio ... none was spared.

By dismantling and reconstructing, Feng taught himself how to fix little machines.

When helping to repair a neighbor's radio, he met a man who worked in a musical instrument shop. The then teenage Feng asked if he could visit the shop, and it was here that he later secretly tried to repair instruments.

To pursue his dreams of a musical career, Feng left Shanghai for Shenzhen in the early 1980s. He joined a musical troupe and met a Soviet girl whose multiple talents included playing the balalaika, a Russian stringed instrument.

"Believe it or not, she used to be a wild animal trainer at a circus," says Feng. "She taught me dog training."

A savior of classical musical instruments
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

A balalaika decorated with an oil painting was bought by Feng from a flea market in the US

Though the pair fell in love, they didn't end up together due to strong opposition from Feng's mother.

Feng has a memento of sorts to remember the girl. One of the instruments in his shop is a balalaika, which he found in a flea market in America. It is decorated with an oil painting and hangs prominently on one wall.

"It evokes memories of those happy days so long ago," he says.

Feng began a new journey in 1984. Destination: Perth, Australia, where he adopted the English name Charlie. He studied guitar at a school first and then changed his major to making and repairing musical instruments.

Two years later, Feng returned to Shanghai and met his current wife. For a while, he worked as a DJ at a bar on Hengshan Road and did in-home repair and instrument tuning. He even started a small pet business.

"It was a Year of the Dog," says Feng. "I bought 14 Chihuahua dogs in Vietnam and quickly sold 13 of them. Strangely, I couldn't sell the last one, so I took the dog as my own pet. Based on the dog training I learned from my Russian girlfriend, I taught the puppy commands. He later won many dog show championships."

A savior of classical musical instruments
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

The entrance of the repair shop

All other work aside, Feng said repairing musical instruments has always remained his favorite. His life revolves around his repair shop.

He made his own bowed-stringed instrument, using a bamboo tea box as the sound board, a stainless-steel broom handle as the neck and a wooden artwork sent by a friend as the back. Like the traditional Chinese erhu, the sound box of Feng's instrument is covered with python skin.

Covered with aluminum foil and decorated with green jadeite, the lap steel guitar is Feng's favorite musical instrument. The logo pasted on its head is a label pinched from a handbag his wife bought in Hong Kong.

Made more than 40 years ago, the guitar features timber difficult to get at that time. Feng said he finally found what he wanted in wooden door frames at a demolition site. He "bribed" a site builder to give him the frames with a packet of Peony-brand cigarettes, which cost him half a yuan.

"One of my friends later bought it off me for US$100 dollars and took it to America," says Feng. "Several years ago, he called me from overseas and asked if I wanted it back. Of course I did! The guitar had been stored in a garage for a long time and was in a state of disrepair. I will never sell it again."

A savior of classical musical instruments
Ma Xuefeng / SHINE

Feng makes a stringed instrument by a piece of wood.

Feng has been a coffee lover since his teens and always favors Americano. With an uncomplicated pairing of Espresso and hot water, the type of coffee echoes his straight and responsible personalities.

The septuagenarian sets rules for customers as well as himself. He refuses work that requires him to do anything in haste as he needs to make a detailed plan before fixing. And, he doesn't collect money until he completes the repair.

"Norms and standards play a significant role in the lives of we Shanghai people," says Feng.

The somewhat faded repair shop will soon become a nostalgic memory. The old neighborhood is to be renovated. Feng is finding a new "shelter" for the broken instruments.

"Although the shop is terribly small, I will miss the warm feeling of being surrounded by so many instruments," says Feng.

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