Music boxes play eternal tunes of craft art

You may think of music boxes as toys. That's not how one passionate collector views these vintage pieces of precision artwork spanning centuries of craftsmanship.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The Yuequanshi Music Box & Cafe is among the most curious places on Daxue Road in Yangpu District.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The shop displays ore than 200 music boxes; among them about 150 are vintage.

Daxue Road in Yangpu District is full of small coffee shops and fun stores. The Yuequanshi Music Box & Cafe may be among the most curious places on the street.

Despite positive reviews online, the shop is barely breaking even after about two and a half years in business, according to owner Ni Yao. But he’s determined to persist, driven by his passion for music boxes.

“Through this shop, I want to tell people a different story about music boxes,” says Ni. “I also want to attract those who are as passionate about music boxes as I am.”

The shop is a sideline for Ni, whose full-time job is operating the Shanghai Gallery of Antique Music Boxes in the Pudong New Area. His knowledge about the history and mechanisms of music boxes down the ages runs deep and expresses itself in the array of products on sale in his store.

The front of the shop is a small terrace cafe that can accommodate no more than 10 customers at a time. Behind its turquoise wall is a fairyland of nearly 200-plus music boxes in all shapes and sizes, both modern and vintage. The boxes are displayed under a warm, orange light.

Some may think of music boxes as toys, but the reality is far different. Music boxes trace back to the early 19th century, and many are now prized collector items.

Such boxes traditionally produced sound by pins on a disc that “pluck” the tuned teeth of a metal comb. They required manual winding to play. More modern versions have automated systems.

An old-style disc music box — definitely not for sale — is the “top treasure” in Ni’s store. The gramophone-shaped box sports a “Do not touch” tag. The music box has a disc full of holes, and as the disc spins, a complete piece of music is played.

“If customers express an interest in the music box, the shop assistants will show them how it works,” says Ni. “Many people would think it is a gramophone and are amazed to discover that it’s actually an old-style music box.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Ni Yao carefully check the "top treasure" in his store, an old-style disc music box. 

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

The disc is full of holes.

Ni has four employees, including part-timers and interns, who run the cafe during the day while he is at work. He comes to the shop every evening.

Most of the shop’s customers are white-collar workers from the nearby Knowledge and Innovation Community and residents from the neighborhood. Many have become close friends of Ni.

“One of them is in his 20s,” says Ni. “That’s quite rare. Most music box fans I know are much older. This young man already has quite a large music box collection of his own.”

A native of Shanghai, Ni attended university in Japan, majoring in international trade. After graduation, he was recruited by a Japanese company that owned the Kyoto Arashiyama Orgel (Music Box) Museum, where he was assigned to work.

Before working in the museum, Ni knew nothing about music boxes. He acquired his knowledge by observing engineers and craftsmen at the museum and talking to them about music boxes.

“When I was still in high school in China, I was really interested in mechanisms such as clocks and watches,” he says. “I loved making things with my hands. So, at the Kyoto museum, I learned how to repair music boxes from experts there. In the process, I found that music boxes are truly fascinating because they reveal much about the craftsmen who made them.”

After returning to Shanghai, Ni wanted to open a music box gallery to share his passion with others in the city. After long preparation, he opened the gallery in Pudong in 2005.

As the sister museum of the one in Kyoto, the gallery collects antique music boxes — some are as big as a wardrobe; others as small as a ring.

Ten years later, he opened his own shop. The music boxes he displays there are perhaps less valuable than those in the Pudong gallery but no less fascinating to customers.

“The music boxes here are still quite high-end,” says Ni, “which is why the price is much higher than the mostly lower-quality copycats online. I want people to know that music boxes are exquisite art rather than toys.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Visitors to the store are amazed by the diversified collection of vintage music boxes on display. 

The store has drawn very positive reviews on, a Yelp-like website in China.

One netizen, who goes under the name “Green Pomelo,” said the store reminds her of the magical shops in the movie series “Harry Potter.”

“In the store, I learned how music boxes work and was amazed by the skills of the craftsmen,” she said in her review.

Ni says she is spot on. Before music boxes were mass-produced in factories, they were handmade by skilled craftsmen, who would choose the tunes the boxes played.

“Different craftsmen have different understandings toward even the same piece of music,” says Ni. “Take the well-known tune from Pachebel’s ‘Canon in D’ for example. European and Japanese craftsmen might interpret it differently and create their own variations. I think that is the charm of music boxes.”

Beyond music, Ni says the boxes also capture memories of the past. Many antique music boxes play tunes long lost to the world, but they were popular at one time even if their names never survived.

As such, music boxes make special, sentimental gifts.

“For example, a boy gives a girl a music box as a gift, and after many decades, when the girl has become an old lady, she opens the box and the music takes her back to the day when the gift was bestowed by a loved one,” Ni says. “Such memory is invaluable to her.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
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