All keyed up to pursue multitude of talents

Zhu Ying
On Fenyang Road, which is known as the "street of music," there is a musical instrument shop run by an elderly man who is an artistic jack-of-all-trades.
Zhu Ying

Fenyang Road is known as the "street of music" in downtown Shanghai. What an ideal place to take a stroll and become oblivious to the hectic urban surroundings!

The short roadway, tucked away off bustling Huaihai Road M. and shaded by plane trees, houses the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and a cluster of musical instrument shops.

As I walk along the road, I hear cicadas chirping and the mellow tones of a piano wafting from a small musical instruments shop. Instead of musical instruments in the display window, there's a bronze statue, a plant and a penjing depicting a natural rockery scene. It's appealing. I go in to have a closer look.

The small shop of around 10 square meters is below street level. I walk down the steps to the entrance, where I meet the pianist, 76-year-old Xue Rongli – shop owner and an artistic jack-of-all-trades.

All keyed up to pursue multitude of talents
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Xue Rongli, 76, owner of a musical instruments shop on Fenyang Road and artistic jack-of-all-trades

Apart from four pianos, the shop space contains three oil paintings and 10 penjing works, all done by Xue himself.

He tells me that he didn't take up his current pastimes until the 1990s, when he was laid off from a machinery plant where he worked as a carpenter.

"I was ashamed to be a laid-off worker, and, therefore, I didn't tell my wife and son at first," says Xue.

"In order not to let them know I no longer had a job, I went out every day as though I was going to work and used my 'butter and egg money' to masquerade as my salary."

Idling about the city, Xue found a soulmate on Fenyang Road. He often visited the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum on the road to watch craftsmen making artifacts and then took a nap on the grass.

The movie "A Song to Remember," a 1945 fictionalized account of the life of Chopin, aroused Xue's passion for the piano. He recalls how he was touched by the patriotism of the famous Polish musician, who refused to play in czarist Russia while it controlled his homeland, and how he was thrilled by Chopin's "Fantasy Impromptu in C-sharp minor."

"I went to a shop selling music books on Fenyang Road to find the sheet music for the work," he tells me. "However, I didn't know the name of the piece, so I hummed it to the shop owner."

Xue says he was determined to learn to play the piano and practiced at least eight hours every day. Starting from the scratch, he couldn't read the notes on the musical staff, so he transposed them to a numbered system.

He had no teacher but bought a disc of the music played by pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Xue says he must have played every bar of music hundreds of times, like a "slow sparrow" spending years to learn one song.

After a time, Xue's mother-in-law got fed up with listening to him practice, though he added a thick layer of felt to the piano hammers to dull the sound. He ended up flitting between the homes of his mother, his brother and friends to continue practicing. Finally, he ensconced himself in a musical instrument shop on Fenyang Road.

"The salesman of the shop often went out and asked me to look after things in his absence," says Xue.

"I was happy to do that because it meant I could play the piano to my heart's content. Intriguingly, I succeeded in selling 10 pianos in one month."

Xue would play Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to show customers the timbre of the lower range of a piano, and Tekla Badarzewska's "Maiden's Prayer" to show the upper range. His somewhat surprising sales prowess gradually gained him some renown in the circle of shops on Fenyang Road.

He was invited by a piano teacher named Pan Huiyi to help her open a shop selling secondhand foreign pianos on the road in 2004.

Two reporters from "Hufvudstadsbladet," the biggest-circulation Swedish-language newspaper in Finland, happened across the shop one day and were so intrigued by Xue that they wrote a story about him.

"I like playing piano at my shop," he said in the article. "I am very happy even if I can't sell a piano in a month. Music isn't exclusive to musicians. It belongs to everyone."

During my visit, a second-grade boy comes into the shop with his grandmother, who had heard about Xue through an online story. The boy, who was learning to play the piano, wanted to meet this "carpenter grandpa," she said.

The grandmother urges him to play a piece he learned for a grading contest this summer. The boy performs it once. Then twice. Xue is happy to encourage the lad, who is equally intrigued by Pan's 8-year-old dog Xiaohei.

All keyed up to pursue multitude of talents
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

An oil painting by Xue

When he was 66 years old, Xue began to learn oil painting. The first work he imitated was a landscape by Russian artist Ivan Shishkin, known as "the King of the Forest." Imbued with a luminous atmosphere, the painting has become Xue's WeChat profile picture. It's so finely done that it's hard to believe that it was his first work.

"I was very surprised," says Pan. "I think his artistic tendencies are linked in his genes."

That may be true. According to Xue, his father was a baritone who taught at what is today Fujian Normal University, and his mother was a music teacher at a middle school. Although he never learned to play a musical instrument in his childhood, music was embedded in his soul.

Working as a carpenter enhanced his practical skills. Having no money, Xue made a set of furniture by hand for his mother-in-law as a betrothal gift.

"I didn't know how to make couch springs so I went to a repair shop to see how others make them," says Xue. "After watching for a day, I managed it."

All keyed up to pursue multitude of talents
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A penjing made by Xue depicts artistically formed trees, figures and landscapes in miniature.

Now, decades later, his craft skills remain. When Xue was 70 years old, he started to make penjing, the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, plants and landscapes in miniature. He deployed techniques he picked up while watching craftsmen of the art form at bird and flower markets.

The trees with leaves of various colors, the nail-size figures of different motions, the miniature boats and ancient Chinese architecture are all made by Xue.

For Xue, the small instrument shop is more than just a place to earn some money. It's a world where he can immerse himself in anything he likes, and gets to socialize with people as an added bonus.

Special Reports