Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances

Yang Jian
Shanghai's Great World entertainment center, dating back more than a century, will become a performance hub, mainly attracting young customers
Yang Jian
Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances
Ti Gong

The Great World entertainment center in Shanghai's downtown Huangpu District dates back more than a century.

Multiple Shanghai proverbs have been coined related to the landmark Great World, or Dashijie, entertainment center, such as "without visiting Dashijie, your trip to Shanghai is in vain" (不去大世界,枉来大上海) and "have fun at Dashijie" (白相大世界).

These old sayings, once widely spoken in Shanghai dialect, may be gaining popularity again, with the amusement park getting a new lease of life to become a hub for art performances in downtown.

The over century-old Great World entertainment center in Huangpu District has been revitalized, gathering theaters for stage plays and shows, aimed at attracting young customers.

For the first time in its 106-year history, no admission ticket is required.

The once most popular amusement park in Shanghai, which carries the childhood memories of several generations of local residents, is now home to 22 small theaters. Over 10,000 performances will be staged annually to attract over a million audiences.

"The Great World gained its reputation a century ago by mixing all kinds of performances. Such characteristics have been refurbished," said Xu Li, deputy general manager of the Great World.

Traditional shows, such as comedies, shadow puppetry, acrobatics, traditional Chinese operas and magic shows, will be performed in the daytime for nostalgic customers.

At night, it will become a trendy place for the young, especially young ladies, with stage plays, operas, talk shows and concerts, Xu told Shanghai Daily.

Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances
Ti Gong

Actors and actresses perform in the midst of the audience at the Great World, involving them as part of their play.

Shanghai aims to revitalize its performance market, which has been severely impacted since the COVID-19 outbreak three years ago.

The Great World is among several new culture and tourism attractions unveiled in downtown Huangpu District this week to boost the consumption of art performances and electronic sports.

Since Monday, the landmark French-style building at the junction of Xizang Road S. and Yan'an Road E. has been illuminated by colorful neon lights, highlighting its transformation.

Time-honored stores with bleak businesses have been replaced by fashionable stores, coffee shops and ticket outlets for plays and musicals being staged at the center.

The four-story building is occupied by the so-called "black-box" theaters, a small performance space allowing audiences to closely watch the plays and interact with performers. Popular stage play brands, such as the Mahua FunAge, are based there.

Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances
Ti Gong

The refurbished Great World entertainment center at the junction of Xizang Road S. and Yan'an Road E.

A "drama bar" on the fourth floor and a rooftop garden theater will open soon for customers to watch, while enjoying their drinks and the urban skyline. Some popular eateries and cafes have also been opened alongside the theaters.

"I feel like the Great World from my memory has returned. It's full of fun again," said Zhang Xiuping, a retired teacher who lives nearby on Xizang Road S.

"We retirees can spend a whole day here – tour around the site in the daytime, dine with old friends at noon and watch a performance at night," she added.

Chen Jianxing, a local community worker, said the refurbished Dashijie reminds him of his childhood, when he played with his brothers and sister at the center during the Spring Festival.

"We put on new clothes, carried meal boxes and kettles and took the No. 23 electric bus to the Dashijie," he recalled. "We were so excited once that we accidentally overturned the meal box, dropping all the steamed buns on the ground.

"I hope the place will become crowded with customers again."

Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances
Ti Gong

Actors perform in close proximity of the audience in a black-box theater at the Great World.

The Great World entertainment center – a 16,800-square-meter property – was built in 1917 by local business tycoon Huang Chujiu (1872-1931) and used to stage Chinese operas, and host singers and acrobats. It also had cinemas, malls, snack bars and restaurants offering food from around the world.

The center once gained the reputation as the "No. 1 Entertainment Club in the Far East." The 12 "distorting mirrors" imported from the Netherlands in the lobby area became a popular attraction.

Huang Jinrong (1868-1953), Shanghai's mob boss, later took over the center and expanded the site, renovating the building and turning it into a comprehensive entertainment venue featuring dining, stage shows and shopping malls.

Its popularity soared in the 1990s when some people tried to break a Guinness world attendance record there – and it did so by receiving more than 20,000 visitors during the Labor Day holiday in 1995.

But its glory days were soon over after many new entertainment venues, such as amusement parks, opened in Shanghai. Traditional Huju and Yueju operas were no longer able to attract younger audiences.

The center received less than 100 visitors a day at the turn of the century in 2000 and it was closed in 2003 following an outbreak of the SARS epidemic.

Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Foreign executives and entrepreneurs were invited to watch traditional Chinese operas at the Great World in 2017.

After a major renovation to restore its original appearance, the center reopened in 2017, mainly to showcase China's heritage skills, or the United Nations-listed intangible culture heritages.

Tickets were priced at 40 yuan (US$5.8) for various traditional performances, including Chinese opera and acrobatics, performed regularly on the central stage. The iconic distorting mirrors were restored.

Locals flocked to the reopened site initially to relive their fond memories, but soon their numbers dropped sharply.

In 2019, the center began introducing popular stage plays at night amid Shanghai's effort to revitalize its nightlife economy. This attracted a large number of young audiences.

Since Shanghai's theaters and performance sites were allowed to reopen in July 2022 after the COVID-19 lockdown, the center has hosted more than 4,000 plays with high occupancy rates. Most of the audiences are young customers, according to Xu.

Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances
Ti Gong

Audiences pose with talk show performers at a theater inside the Great World.

The small-size theaters for up to 200 people are ideal for pioneering stage plays. Approximately 10 plays are being performed regularly on the fourth floor of the center, including the King's Table, which has been exported to South Korea.

Troupes have decorated the halls into a Middle-Age Norwegian forest, or a British-style library to create an immersive ambiance.

After the end of some plays, performers meet up with their fans at the center's atrium.

Digital technologies are also widely used. Some of the stage plays can be recorded and converted into high-definition programs immediately at the end of the shows, mainly for local communities and rural villages.

Through a giant curved screen, customers can watch historical videos of performances that were staged at the center a century ago.

The refreshed Great World is expected to drive the renewal and upgrading of Huangpu's culture and tourism service sector, which has been listed as one of the pillar industries of the downtown district, according to Xu Yanqing, director of the Huangpu Culture and Tourism Bureau.

"So many varieties of performances are gathering at the Great World that everyone will be able to find their favorite choice," she said.

Century-old Great World rises again with stage plays, other performances
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Visitors closely watch a traditional drum performance at the Great World in 2019.

If you go:

Admission: Free (Theaters require tickets)

Opening hours: 11am-11pm every day

Venue: The Great World

Address: 1 Xizang Road S., Huangpu District

Traffic: Metro Line 8 and 14, Dashijie Station

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