Busking program expands to Wujiang Road

"Street performance gives me a bigger creative platform as I can communicate with the audience face to face and they always give me inspiration "
Busking program expands to Wujiang Road
Yang Meiping / SHINE

A pedestrian (center) poses for a photo with buskers Kirk Kenney and Chen Libo as they perform on Wujiang Road in Jing’an over the weekend. 

An American guitarist, a Chinese penny whistle player, a German solo pianist and a clown on stilts are just a few of the acts visitors can now enjoy on Wujiang Road pedestrian street. The popular street in Jing’an District is the latest site approved for licensed busker performances in Shanghai, which is also the first city on the Chinese mainland to issue licenses to street performers.

Since Shanghai granted the first eight licenses to buskers in 2014, their number has grown to 123. These performers are now showing their skills at 17 designated areas around the city, according to Wei Zhi, director of the Shanghai Performing Arts Association.

“Buskers have become a moving landscape and part of the Shanghai brand,” said Wei. “We will look for more suitable places for them to show their confidence and joy to local citizens and tourists from all over the country and the world.”

She said the association and the buskers all have made great efforts in the past four years to make it a respectable profession in the city.

Street performers used to be stopped by urban management officers for “disturbing public order, blocking streets and causing disturbances.”

But Wei said that there are artists among these performers, and busking needs to be managed. The association launched a pilot program to select eight buskers, giving them licenses and allowing them to perform in designated places in Jing’an.

“My colleagues and I spent several months searching for street performers on local roads,” she said. “We watched their performance one by one to select professional, talented artists for the trial program. It was like finding pearls in the ocean.”

After selecting candidates, the association also organized interviews before dispensing the first licenses.

“The professional buskers should not only be good at artistic performance, but also good-tempered and law-abiding,” said Wei. “We also looked for information about busking administration in other countries and regions to work out our management standards and train the performers.”

The performers must sign an agreement which, among other commitments, prohibits them from disturbing residents, violating regulations and bargaining with audience. Licensed buskers also have schedules for where and when they can perform. Licenses are valid for between three months and one year.

The program’s experienced buskers have also shared tips for dealing with unexpected situations, such as impolite audience members and interruptions, according to Wei.

Busking program expands to Wujiang Road
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A busker performs a magic trick with a child on Wujiang Road.

“Besides adding Wujiang Road to the approved list of places for busking, the government has also approved busker performances at night in Jing’an Park,” said Wei.

Among the 123 licensed buskers, two thirds are between 25 and 35. This number also includes five foreigners.

Li Xionggang is one of the first eight licensees. He used to work for a waste recycling company and made handiworks with pop-top cans. After he was laid off in 1998, he opened a shop to sell his handiwork at Yuyuan Tourist Mart. When Li learned about the busking program, he applied and closed his shop after getting licensed.

“Street performance gives me a bigger creative platform as I can communicate with the audience face to face and they always give me inspiration,” he said, adding that he earns more busking than at his store.

Li is now a busker team leader. He is responsible for arranging shift schedules. He also monitors his fellow members to make sure they are rule-abiding.

Zhang Yi, a guitarist and a singer from Dalian in northeast China’s Liaoning Province, was among the second batch of licensed buskers. He applied for the license after seeing Li perform in Jing’an Park.

“I used to busk on the street and was stopped by urban management officers,” he said. “When I saw the certificate Li put on his table when performing, I asked him about it and applied for one for myself.”

“It really helps a lot,” he said. “I don’t have to look around to see if the management officers are coming around when performing and it also gives me a sense of belonging in the city.”

Zhang said he also plays commercial performances, but still busks two to four times a week.

“In clubs or other commercial occasions, you have to follow the style of the group, but on the street I can sing whatever I want, both popular songs or those written by me,” he said. “I was nervous at first, but gradually found that the street is the most relaxed place for me to perform.”

Yu Hanyi and his wife Liu Liyuan are the only couple among the licensed buskers in Shanghai. They moved from Hanghzhou, east China’s Zhejiang Province, to Shanghai two and a half years ago and saw two musicians play in Jing’an Park.Yu is a music enthusiast and organized a band at university. Liu is a real estate analyst and used to busk in New York when she was studying there.

They had also tried to perform on the street near the West Lake in Hangzhou but was often driven away by authorities.

“When we saw the license of the buskers in Shanghai, we were fascinated and decided to settle down in the city,” he said.

Yu performs once or twice a week, while Liu usually performs once each weekend.

For American musician Kirk Kenney, Shanghai is also a great place for busking.

“Busking in the world is ancient. But in each place, over the years, it becomes something different. There is a different social stigma attached to it,” he said. “In China, it’s not quite respected. But I really like the fact that the government is getting involved. I think it’s amazing that the government is trying to support local artists to make places more interesting, to add value to these locations where people are.”

Kenney was a teacher in Beijing who later became a musician. He moved to Shanghai in 2016 and a friend recommended him to the performing arts association.

He first played at busking festivals in the city and got a one-year license last year.

He usually plays the guitar and sings solo but recently he found a partner, penny whistle player Chen Libo. Having performed elsewhere earlier, the two busked together on Wujiang Road for the first time on Sunday.

“It’s good to hear some lovely music when walking tiredly on the street,” said a pedestrian who gave her name as Shirley Chen. “It gives the city of Shanghai some flavor of some Western cities, such as Paris and New York.”

Wei believes audiences in Shanghai are becoming more appreciative of street performances.

“At first, most people just watched, but now more and more people applaud and drop money before leaving,” she said.

Wei said the local street artists have also been invited to perform overseas.

During this year’s Spring Festival, Li Xionggang and Zhang Yi performed at the Shanghai Festival in New York. Zhang also staged a special performance with Zhang Jun, a Kunqu Opera master.

“I’m so grateful to the busking program as it gives me a bigger platform and more opportunities,” he said.

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