A museum in tune with Shanghai's history

Cao Yunyi
A piano merchant and collector who wishes to build the first piano museum in the city.
Cao Yunyi

Gulangyu Island in the southeastern province of Fujian is famous as the home of China’s only museum dedicated solely to pianos.

“That just didn’t seem right to me,” said Zhu Xinyuan, a Minhang seller and collector of pianos. “Shanghai was the first city in China to manufacture pianos, and yet there was no piano museum in the city.”

So Zhu opened the Fushan Piano Museum as part of a business complex that also serves as a warehouse and showroom for piano sales. He has some 30 vintage pianos from his personal collection on display in the museum.

A museum in tune with Shanghai's history
Ti Gong

Zhu Xinyuan and the signature Cavendish brand piano at his Fushan Piano Museum in Minhang, where more than 30 vantage pianos are on display.

He also writes about the history of the piano.

Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) brought a clavichord with him to Beijing. It intrigued Emperor Wan Li (1563-1620) because the instrument had never before been seen in China.

But the keyboard didn’t become really popular until centuries later.

In 1917, Cai Yuanpei, former headmaster of Peking University, established the Shanghai National Conservatory of Music in Shanghai and invited piano teachers from the Soviet Union and other countries to join the faculty.

Zhu said his vision is to create in Shanghai a new and more immersive insight into the instrument’s history and role in cultural development.

 Based on his extensive travels, Zhu said the stories behind musical compositions, instruments and musicians are what fascinate him most.

“Some museums reproduce scenes from the last century when a piano was made and play popular songs written in the era of a particular piano,” said Zhu. “They even turn off lights and use candles to recreate the atmosphere of the times. I think I can give people a deeper understanding that they will remember after leaving the museum, not to mention that it’s also a feast for the ears.”

His passion for pianos began years ago. After graduating from The Nanjing University of the Arts, Zhu worked as a piano technician for companies and instrument stores. He once had dreams of becoming a professional guitar player.

“After a while, I asked myself, why not work on my own?” he said. “I can fix pianos, I can play the piano and guitar, and feel like I have many talents.”

After failing at an attempt to form a company, he came to Shanghai.

A museum in tune with Shanghai's history
Ti Gong

A Cavendish piano, one of Zhu's collection

“I came to Minhang to find a job and visit a friend,” he said. “I still remember the night when I walked out of Xinzhuang Metro Station, saw the neon lights and malls, and felt instantly connected with the district. So I settled here.”

He set up an educational institution in Xinzhuang in 2005, and within one year had recruited more than 600 students.

Other branches were opened in the city.

But success didn’t sit easily with Zhu.

“It was an intermediary service,” he said. “Parents approached us to hook their children up with a music teacher.

But we had no input into their teaching methods. Some teachers used a certain set of textbooks; some used another or wrote teaching materials themselves.

Though all studied in music academies, only a few held degrees in piano performance.”

To tackle the problem, Zhu set up training courses for piano teachers in his branches to improve their teaching skills and quality. That program has continued for six years.

Zhu eventually expanded his business to piano sales in 2012. He rented a 4,000- square-meter warehouse in Minhang.

A piano showroom-cum-museum is upstairs.

“We transport pianos directly from factories,” he explained. “The piano showroom is upstairs. If customers see something that they like there, we transport it to homes from the warehouse.”

Zhu said such shopping experience is a novel in China. He has forged business links with most piano brands that dominate the domestic market, like Pearl River, Yangtze River and Hailun.

Passions for pianos

Zhu is most passionate about his personal collection of pianos. His initial acquisition was first selfplaying piano, or pianola, made by M. F. Rachals, a German company that later established operations in Shanghai. It is no longer playable today.

In 2013, Zhu signed dealership agreement to sell the Cavendish brand piano from the UK. His personal collection contains a Cavendish piano made in 1838 for the British royal family. A private collector once offered him 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) to buy the piano.

“But I was afraid that once a piano becomes part of a private collection, it’s lost to the public at large, who won’t have opportunity to see it and learn about its history,” he said.

Zhu turned down the offer in the end, though he admitted he was tempted by the price. There are internal conflicts, he said, between his roles as artist and merchant.

“The piano is a piece of art,” he said. “I can’t totally be a merchant, but, on the other hand, I do need money to keep this place going. It can be painful, but I always choose artistic considerations in the end.”

• Fushan Piano Museum

Address: 2/F, Bldg 2, 2501 Duhui Rd

Tel: 3417-4588

Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-6pm

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