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Shanghai has got everything it may need to qualify as a modern metropolis of international stature, except a cultural milieu.
A building boom in the past few decades has seen enough skyscrapers erected in Shanghai to rival Tokyo, London or New York. The many flyovers have helped make the traffic in Shanghai one of the least congested among mainland cities. What's more, the two Shanghai airports are relatively new and capacious and the city's deep-water port is said to be one of the most efficient in the world.
But the Shanghai cultural scene is vastly inferior to those of the other mega cities of the world. There is, of course, no shortage of theaters, music halls, museums and art galleries in town. But all those times I've lived in Shanghai, I have not seen any major efforts by the city government or the private sector to promote culture, other than the annual film festival, which is all glitz but little class.
People love to talk of Hong Kong as a cultural desert. But the last few times I was in Hong Kong, I saw many posters on the streets and in subway stations promoting concerts and plays featuring both local and foreign artistes. The Cultural Center close to the Star Ferry pier in Tsimshatsui on Kowloon side is a popular place for Hong Kong people, who go there to browse the attractive posters and leaflets of the shows and enjoy the free concert played regularly in the main hall.
Indeed, the latest plays set against a contemporary local background has greatly gained in popularity in recent years among the better-educated and higher income group of young Hong Kong people. Many popular actors and actresses in those locally produced plays were trained at the Academy of Performing Arts, which has also nurtured generations of talent in music and dancing.
Although Hong Kong has yet to produce a performer of international renown, it has a philharmonic orchestra that is said to be one of the best in Asia. This orchestra, consisting of musicians from different countries, has worked hard to earn its keep by staging many performances chosen for their wide public appeal.
Although Guangzhou harbors a much more modest ambition than Shanghai in internationalization, it is making great efforts to bring top foreign arts troupes to perform in its new Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid, a London-based architect of global fame. But the cultural drive in Guangzhou, as it is in other mainland cities, is hampered by scant corporate sponsorship and people's reluctance to purchasing tickets for their favorite concerts or plays.
Industry experts have said that sponsorship of the arts has largely been a responsibility of the state agencies. Mainland enterprises do not usually get involved, other than buying tickets for distribution to their employees as a form of special treat. As a result, mainland workers are used to receiving free tickets to cultural shows from their work units rather than paying for them out of their own pockets.
But none of these should be seen as a barrier if Shanghai is serious about its bid to be a cultural center of international standing. All the municipal government needs to do is to encourage its enterprises to sponsor the arts as many good corporate citizens in the major foreign cities do.
As Guangzhou is finding out, content counts far more than a grand opera house, whoever may have designed it.