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Shanghai Showcase: Antique Instruments for a New Market

16 Oct 2014

Having travelled many times in Asia, mainly to Hong Kong and Taiwan but never to China, it was with a good deal of excitement that I stepped off the plane into Pudong Shanghai airport to attend the Music China fair this week. Some butterflies in the stomach too. You never quite know what you are going to face when stepping out of an airport in a new country for the first time. How was a stand exhibiting old Italian violins going to be received in a fair focusing on the future of music, in a country that is known for its manufacturing and technological power? Will we be welcome in this new market at all?

Having travelled many times in Asia, mainly to Hong Kong and Taiwan but never to China, it was with a good deal of excitement that I stepped off the plane into Pudong Shanghai airport to attend the Music China fair this week. Some butterflies in the stomach too. You never quite know what you are going to face when stepping out of an airport in a new country for the first time. How was a stand exhibiting old Italian violins going to be received in a fair focusing on the future of music, in a country that is known for its manufacturing and technological power? Will we be welcome in this new market at all?

The mag lev train that whisked us 20 miles from the airport to the city centre somewhat reinforced this doubt – with no wheels, suspended on magnets, and travelling at just over 430 kilometres per hour, the train was an impressive engineering feat – a clear statement of achievement that the Chinese are justifiably rather proud of!

I’m sure that 30 years ago you would have been greeted in the centre of Shanghai by streets full of people on bikes. Today the car is king (and many smart ones at that) and pedal-power has been replaced by the moped. They are electric, fast, and you don’t hear them coming. They seem to have no qualms about using the pavements either. The skyline is packed with skyscrapers as far as the eye can see and it is pretty difficult to find traces of the old town that must have once been there. Progress has clearly happened here at breath-taking speed. In contrast, our business relies on clients’ enthusiasm for a centuries-old tradition of hand craftsmanship and the quality of sound that it produces. I was not sure how this would fit with the eagerness for development that I saw around me.

Statistics about the growth of music in China are often discussed back home. How many million children are learning the piano and violin? Will the fine old instruments that we value in the West ever be treasured in China too? One can take an educated stance on these things from afar, but standing in the Music China fair in person leaves me with no doubts about this at all.

There must have been more violins in that one building than any single other place in the world. Most were factory made and often of low quality. There was even a machine there, linked up to a computer, cutting a violin scroll automatically by itself! But the sheer numbers reflect the demand and this demand reflects the interest people have in music. They are passionate about it. Musicians queued in their hundreds to spend the whole day moving from stand to stand with their own bow in hand, trying the instruments on offer. Many were amateur but nonetheless really quite accomplished players who had clearly put many hours of practice in to attain such a standard.

On our stand we were eagerly quizzed about the old Italian instruments that we were showcasing. There is not a wealth of knowledge there yet but, be in no doubt, there is an irrepressible eagerness to learn about them. The people that we met were positive, keen, and very ambitious. It is a vibrant place with a passion for growth. Perhaps there is some naivety too; I heard many anecdotes of fake violins sold to unsuspecting buyers for alarmingly large sums of money. But overall there is an exciting future ahead for the musical world in China.

Next time there will be no question about whether we should visit or not. It will be fascinating to see how things develop.

Paul Hayday