SOUNDS OF A CEN­TURY

The World of Chinese - - Gallery - TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY BY LU DAN (陆丹)

Wang Xin­wei tosses a coin into a black hat, and the hurdy-gurdy man slowly cranks into life, play­ing the kind of nov­elty song last heard on the streets of New York in the early 20th cen­tury.

But the or­gan grinder is an an­i­ma­tronic model, man­u­fac­tured in the Nether­lands in 1918, and the lo­ca­tion is a museum in Lüshun, a small city at the ex­treme south­ern tip of the Liaodong Penin­sula, with its own sin­gu­lar his­tory.

“Let’s give a cheer for th­ese mag­i­cal sounds from 100 years ago!” cries Wang, en­cour­ag­ing his au­di­ence of some 20 tourists, who’ve come from around the world to ex­plore his phonog­ra­phy museum, a damp stor­age build­ing that Wang, a re­tiree in his 60s, has con­verted into a unique pri­vate col­lec­tion.

Dat­ing from 1887 to 1979, over 25,000 records and an­tique phono­graphs of­fer a unique in­sight into mu­si­cal and mil­i­tary his­tory.

Sur­rounded by ocean on three sides, Lüshun was a strate­gic sea­port in sev­eral con­flicts, in­clud­ing the First Sino-ja­panese War (where it was the site of an in­fa­mous mas­sacre), the Russo-ja­panese War of 1904, and World War II. Named Port Arthur, af­ter Royal Navy Lieu­tenant Wil­liam C. Arthur, who sur­veyed the area in 1860, Lüshun was a for­ti­fied area guard­ing the ap­proach to Manchuria, and thus vi­tal to power plays in the Far East.

Suc­ces­sively ad­min­is­tered by the Rus­sian and Ja­panese em­pires, then the Soviet Union un­til 1953 (it’s now the Lüshunkou district of Dalian), Lüshun was set­tled by thousands of for­eign­ers in the early 20th cen­tury, among them mer­chants, diplo­mats, jour­nal­ists, artists, and army of­fi­cers.

Many owned phono­graphs and records pro­duced in the US, Europe, and China, con­sid­ered high-end en­ter­tain­ment in the early 1900s.

Born in 1953, the de­scen­dant of a wealthy and mu­si­clov­ing Qing dy­nasty fam­ily, Wang re­mem­bered hav­ing a gramo­phone at home, which he could al­ready take apart and put back to­gether by age seven. Af­ter school, he would cut grass to sell for cat­tle feed, earn­ing 3.7 RMB af­ter many months—enough to buy phono­graph in a pawn shop.

Since then, phono­graphs have never been out of Wang’s life. The story of how he came by—and kept—his com­plete col­lec­tion is re­mark­able.

Some records he in­her­ited, but most he bought cheaply from his neigh­bors and, later, an­tique mar­kets; they were left be­hind by Chi­nese and for­eign fam­i­lies that fled the coun­try dur­ing the events of the 20th cen­tury.

In the 1930s, Lüshun be­came part of Ja­panese-con­trolled Manchuria, roughly equiv­a­lent to to­day’s Dong­bei. Dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion, Lüshun’s cit­i­zens were not al­lowed to speak Chi­nese in pub­lic and forced to learn Ja­panese at school. Records that pre­served Chi­nese cul­ture, such as tra­di­tional Pek­ing or Yue opera, were a source of com­fort dur­ing those dark days of colo­nial op­pres­sion—although their own­er­ship and record­ing was strictly con­trolled by the South Manchuria Rail­ways Com­pany.

Decades later, Wang re­ceived do­na­tions from the sons and daugh­ters of many eye­wit­nesses to that dark pe­riod. “Peo­ple in Old Town know all about Mr. Wang, and his good heart,” one 80-year-old vis­i­tor told TWOC. “That’s why, af­ter my father passed away, I gave his beloved phono­graphs to Wang.”

Dur­ing the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion, Wang’s records faced an­other threat, as for­eign cul­ture was de­clared a form of “spir­i­tual pol­lu­tion” and con­sid­ered “coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary.” But when the Red Guards set out to “smash the olds,” as Mao had in­structed in 1966, Wang had an in­ge­nious de­fense.

“When [they] came to con­fis­cate my phono­graphs, I told the Red Guards, ‘Th­ese mag­i­cal in­stru­ments can sing Chair­man Mao’s songs!’ For­tu­nately, the first record I picked out was ‘The East is Red,’” Wang told TWOC, re­fer­ring to the fa­mous paean to Mao. Though he said he’d been “breath­less with anx­i­ety,” the ruse worked—so well, in fact, that he was in­vited to join the Red Guards, and en­trusted with the task of help­ing to iden­tify, cri­tique, and erad­i­cate pre-lib­er­a­tion phono­graphs from Lüshun.

Wang could scarcely be­lieve his luck. He went about con­fis­cat­ing con­tra­band vinyl, such as for­eign or “feu­dal” mu­sic, from lo­cal res­i­dents; only in­stead of de­mol­ish­ing them, he se­cretly hid the records.

Although Lüshun’s tragic his­tory as a lo­cus of siege and slaugh­ter is an in­erasable scar on 20th-cen­tury China, Wang’s museum man­ages to evoke what warmth and cul­ture ex­isted dur­ing this tur­bu­lent pe­riod. For Wang, the records are “loyal wit­nesses” to his­tory, and can awaken powerful mem­o­ries for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to learn from.

Many, in­clud­ing the first gen­er­a­tion of wax and lakh (or gum) records made in China in the 1900s, are highly valu­able, and con­tain mu­si­cal mas­ter­pieces from con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous artists such as Tan Xin­pei, Mei Lan­fang, Ma Lian­liang, and Zhou Xuan. Other col­lec­tors have fre­quently ap­proached Wang, de­ter­mined to buy them at any price, but he says he has re­fused to sell.

How­ever, as a pri­vate museum, Wang must rely on the pub­lic to cover op­er­a­tional ex­penses, due to a lack of govern­ment fund­ing. Chi­nese reg­u­la­tions have en­cour­aged the es­tab­lish­ment of pri­vate mu­se­ums in re­cent years, but sub­si­dies vary by re­gion, and Lüshun is not pros­per­ous. In­stead, lo­cal of­fi­cials of­fered Wang the build­ing at a dis­count, and ticket sales cover most of the rest. Phono­graphs de­grade ev­ery time when they are played, but Wang does the main­te­nance him­self—and is even train­ing an ap­pren­tice.

“Col­lect­ing and pre­serv­ing phono­graphs and records has been my life­long hobby,” Wang tells TWOC. “Un­like most res­i­dents at my age, I’m not in­ter­ested in mahjong, poker, or chess. Even in my youth, I didn’t go to ball­rooms or karaoke.”

“Am I strange? Maybe,” he muses. “I’ve al­ways hoped to es­tab­lish a museum for my beloved items—and now I’ve achieved it.”

An an­i­ma­tronic an­tique“hurdy gurdy” man, com­plete with au­then­tic 1920s ra­cial stereo­typ­ing, can be found at the museum

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