Toby Header Shanghai Cultural Square

Map Historical Shanghai Cultural PlazaShanghai Cultural Square

The Shanghai Culture Plaza is a space in Luwan district, within the former French Concession of Shanghai. The site has a remarkably turbulent history, that despite its sometimes uneasy history, is important to remember.

The original Canidrome built in 1928 included a hotel with the largest ballroom of the time, plus a stadium structure intended for greyhound dog racing.  It quickly became a multi-purpose entertainment space for the Shanghai elite pre-war.  During the war, it was converted to Japanese military horse stables.  After the war, it became a place for political rallies after the founding of the People’s Republic of China and a mass execution facility.

Then, after a fire, it was rebuilt in 1972 and once again it became a theatre and exhibition space, a stock exchange and finally a huge flower market before it was demolished in 2006.

Today, the theatre covers the area like a white wave flowing over its fascinating history.

The Birth

The awarding of the Expo in Shanghai caused the Communist Party to think about the planning of Shanghai.  Thanks to well politically connected Fang QuanLin the day before my birthday in April 2005, I was involved in an interesting meeting with the local cultural and propaganda authority in determining the principle purpose and ideal size for a new theatre to ultimately establish spec out for future RFP for architecture firms.

Fang QuanLin was an ex political and ex-military leader, who also had aspirations to be just like Leo Bloom in The Producers wanting to produce long lines of showgirls and fill his pockets with lots of cash in his retirement. He had created a local Shanghai cultural development company called Shanghai 999 to position himself, and became a consultant briefly during my last Nederlander days, but I digress….

The meeting was held in large room with a long rectangular table, with the Shanghai Propaganda head sitting in the centre, next to the Shanghai Cultural head.  At one end of the table were the leaders of the Shanghai Grand Theatre (at the time, the largest and most prominent theatre) and at the opposite end was my friend Wang Jingbo of The Majestic Theatre (a medium size Art Deco treasure).  I was seated directly opposite the Shanghai government leaders, with my assistant Wang Chao to my left and Fang QuanLin to my right.  Scattered between us all were the managers of most of the other Shanghai theatre’s, typically small size.  The symbolism of the seating was not lost on me — it was like a boxing ring.

To my far right, the leaders of the Grand Theatre wanted the new facility to be tiny so as not to compete with their venue and were pushing for a tiny local drama theatre of 500 to 999 seats, while to my far left, the smaller theatres in Shanghai, seemingly taking their lead from Wang Jingbo of The Majestic, wanted it to be massive, in the 3,000+ capacity range to focus on grand spectacle, opera and ballet to stick it to the seemingly uppity management of the Grand Theatre of the time. I was the lone voice in the room that recommended it be in the middle of the 2 opposing voices, at 2,000 seats, with a focus on international quality productions with ability to house musical theatre shows.

What made this funny, at the beginning of a very long 2 or 3 hour, and rather heated meeting, where Wang Chao was having difficulty keeping up with translating the yelling between the small and large theatres, I had written down “2000 seats” on a napkin, folded it, and placed it on the centre of the table, told Wang Chao to only give me highlights, and sat back, smoked a few cigarettes, sipped a terrible coffee or 2 and waited… and waited…

Towards the very end of the marathon meeting, the Shanghai Propaganda Minister asked me for my thoughts.  The room fell silent, all eyes on me, and I simply pointed at the folded napkin (how theatrical!).  The Minister reached for the napkin and revealed what I had recommended 2-3 hours before.

“2,000 seats

The government approved the plans almost immediately to issue the instruction for the cultural space to focus on musical theatre with 2,000 seats.  The concept for the park began in 2003 and after a series of international design competitions were held, won by Beyer Blinder Belle & Balmori Associates whose theatre and refinement to the park was designed in late 2005, and was completed in 2011 with a 2011 seat musical theatre venue, over 3 levels, in 65,000 sqM of largely underground space.

Shanghai Culture Square Theatre

SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Exterior

The Shanghai Culture Square Theatre is the largest & deepest underground theatre in the world. The 65,000-square-meter theatre with a seating capacity of 2,011-seat (a nod to the year of its opening) has been built at a cost of 1.3 billion yuan (~USD $170 million).  Turning local planning restrictions to their advantage (the theatre could be no higher than the surrounding five and six story buildings), the architects dug 26 meters down to create what is, at the time of writing, the world’s deepest underground theatre – 570,000 square meters are underground.  It features a theatre largely dedicated and optimized to musical theatre programming. Plush maroon-velvet seats, stage that lifts and sinks and rotates and can even be turned into an ice rink or water pool.

The design keeps a low profile in the garden and sinks the main part of building underground. The aboveground section is no more than 10 m. Surrounded by expansive, tree-lined pathways, the main structure sits like a giant white wave among the neighboring buildings. Beautifully lit at night, the most striking design is a huge glass funnel in the center of lobby, where light, water and air converge, against the the glass walls emitting a soft blue light, the source of which is a floor-to-ceiling blue-stained-glass mural. Audience members enter the building from the street level and find themselves already at the theatre’s 3rd floor balcony.  Most audience members when entering go immediately down via grand staircase to the main lobby.

The very large lower lobby is often used for corporate events, product announcements, sponsorship activities, announcing future shows and other press events. In addition, the management publish a magazine that is distributed to VIP guests throughout Shanghai 2-3 times a year that gives updates to their programming and information about what is happening with the facility.

The theatre is state-funded to the tune of RMB 50 million but receives no other subsidy, and so it is reliant on ticket sales, rentals and sponsorships.

The venue is largely a state-owned enterprise, and the Cultural Plaza is listed as an asset of the state.  Designed by US architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle [originally designed by architect Richard Blinder who died in 2006] whose design the “White Wave” became a sort-listed finalist after a 2003 competition to create a new iconic park and theatre — a signature project undertaken by the Chinese government for the 2010 World Expo.  The theatre and park design were refined in later 2005 prior to construction.

Shanghai Culture Square

Owner: Shanghai Cultural Plaza Industrial Co.
Architect: Beyer Blinder Belle
Park Master Planning: Balmori Associates
Architect of Record*: Xian Dai Architectural Design Group
Theatre Design: Sachs Morgan Studio
Collaborating Architects: SWG Studio, & CT Consultants Inc.
Theatre Consulting: The Shalleck Collaborative
Acoustics Consulting: Jaffe Holden
Exteriors: Shanghai Jiesi Engineering Industrial Co., & Arup

* to conform to Chinese law, a local Chinese firm must be the architect, so foreign companies engage a local firm to consult.

Shanghai Culture Square Programming HighlightsShanghai Culture Square Theatre opened in September 2011, and was China’s first theatre designed and constructed especially for the performance of musicals at the time. Since its opening, the theatre has systematically introduced musicals from various parts of the world, as well as popular plays from the West End, yet mostly most B and C level touring shows with the suggested appearance they actually came from Broadway.

Originally, the theatre was to exclusively present musical theatre, but the government issued a new directive to maintain musicals at 50% of the programming time, and the balance to be made up of jazz festivals and small concerts (such as Diana Krall).

The theatre opened with an “Ultimate Broadway” concert (~ RMB 10 million) it produced itself (engaging South African GWB to put it together, after their original plan to present the Dutch version of Disney’s Mary Poppins fell apart over language and logistics rendering it prohibitively expensive.

The physical seating capacity is on the low end for international musical theatre, however, the Culture Square Theatre works around this issue by booking 2nd and 3rd tier, lower quality touring shows.  With a surprisingly low level of theatrical marketing not yielding enough demand for very long runs (measured in months, not individual performances), they do not yet think that large high-quality shows are economically viable as evidenced by the Mary Poppins cancellation and lack of any 1st class Broadway touring shows.

The Culture Square Theatre began to produce its own shows, and created the “Ultimate Broadway” series, a concert of musical highlights. The Ultimate Broadway concerts cost about 10 million yuan to produce. The Culture Square creates the set design, props, costume, projection, light and sound designs, hire designers and directors (from South Africa) to work with 2nd tier actors with some form of credit from either a Broadway or West End show in the program bios. This concert is far cheaper and easier to produce than a full-length musical.

The Culture Square Theatre itself has an international class stage area. However, the physical location is off the beaten and visible path of most Shanghai residents and tourists, making it more difficult (and expensive) to market and sell the shows. If the theatre was located in Peoples Square or directly off the bund, it would have been ideal.

Having said all this, by comparison to other theatre’s in the Chinese marketplace, the key strength of the Culture Square Theatre is its forward thinking creative management.

Shanghai Culture Square Theatre

SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Exterior SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Exterior Night SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Interior Auditorium Design SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Interior Auditorium Construction SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Interior Auditorium SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Interior Auditorium from Stage SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Interior Upper Lobby SHCP Shanghai Culture Square Interior Lobby
Shanghai Cultural Square LayoutShanghai Cultural Square Seating
map Shanghai cultural plaza

Shanghai Canidrome and Shanghai Cultural Plaza

SHCP Canidrome 1940 dog racing ticketThe English name “Canidrome” is a composition of cani- (dog) and drome (race course). The Canidrome was also bylined the “Rendezvous for Shanghai’s Elite”.  Yet the Chinese pronunciation of the word “Canidrome” can be understood as “to see you become poor” since at that time, a lot of people in Shanghai lost all their money gambling at the dog races.

Located on Rue Lafayette (now Fuxing Zhong Lu) it occupied a large portion of the block formed by what are today Jianguo Lu, Shaanxi Lu, Fuxing Lu and Maoming Lu in the former French Concession.

The venue with multiple facilities including a stadium and ballroom, was built in 1928 and the stadium could seat 50,000 spectators.  The entire site was under French jurisdiction in the French Concession, its stadium was the largest of 3 stadiums in Shanghai,  It was largely financed by Henry E. Morris, Jr., proprietor of the North China Daily News.

SHCP Canidrome Buck Clayton and his Harlem GentlemenOften regarded to as one of the largest dance floors in Asia, the Canidrome’s open-air ballroom was mostly a facility limited to elitist Westerners.  The ability for Shanghai’s elite citizens to get their foot in the door of the Canidrome was a symbol of their social status.

The timing was good. African-American musicians after World War 1 were flourishing in Paris.  But in June 1933 France enacted the so-called “10% law”. Enacted in the wake of the onset of the Great Depression in Europe the law restricted the number of foreign musicians employed by an establishment to 10%. This caused a lot of unemployment and many musicians found themselves unemployed which encouraged African-American entertainers to travel to Shanghai.

The Canidrome ballroom headlined many African-American acts, mostly in the dance and jazz music genres, including opening with members of the old Jack Carter band forming the nucleus of was considered the best dance orchestra in the Orient.  This band included African-American Teddy Weatherford, Shanghai’s most popular pianist; Jimmy Carson, “That Croonin’ Saxophonist,” and Mendex Lewis, the trumpeter who can play tears into the eyes of anyone.

Later in 1931, Waldmar Volsky and his Midnight Frolics headlined with music by Teddy Wetherford and his Twelve Singing Syncopators along with vocal refrains by Al Baldwin. (he worked in Shanghai shows for 6 years)

In 1933, the Midge Williams and her “Williams Quartette” performed at the Canidrome.  Other headline acts included Bob and Teddy Drinkard.

In 1334, the ballroom engaged American jazz all-black band Buck Clayton’s Harlem Gentlemen.  The venue offered plenty of variety— a castanet dance, a tiller dance, a hornpipe, a hula, a prize fight pantomime, songs, an eccentric jazz dance and an ensemble strut, the latter by the Six Hollywood Blonds and young singer and dancer, Kenneth Willmarth accompanied Buck Claytons orchestra.

Buck Claytons contract was terminated in 1937 after a fisticuff brawl with local ex-American sailor, then Shanghai gambling mobster Jack Riley. A new, white American band— Nathan Rabin’s Champions replaced Buck Clayton.  Buck Clayton’s Harlem Gentlemen stayed n Shanghai and opened his show at the Ladow’s Casanova Cabaret.

Canidrome Ad Buck Clayton April 15 1934 SHCP Canidrome Ballroom Ad SHCP Canidrome Ballroom Ad SHCP Canidrome Program
Canidrome Buck Clayton Harlem Gentlemen SHCP Canidrome Perform

Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡) and her sister Soong Ai-ling (宋蔼龄), were regulars at the Canidrome.

The outbreak of the Pacific War and the occupation of the French Concession by the Japanese in December 1941 led to the Canidrome ceasing operation.

During the Japanese occupation, the grounds were used to stable horses by the Imperial Japanese Army.

At the end of the war, in 1945, the nationalist government that resumed control of Shanghai did not permit greyhound racing to resume, but the Canidrome was used for sporting and entertainment purposes.

For many years, boxing tournaments were presented.

Canidrome boxing poster (August 12, 1937) Canidrome Boxing U.S. Navy Relief Boxing Lineup (November 16, 1937) Canidrome boxing ad (August 12)Canidrome boxing Canidrome boxing poster (Oct 29, 1937) Canidrome Fourth Marines Regimental Smoker Boxing (October 28, 1938)

Soccer matches were also staged. On March 15, 1941 a game between the Shanghai Municipal Police and a Chinese team turned into a riot, causing 20,000 Chinese spectators to flood the field and numerous injuries reported.

School sports meets and rugby games between Shanghai and Hong Kong were held there.  The US military based in Shanghai played lots of American football games there.

Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936) Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936) Canidrome 1935 Football program between Shanghai Americans and the United States Marines Canidrome Football Thanksgiving (November 24, 1938)

On December 1, 1945, the Shanghai Stars and Stripes paper sponsored football teams drawn from the United States Army and Navy to play a game at the Canidrome, billed as the “China Bowl” before 10,000 wildly enthusiastic GI’s.  Preparation training on the race course the day prior was abandoned since the city government were executing criminals that day on the field.  Military uniforms were mandatory dress code.  About 20,000 hot dogs and doughnuts were passed out by the Red Cross.  Navy won by a score of 12-0.

Canidrome 1945 Football Army vs Navy Program Canidrome December 1, 1945 the First China Bowl Game, Army vs. Navy a crowd of 30,000 watched Canidrome Chinese Soldier at China Bowl 1945 Canidrome 1945 Football Army vs Navy Program half time

The festivities that day included a “Derby Race” of 19 women posing as jockeys in flower decorated rickshaws, pulled by local Chinese (coolies) from the bund’s Navy jetty, down Nanking Lu to Seymour Lu to the finishing line in the Canidrome about 30 minutes later (~ 3½ miles), with a crown of “Miss Ricksha of 1945” and “Queen of the Army-Navy Game” along with a silver cup and prize money of CRB $2,000,000 (~ about USD $400 today). Won by June Nergaard and ‘Coolie’ Paavo-Nurmi Wong. Estimates of spectator crowd size reached about 1,5 million in the streets

 Canidrome Rickshaw Race china bowl 1945Canidrome WWII Stars & Stripes Rickshaw Derby Sterling Silver Trophy Cup (Dec 1, 1945)Canidrome Derby Day Press

John Kander, famed Broadway composer of major musical hits such as Cabaret and Chicago was stationed in Shanghai with the United States Merchant Marine Cadet Corps in 1945 until January 1946, and told me that he attended the Canidrome ‘China Bowl’ and associated Derby, along with other events there.  John also played piano in a Russian brothel in Shanghai for 3 days — “it was the warmest place in Shanghai because there were no radiators and everybody aboard his ship was there” he said.

In 1949, the name was changed to the Shanghai Cultural Square.

Canidrome Cultural meeting 4 July 1949From 1949–1976 it was used as a political meeting hall and a mass execution facility.  Public trial meetings held in the Canidrome were referred to as “The Shanghai Enlarged Joint Meeting of People’s Representatives’ Conference“. During the Cultural Revolution, the site became a venue for public meetings, where Red Guards and other agitators denounced “class enemies” and figures of authority. Political rallies, and Mao himself would take to the stage

The Canidrome and race course were places where mass executions took place in the hands of the Communist Party, killing hundreds each day.  In April 1951, more than 3,000 people were arrested and herded to the Canidrome. On May 1, for example, 500 executions were announced.  The city police, helped by communist political police, in a single night arrested an estimated 24,000 Chinese, and dragged them off to camps in Shanghai’s outskirts.

Among the arrested were former Kuomintang officials, school-teachers, religious leaders, non-communist union leaders, property owners, newspaper workers, factory managers, and students.

SHCP Canidrome Chinese Prisoners En Route To ExecutionSHCP Canidrome Marked for ExecutionSHCP Canidrome Prisoners En Route To Execution

Those to be executed were selected by a committee of 24 communist-appointed “civic leaders”. The Xinhua News Agency reported that Shanghai high-school students marched beside the prisoners on their way to execution beating gongs and drums, and chanting: “Kill nice! Kill them well! Kill all of them!“. At the time 10,000 people gathered and demanded the death of the accused in a unanimous roar.

The Communist government purchased the grounds in 1952 and re-constructed the Canidrome.  The entire race-course was converted into an indoor venue with a capacity of 15,000 people in 1954, along with a semi-open convention space for political assembly.  From 1954 to 1966, over 600 conventions (mainly government rallies) were held involving more than 2 million citizens. The existing grandstand, including its auditorium, was retained. Part of the site became the Shanghai Chinese Opera School.

SHCP Shanghai Culture Square 1970 reconstructionIn 1969, during the chaos of the early Cultural Revolution, the site was largely destroyed by a massive fire that could be seen throughout the city, in which 14 people lost their lives, and destroyed many of the buildings at the Cultural Plaza.  Much of it was reconstructed in 1970 when former Premier Zhou Enlai made a handwritten instruction to rebuild the Cultural Square. The reconstruction was completed after 83 days. With a floor space of 5,700 square meters, the indoor auditorium was erected without a single floor column. The main auditorium was known for a vast unobstructed space and had huge electric fans to keep the air moving

For the 20 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Cultural Plaza served a number of purposes. Its auditorium was used as performance space for films and theatre.   The North Korean opera, Flower Girl from Pyongyang and the ballets, Swan Lake performed by the Panasonic Theater from Japan and repertoire from Moscow National Theater Ballet were the popular shows during this time.

The large covered space built over the former Canidrome also served as a versatile exhibition space with a conference venue, often housing political conferences and meetings.

Canidrome former site ballroom and race track in the year 2000Beginning from the 1980s, the Shanghai Municipal Government began discussing the redevelopment of the Cultural Plaza area. Decades of neglect had left the buildings in the precinct in need of repair. Construction in the area  since 1949 had lacked overall planning. Its former role as a space for political meetings had diminished in significance, while its role as a performance space had been superseded by newer or better facilities.  In 1988 the entertainment venue closed after a performance from the Brigham Young University Troupe.

SHCP Shanghai Culture Square 1992 Stock ExchangeIn the summer of 1992, the Cultural Square was converted into a temporary stock exchange.

In 1997, this area became the location of the Shanghai Flower Market accounting for 70% to 80% of the city’s annual consumption and making it the largest flower trade market in east China.

In 2003, a series of international design competitions were held.  A plan was adopted to rebuild the area as a park. Certain elements of the original structures would be retained, including the long-span space frame structure over the auditorium, which was, at the time of its construction, the longest such span in the Far East.

The original grandstand, along with most of the other structures in the area were demolished in 2005, making way for today’s  Shanghai Cultural Square Theatre.

Shanghai Canidrome / Culture Square / Cultural Plaza

SHCP Canidrome 1939 Monkey jockeys SHCP Canidrome Outside Canidrome 1931 Dog Racing Tickets $5 to PLACE Race No. 4 from Shanghai ChinaCanidrome boxing program ad for dog racing Canidrome 1940 Dog Racing Program Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936) Canidrome 7th Annual Shanghai Schools Sports Meet (May 15, 1936) Canidrome 1931 4th Marines dance program from the Canidrome Ballroom cover Canidrome Fourth Marines Regimental Smoker Boxing Officials (October 28, 1938) Canidrome 1933 Greyhound racing trophy Canidrome 1930 Greyhound racing trophy Canidrome 1939 Greyhound Dog Racing Track badge SHCP Canidrome Shanghai Show World