Common platform for music enthusiasts
When the sun sets and neon lights come up at 96 Plaza, a shopping mall in Shanghai's Pudong district, the music begins.
Shoppers, diners, parents with children and seniors living nearby gather in the open-air auditorium of the plaza in twos and threes to relax and enjoy the performance－sometimes popular songs, sometimes old songs, and once in a while a cappella, or even jazz.
The show has been on since May last year. Unless it rains, it starts at 7 pm and ends at 10 pm daily.
When the audience lingers until late and the singer is still in the mood, the melody goes on for another encore or two.
There are no famous stars on the stage but sometimes crowds come to support them. The show's popularity has gradually spread through word of mouth.
The show is special because the singers are people from different walks of life.
The project, Escape to Music, is run by Lujiazui Commercial, a real estate management company, and it provides open stages and calls anyone with musical talent and dreams to perform there.
It started with only one stage and a dozen singers. So far more than 340 people have participated in the project, and many more are signing up, according to the company.
In October, the company will hold a music festival Shake It Off, where singers from the city and other provinces in 11 groups of three will perform in singing contests and battle out for awards.
Xu Yang was among the project's first participants. In the day, the 27-year-old is an office worker for a consultancy company and at night, he's better known as "singer Jeremy".
"I read about the project in a newspaper, and decided to sign up at once. Being a star has been my dream since childhood," says Xu, who was born in Shanghai, where his grandfather was a professor of music and his grandmother was the leader of a local song-and-dance troupe.
"My parents loved singing, too, and they bought a home karaoke system in the 1990s, so I started to sing when I was only 3 years old,"Xu says.
He recalls his busy schedule at the beginning when he went to sing at 96 Plaza three or four times a week, because not many people knew of the project.
"After work, I'd drive one hour from my company in Songjiang district to the plaza, and started to sing right away, but I didn't feel tired," he says. "Singing is always something I enjoy, and I feel recharged when I go home after the performance."
Xu also signs up now and then for singing competitions, and last year he finished 23rd in a national contest, Oriental Music Challenge.
"In a contest, the performance is more about showing off singing skills to the judges, but here on the open-air stage, my songs are for myself and people who pass by and happen to share my taste. I sing all kinds of love songs, sometimes sweet ones and sometimes heartbreaking," Xu says.
More and more people are joining the project and becoming friends. On the last Saturday of August, Xu sang a duet with Zhang Xu, who is a nurse and has the stage name "Xizi".
"I got to know Xu in a theme show in October," Zhang says.
"We were in a team to perform traditional Chinese songs, and we all wore traditional clothes. He was our team leader and supported me when I was in a poor state and helped me grow in confidence onstage."
Zhang has performed in her hospital annual party, but the show with Xu Yang was her public debut.
"I felt very happy when many people stopped to listen to my songs on a cold winter night," she says.
Every month, a training session is organized by the company at the plaza and participants can get professional exercises and tips on singing skills and stage performances.
Chen Chen, one of the music teachers who has taught music for six years, says he is impressed by the passion of the participants.
"I can just teach them basic music theories and help them find their best voice, but their dedication to sharing with others through music is something that cannot be taught," says Chen.
"It's a very precious opportunity for ordinary music lovers who are not professional singers to have professional training and stage experience, which will help to build up their self-confidence and give wings to their dreams."
Le Yue, a graphic designer, has attended Chen's class twice since she joined the project in August. "Last time, the teacher taught us how to sing a cappella version of the song Snail by Jay Chou. It was amazing!"
Le says she was in a band and even did some commercial performances when she was still in college more than 10 years ago, but she didn't pursue a career in music after she got a job, got married and had a baby.
"But music is always deep in my heart," she says, adding that a choir where she went recommended the project to her.
"I love this project. It's well organized and people are young, warm and nice to each other. And I have made friends from different professions but with the same passion for music," Le says. "We are all ordinary people who hold on to our dreams."