Evening courses for all artistic trends, from canvas to cooking

As the lights start to dim in parts of Shanghai each evening, they come on brightly at the Shanghai Mass Arts Center. People start to converge on the site when I get there on a Monday night.

These are white collar workers, college students, full-time mothers and others who share a common goal: they want to become more artistic. It could mean learning the art of making dim sum, growing flowers, playing an instrument, or painting on canvas.

Busy during the day, these people take the time at night to attend the non-profit art school.

A 12-lesson semester costs only 500 yuan (US $ 77). The school is so popular that approximately 1,200 places in the 46 courses this term were fetched online in just five minutes in March.

The school serves the districts of Xuhui, Jing’an, Changning and Hongkou with five campuses. Everyone has their specialty. The Jing’an campus, for example, offers a course in coffee making and floriculture. The Xuhui campus, located in a residential area, teaches belly dancing and offers a performing arts class for full-time mothers.

I arrive at the school’s main campus at the Mass Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. Classes don’t start until seven o’clock.

In front of me as I go up to the third floor is a woman carrying an accordion-like instrument on her back. I wonder what it is.

There are seven classes going on this Monday evening, covering music, dancing and cooking.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Learn to play the African hand drum.

My first stop is a fine arts class. The room has tables set with easels, stretched canvases, water basins and brushes. A projection screen shows one of Paul Cézanne’s 1904-06 oil paintings titled “Mont Sainte-Victoire”. Students will paint it in the next two lessons.

“The course is mainly aimed at students without a fine arts training,” said Xu Yangyang, 29, teacher in the class. “Before learning to paint, I show them a film about paintings, artists and styles of painting.”

A graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Central Academy of Fine Arts of China, Xu is the curator of the Basel Museum of Contemporary Art in the Jing’an district.

“I have been to many communities to lecture on fine arts,” she says. “The audience was mainly made up of old people and children. I think artistic skills need to be disseminated more widely, among young people and middle-aged people, who often lead busy lives.

She adds: “Art doesn’t have to be pretentious. It can be down to earth.

Evening courses for all artistic trends, from canvas to cooking

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Researcher Wang Xiaoya says art stimulates her imagination.

Wang Xiaoya, 52, a researcher at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, is the first to arrive for the class. She walked 25 minutes from her desk to school.

“Attending a class is a chance to give me a break,” says Wang. “I usually cook and clean when I leave work. But these are my evenings. My family takes care of her and they are proud when I show them my works.

Wang, who says he heard about the school from a colleague, took guitar and colored pencil drawing lessons last semester.

Wang practices painting on weekends. She even created a work to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party this year.

“Maybe I can make a living from painting after I retire,” Wang said jokingly. “Adults should keep improving. I think people involved in science and engineering need to learn the arts to stimulate their imaginations.

Evening courses for all artistic trends, from canvas to cooking

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Bayan lessons at night school

In music class, a science geek wears a t-shirt printed with the characters for “immersed in work and wither away.”

The 29-year-old man, surnamed Guo, is an engineer at a public enterprise in Zhangjiang High-Tech Park, Pudong New Zone. He’s an old friend from night school.

For the past three or four years, he has enrolled in courses to learn the African hand drum and the cucurbit flute, a gourd free reed instrument from China and parts of Southeast Asia. This time he’s taking a course on the bayan.

Ah! It is the instrument carried by the woman in front of me! The bayan, I’m learning, is a type of chromatic button accordion developed in Russia in the early 20th century.

“Going to night school allows me to transform my life,” says Guo. “I usually work until 10:30 pm everyday. Attending this school gives me an excuse to quit work early. I feel relaxed about doing something unrelated to my job.

Not sure that he will play the instrument for years, Guo rents a bayan, which costs him 200 yuan per month. He says he spends half an hour every night training at home.

“During those 30 minutes, I think of nothing but the music,” he explains. “It calms me down.”

Guo says he noticed that evening art school classes have become more and more popular with the public over time.

Evening courses for all artistic trends, from canvas to cooking

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Chef Zhong Jun teaches a mother of two how to make bunny-shaped dumplings.

In a cooking class, a 36-year-old woman surnamed Yin says the commute to and from school takes her over two hours, but every minute in class is worth it.

Mother of two, she is learning to make bunny-shaped dumplings tonight.

“There are a lot of recipes online for western desserts but few for dim sum,” she says. “In the last class, we made corn balls, which my kids took to school and proudly showed to their friends. It was their love of dim sum that motivated me to take this course.

Zhong Jun, a chef at a five-star hotel in the city, teaches the cooking class. Under his guidance, students prepare pumpkin-shaped dumplings, sticky rice dumplings with grated coconut, steamed pig-shaped buns, and scallion and red bean pancakes. Learning can be so delicious.

Zhong started the cooking class in 2017. Although the tuition fees are low by market standards, it is the love of cooking that drives him to teach here.

“It makes me very happy to teach others what I’m good for and gives me a sense of accomplishment,” Zhong says. “I love doing community volunteering. Before that, I volunteered at the Shanghai Sixth People’s Hospital for four years.

The cooking class takes place in a normal classroom. The 52-year-old chef says he would like to see it moved to a location with professional kitchen equipment.

His ideas and the long commute times for students like Yin are taken into consideration by school organizers when planning for the future.

According to Yang Lingzhi, principal of the school, there will be 10 relocated campuses by the fall, and more classes will be taught with professional facilities. Registration for the fall semester begins in August.

Registration information will be available on the Shanghai Mass Arts Center WeChat account.

Yang says she hopes more young and middle-aged people sign up.

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