Zhuhai Opera rises out of the sea

21 February 2014

Rising out of an island in Zhuhai is a giant shell that will become a new landmark of the city – its Opera House.

It is one of the four cultural projects under construction, involving a total expenditure of more than two billion yuan. They represent the largest investment in this sector since the city was established as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in 1980. In addition to the Opera House are the Zhuhai Museum, the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall and the Cultural Centre.

“The four buildings will be of great significance in improving the culture and soft power of Zhuhai,” said Lei Yulan, vice-governor of Guandong province, at the laying of the foundation stone of the Opera House in May 2010.

The opening of a new bridge from Hong Kong and Macao to Zhuhai in 2016 will lead to an increase in the city’s population and improve access to and from the two SARs. To meet this challenge, the city wants to improve its tourist facilities and cultural environment.

Tourism is one of the city’s most important sources of revenue. In 2011, it received 45.2 million visitors, an increase of 0.7 percent over 2010, of whom 709,300 were foreigners, 3.8 million from Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan and the rest from the mainland. The average occupancy of the city’s hotels was 60.2 percent.

Of the mainlanders, 56 percent stayed overnight: of the non-mainlanders, the figure was 84 percent. Of the mainlanders, many spend their money in the casinos, restaurants and shops of Macao during the daytime and only sleep in Zhuhai.

One objective of the four projects is to persuade visitors to stay longer and enjoy the new museums. They also aim to attract a new kind of clientele, interested in the performances and facilities. The city government believes that, after three decades as a SEZ, it is time to upgrade Zhuhai to a higher level.

Inspired by shells

Of the four projects, the opera house is the largest and most ambitious. It involves an investment of 1.718 billion yuan on 50,000 square metres of reclaimed land on Yeli island, opposite the main seafront of the city.

The design is of two shells – one large one at 90 metres high and one small, at 60 metres high.

It will have a concert hall with 1,550 seats, plus a lobby, an auditorium and a stage; this will host large-scale performances, such as symphonies, chamber music, opera, ballet, musicals and theatre. There will be a small theatre with 500 seats, for smaller artistic events as well as fashion shows, art promotions and corporate meetings. It will have state-of-the-art acoustics and stage technical design.

Above the concert hall, there will also be a floor for sightseeing, a bar and restaurant, and fashion events.

In October 2013, a spokesman for the Zhuhai Urban Construction Group, which is responsible for the construction, said the work was going smoothly and half the structure had been completed. The large shell is in the last phase of work and the structure of the small shell was finished at the end of October.

Already it is a striking sight, the large shell rising out of the sea on an island that faces the main waterfront. In the future, it will become a landmark of the city like the Opera House in Sydney, a place for tourists to visit and photograph as well as a venue for performances.

Winning bid

A total of 33 international firms took part in international bidding for the opera house, including those who designed the Bird’s Nest, the Water Cube and the National Grand Theatre in Beijing. After the first round, the list was narrowed down to nine and, after the second round, three were chosen for the final selection.

The winner, with the design of the two shells, is the CR Institute of Architecture and Urban Design of Hong Kong, the China Urban Design Research Centre (CUDRC) of Beijing University and the Shenzhen branch of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design.

“This is the first time that a Chinese firm has won a contest involving international bids,” said Professor Chen Keshi, director of the CUDRC and head of the 30-member design team. “We won for three reasons – our creative and artistic input and our connection to the place.

“The design was inspired by a student working with us who is now in the UK. He saw the Asia Moon scallop, which is found in the Pearl River Delta, with pearls inside. I saw it and thought it was a beautiful design. It is a simple structure, with one large and one small shell; one will enclose the big theatre and the other the small one,” he said.

The Asia Moon scallop, or amusium pleuronectes in Latin, is found in the South China Sea, many coastal areas of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.

The design has exterior walls made of glass, which will glisten in the sun during the day. The interior will be decorated with indigenous scallops.

The site on Yeli island was initially to be used as classrooms for the Central College of Music but the institution gave up the plan. The design team and the Zhuhai government together chose the site. “This is a reclamation area and does not present an engineering problem,” said Chen.

“The Opera House will be a landmark. It will be one of several new buildings, including a library and exhibition centre. The party committee of Zhuhai believes that, after 30 years of reform, they must improve the cultural facilities.

“The new bridge will improve links to Hong Kong and Macao and lead to an increase in population. Alongside the opera house, there will be a yacht club nearby and the exhibition centre. All these will improve the city’s tourism.”

In mid-November, the city organised a visit for representatives from the education and cultural sectors to the site to see how the work is progressing. The work is on schedule for the facility to open at the end of 2015; most of the investment will be spent during the current financial year, on the external structure of the building.

The large shell, rising nearly 100 metres into the air on the edge of the island, has already become a tourist attraction.

Losing money

The Opera House is unlikely to make a profit. Zhuhai has a resident population of 1.57 million and only a small percentage of them will be able to afford the tickets for the events that will be staged there. Cinemas are fighting hard to attract clients, against the enormous variety of entertainment available on personal computers, iPads and other electronic devices, which people tailor to their own specification.

The Opera House will aim to attract visitors from Hong Kong, Macao, Guangzhou and other cities in Guangdong, as well as some of the millions who visit the SEZ every year.

The province is already well served with spacious opera houses, including in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan, as well as many performance venues in Hong Kong. Some residents believe that the government should not build the project and instead spend the money on projects for the poor and the old.

“This is a project of pride, to enable Zhuhai to compete with other cities in Guangdong,” said Liang Ming, a shop assistant. “Few citizens will have the money or interest to buy the expensive tickets for the performances there. It will certainly lose money.”

Professor Chen said: “All the opera houses in China lose money and receive subsidies from the government. If they break even, that is good.”

Garden Museum

Opposite the opera hall, in the corner of a park overlooking the Pearl River, two of the other three buildings are under construction – the Zhuhai Museum and the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. They will be connected by a central entrance hall. Construction of the two is proceeding rapidly; visitors to the roof of both will have a commanding view of the river on the one side and a spacious park on the other.

The museum will have a built-up area of 20,000 square metres. Construction of the two structures is proceeding rapidly.

The museum will replace an existing one that was built in 1984 in the Jida district in downtown Zhuhai. It has a construction area of 8,000 square metres on two floors, on an area of 15,000 square metres. It is one of the few garden museums in China.

It is working hard to increase and improve its collection. The modern city of Zhuhai was founded only in 1980, with the creation of the SEZ. That means that it does not have the wealth of historical items found in most cities of China with a history of hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

In October, a collector named Ye Ruihui donated three ancient pieces of porcelain, from the Han, Northern Sung and Southern Sung dynasties. This followed an earlier donation of 20 precious pieces in accordance with the wishes of his father.

“I wish to make this donation as the new museum is nearing completion,” said Ye. “I hope that other collectors will also donate to the new museum, to enrich the cultural life of Zhuhai.”

The museum hopes that the new building, larger and with better facilities than the existing one, will inspire other collectors like Ye.

Cultural Centre

The Zhuhai Cultural Centre will be located east of the Gongbei primary school on Lianan Road, in the shape of a harp.

It will cover more than 16,000 square metres of built-up area, including a cultural square, performance area, 780-seat rehearsal hall, professional chorus and dance halls, piano practice rooms, sound studio and cinema.

It will provide professional rehearsal halls for institutions, business, communities and schools, and hold exhibitions, shows, readings, video projections and lectures. (macauhub/ By Luo Xunzhi and Frank Xie in Zhuhai)

Plans and designs by courtesy of CR Institute of Architecture and Urban Design of Hong Kong, the China Urban Design Research Centre of Beijing University and the Shenzhen branch of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design.