© New York Times 09/26/03

ULANGYU, China — For decades, music — or more accurately, Western classical music — has defined this former colonial outpost, nicknamed Piano Island for its high concentration of pianos in private homes.

But in recent years, the island, with its fading European style architecture and quaint charms, has resembled a vintage metronome, unable to keep pace with a dynamic region that is more karaoke than classical.

Now, as part of an effort to recast the island's history in a kinder, more tourist-friendly light, the local government is upgrading dozens of historic buildings, almost all of them built before the Communist victory of 1949.

It is an ambitious yet delicate project, freighted with the political baggage of the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and of the island's first family of music, the Yins, who are helping in the renovation.

Led by the family patriarch, a wealthy banker, the Yins arrived here in the 1920's, blending into a privileged world nurtured by foreign powers that had pried open China's ports after the Opium War. By the turn of the 20th century, a dozen foreign consulates called this one-square-mile island home, offering legions of diplomats and wealthy overseas Chinese a tranquil and intimate retreat.

Because so many residents, the Yins included, were Christians, Gulangyu had at least half a dozen churches, each with its own piano. Music coursed through the leafy, winding lanes of Gulangyu, with families like the Yins holding informal recitals in luxurious villas sheathed in Mediterranean and Art Deco styles. Even today, cars and bicycles are not allowed here.

One of the women among the Yins was a soprano who released Christian recordings in the 1930's. A male Yin became a baritone singer who settled in Los Angeles in the 1980's. Yin Chengdian, a music teacher who showed a visitor around on a recent day, founded the Xiamen Music School in the early 1990's.

But the most famous Yin was Chengzong, one of China's most accomplished pianists, born here in 1941.

In May 1967, during the Cultural Revolution, as the Red Guards prepared to denounce him for essentially being politically incorrect, Mr. Yin rolled out a piano in the middle of Tiananmen Square. For three days, he played revolutionary odes to Mao.

"I think he played a heroic role in helping to save the piano from destruction," said Richard Kraus, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and the author of "Pianos and Politics in China," published in 1989.

"If you played the piano, it was prima facie evidence that you were contaminated by Western bourgeois culture. So by agreeing to harness the piano for the Cultural Revolution, Yin Chengzong was responsible more than any other artist to give everyone the signal to stop beating up on the pianists and the violinists."

Later, Mr. Yin helped to write the music for the "Yellow River Concerto," which became a staple of the Cultural Revolution, and remains popular today.

But he was criticized by some for seemingly cozying up to Communist leaders, and becoming a favorite of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. So when the political winds shifted with the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was persecuted and banned from playing for several years.

Eventually, he left China for the United States in 1983, settling in Manhattan, where he still lives today. Even now, he does not like to talk much about the past, saying that people should focus on music, not politics. But he has said that he was only trying to save the piano from destruction, and survive himself.

It was not until a few years ago that he made a bittersweet visit home. By then, the island had already changed from a place that had been ambivalent about its history to one that was trying desperately to restore it. The population had dwindled to about 17,000, with most young people moving to Xiamen, across the water in Fujian Province.

In part to bolster the restoration effort, Yin Chengzong has embarked on a concert tour of China that will run until November. "Gulangyu is now just an island for tourists, so they asked me to come back to help."

Some criticize the renovation as an attempt to restore his reputation and that of the family by fitting them into an economy that is turning Gulangyu into a theme park.

In the commercial heart of the island, near a ferry landing that some residents say is shaped like a piano, the sidewalks have been repaved with embossed music notes, Gulangyu's answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

A few years ago, Gulangyu opened a piano museum, the largest in the country. Within the last year or so, the government installed outdoor speakers around the island that now play everything from Ravel's "Bolero" to a classical version of the Beatles' "Yesterday."

Yin Chengdian, Chengzong's older brother, estimates that the restoration will affect up to 200 historic buildings, including the family residence. The goals, he said, include having regular piano master classes and small recitals.

He is convinced that classical music will never be scorned again in China.

"If you want to take it back, you can't, because it's what the people want," he said. And besides, he added, "we prefer to talk about the future. We don't like to talk about the past very much."

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