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Photo: David Sidoux

Shanghai's specialty music street

How to find a true masterpiece violin in Shanghai

It's only 5 a.m. when Shanghai's Fenyang Lu comes alive with music. Children in school uniforms drop in at one of the many piano and violin shophouses that line the street to practice, and most of them are so little that their feet dangle from the piano benches.

Shanghai, China's largest city, is known primarily as a financial hub. Frequent visitors know to go to Qipu Lu to shop for clothes or to Wujiang Lu for the city's best street food. But talk to any music lover, and they'll point you toward Fenyang Lu, where the sounds of Debussy and Mozart often flow melodiously from tiny hands intent on mastering complex chords.

Most Fenyang Lu storefronts are dimly lit and look large enough to fit only a couple pianos. But people who step inside and show some interest in the craftsmanship might be shown some real gems.

Most shop owners in Shanghai, which hosts 260 million tourists a year, reveal their best merchandise only to customers they deem worthy. Among treasures hidden behind Fenyang Lu storefronts: a $280,000 Camilli Camillus Italian violin built in 1740 and bows strung with the tail hair of black Mongolian stallions.

Visitors can see a wide variety of instruments in the football field-size showroom of one of Fenyang Lu's largest shops, Parson's Music, which sells everything from guitars and violas to percussion instruments and amplifiers. In the surrounding studios, students take classes and international music exams for all kinds of instruments.

Fenyang Lu is also home to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the oldest advanced conservatory in China, which has trained musicians such as Grammy Award-winning Muhai Tang, chief conductor of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, and cellist Jian Wang, who was featured in a documentary with legendary violinist Isaac Stern when he was just 10 years old.

Music aficionados and collectors will enjoy the street's smaller shops, where string instrument craftsmen, or luthiers, hawk their wares. Among them is Joseph Ding, a master luthier, who is just 38 years old. The Shanghai Conservatory of Music graduate has been making violins for more than 25 years, mostly for students of the conservatory. He sources for naturally aged spruce and maple from countries such as Italy and Switzerland, and applies his own handmade varnish to every creation.

Chinese-made violins are increasingly being recognized for their quality and sound. Many Chinese luthiers trained at the International Violin Making School in Cremona, Italy, then returned to their hometowns to teach their craft.

These luthiers can create replicas of the best French, German, and Italian violins, according to Jay Ifshin, founder of Ifshin Violins, which makes its prestigious Jay Haide line of string instruments in the South China city of Guangzhou, hometown of award-winning master luthier Haide Lin.

These craftsmen can sometimes even correct the European instruments' flaws and improve their designs, says Ifshin. And the lower cost of labor in China also allows for lower prices.

Fenyang Lu is located in the French Concession.