Helping to Shape the Violin Business in China from the Ground Up October 2006

We are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Saga’s introduction of Cremona Violins to the Domestic and International Markets. Saga was the first American Company to import musical instruments directly from Mainland China in the Post-War era. Join me in the early 1980s as we bump against walls in old Shanghai.

The major problem that I encountered in China came from the economic system itself. 30 years of Socialism had taught most people that hard work just brought more hard work with no increase in pay or position. So I tried to find people who just like to work for the fun of it! In the Shanghai Export Corporation I was able to find one of those “misguided” people.

Her name was Li Yi and she was arecent graduate of the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute. Besides being trained for business she was the daughter of a concert violinist and played herself. She spoke English well, and as a beginner in the business had a fresh outlook. She was as excited as I was about the prospects of doing business together. So, while other companies were having their telex inquires discretely filed in the trash basket by sales staff members who could barely stay awake at their desk, Li Yi and I began changing the face of the music business in China. We began by visiting factories in the rural areas surrounding Shanghai. We went to the then no-man’s land north of the Yangtze River where violin sub-factories had sprung up during the glory days of the Cultural Revolution when factory workers from Shanghai were deported to the boondocks to get back to their roots (literally) with some hard backbreaking farm work to increase their revolutionary zeal. Visits that now take just a few hours took ten hours travel in each direction on bone-jarring roads. The currency of China during those days was not convertible in international money markets so it was impossible for factories to import anything. Ebony fittings, quality bridges, good strings were not available and so we bridged the gap. We supplied bridges from Germany, strings from Italy and ebony from Madagascar.

Cremona Violins began to be taken seriously as a viable alternative to higher priced instruments from Germany, Eastern Europe and Japan. One morning at the office in San Francisco, I received a phone call from Li Yi in China. It was 1:00 AM over there and she was just arriving home from a visit to our factory on the other side of the Yangtze. On the return trip her bus had plunged into a ditch and hit a tree but she was okay—and just wanted to let me know that she was doing her job well. She sure was!

Richard Keldsen
San Francisco
October, 2006