Now that I have seen Renmin Park, and now that I know that Martin was doing taiji there up to the minute he had to leave for the airport to return to the States two years ago, it makes more sense to me that he said it was the hardest thing he had ever done.
Renmin Park (People’s Park in English) is simply an amazing place. I was watching some people dancing in the main plaza one afternoon and bopping to the beat of the recorded music, when a man came up behind me with a calligraphy brush and bucket of water (the ink of choice for drawing on the pavement in public parks). He tapped me on the shoulder and wrote FUN! I gave him a thumb’s-up sign, and we both grinned.
Renmin Park is indeed fun. All sorts of things, planned and unplanned, take place there from early in the morning through the afternoon and on into the evening, when it’s illuminated by the elaborate lighting displays on surrounding high-rise buildings. The park is 60-some acres in size. Its large central plaza is surrounding by a ring of smaller spaces defined by walkways and gardens. There’s also a smaller plaza, a lake upon which one can boat, a children’s amusement park, a koi pond, and kiosks with food, books and souvenirs.
And, unlike some of Beijing’s large, lovely parks, Renmin Park is free. You can walk in, see what’s going on, participate if there’s something that catches your fancy, and walk out.
A day in the life of Renmin Park
Martin, Xiao Zhou and I would be at the park by 7:30 every morning, when park workers would already have begun sweeping and badminton players would be batting shuttlecocks back and forth. Mornings, from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., taiji would hold sway on one side of the central plaza and in the smaller areas behind it.
As the day progressed, park activity would become more diverse. One morning an art exhibit was set up in the central plaza; another morning, a Saturday, there was a large, government-sponsored event celebrating marriage and honoring a dozen or so couples who had been married more than 50 years. But routinely, there were many smaller activities to watch or join in on.
Chengdu seems to be home to a multitude of performance groups comprising female dancers who wear ethnic costumes, vocal soloists, and musicians who play brass instruments. Every afternoon when the weather is good—and it was good every day I was there—a half dozen or more of these groups perform. From the looks of the participants, I’d say the groups are recreational outlets for people who’ve retired at 55 but still have plenty of energy. You could wander about and watch for free, although I think you’d be asked to pay a small amount if you wanted to sit on one of the plastic stools many of the groups set out.
In a participatory vein, I saw partner dancing, solo Viennese waltzing, line dancing and something approaching dance aerobics. Groups could be five people or 50, but each would have a leader or two—and a little black plastic music player. Some of the larger groups clearly met on a regular basis, judging from how complicated the steps were and how many people could do them.
In between and around the dance groups there would be sketch artists, karaoke carts, mop-brush-and-water calligraphers, men playing cards or Chinese chess (always with more men watching than playing)—and regular park performers like the cheerful spiky-haired 80-year-old who would roll up his undershirt, clench the muscles of his abdomen and invite people to punch him in the stomach.
Weekends were busiest, with more people of all ages but especially young families, who were drawn to the large children’s amusement park, where rides were 6 to 15 Yuan ($.95 to $2.37).
Baby pee and playing the personals
On the subject of children, specifically babies and toddlers: Disposable diapers do not appear to be big in China. (Small wonder, given what they cost.) Many babies wear garments split at the crotch, with nothing but their private parts underneath, occasionally peeking out. I’m not quite sure how this works, but I guess if the baby screws up its little face in a tell-tale way, the parent just sort of holds it out over whatever surface is least likely to take offense. At Renmin Park, I did see a couple of parents pull down their toddler’s pants so the toddler could pee right then and there—one into a drain, the other near the edge of a sidewalk.
The plazas and smaller open spaces at Renmin Park could be pretty densely peopled. But inch for inch, the most activity I saw anywhere was on a weekday, along a curving stretch of sidewalk. I’d noticed a crowd of people and went to see what they were doing—and what they were doing was reading the postings of people looking for either dates or mates.
These personals ads—hundreds of them—were handwritten or typed on sheets of white paper which were then clipped to the shrubbery or attached to a stick that was poked in the ground along one side of the sidewalk. Some of ads had been laminated; a few were accompanied by photographs. I couldn’t read any of the ads, but I knew what they were because Martin had shown me a picture he’d taken of one of them. I’d just had no idea there’d be so many.
The benches along the opposite side of the sidewalk from the personals display were all occupied, which was part of the reason traffic moved so slowly. I couldn’t tell if the people sitting there were contemplating ads they had read and resting up to read more, or if they had posted ads and wanted to see who might be reading them. An elderly man sitting on one of the benches had hung a large, hand-written notice with a picture of an apartment building around his neck—an ad, I assumed, for himself.
Because it was a weekday afternoon, most of the people on the sidewalk, whether reading or sitting, were middle-aged or beyond. Were they mate-shopping for themselves or for their too-busy-to-date daughters and sons? I have no idea. But there was an intensity about them that suggested they weren’t just looky-loo tourists like me.
Why Renmin Park rocks
Several times while I was in Chengdu, Martin asked me if I knew of any park in the Seattle area that’s as alive as Renmin Park. I had to say no, except possibly for the Seattle Center when there’s a major festival going on. I’m not sure why this is. One reason could be the official Chinese retirement age of 55 or 60, which frees up a lot of still vigorous people for taiji and ethnic dancing.
But here’s another possible reason: Yards. In America, lots of people have yards; in China, most people don’t. Unless they’re quite wealthy, residents of Chinese cities live in apartment buildings. If the weather is nice and they want to get out of the house, they go to a park—and there’s no mowing, weeding, watering or raking they should be doing instead.
Now that I am back home, I am thinking of selling my house….