Hello Shanghai, whose modern skyline has now become a cliche for China’s fast-paced development. Its streets are filled with cars and the new generation of Chinese, busy on mobile phones and shopping for designer labels. Its parks, however, reveal another, more human scale to the world’s largest city, from parents looking for a marriage partner for their children, to pensioners practising t’ai chi.
“I’ve been coming for two months, but it is all in vain,” says a woman at the wedding market that takes over part of Shanghai’s People’s Park every weekend afternoon. Crowds mill around scanning fluttering posters that advertise the ages, heights, weights, education and salary of thousands of young men and women looking to find love. Oddly enough, almost none have photographs but the strangest thing to foreign eyes is the fact that most of the people here, including the woman lamenting her lack of success, are actually parents. She is trying to find a wife for her 35-year-old son and has arranged two meetings with single women but he didn’t like either of them. “He works hard,” says the mother. “He just doesn’t have enough time. Young people are just too busy nowadays.”
Few things illustrate the speed of societal and economic change in China like this market. The new generation of 20 and 30-something Shanghainese have grown up in a modern city, taking advantage of the opportunities in the new China. Their parents, in contrast, spent their working years in a very different world, and often do not understand the values and aspirations of their offspring who wear suits, work in offices and even study abroad.
Traditional Chinese values dictate that children provide and care for their parents in their old age. Parents seeing that their 20-something child – China’s one-child policy means it is usually only one – has not yet married and bought an apartment start to worry about the future and take matters into their own hands. It is not purely selfish. They are also worrying about who would look after their children in old age if they have no children of their own. However, ask young people what they think of being featured in the market and their first reaction is embarrassment.
The clash of new and old, east and west that comes to a head here can be seen all over the city’s parks in their structure, style and use, with modern and western landscaping mixing with traditional designs. Visit its parks, and you begin to understand Shanghai.
I find a young couple arguing
When I tell people about my favorite park in Shanghai, no one has ever heard of it. That may be part of the fun. North Sichuan Road Park is small but, in keeping with traditional Chinese gardening techniques, it packs many different scenes and experiences into a tiny area. Climbing the steep rocky steps at the back entrance, I wind up in the bamboo forest area which screens out the high-rise offices and stories of the busy commercial district outside.
Turning a corner, I come across two older men sitting on at a small table playing Chinese chess. They drink strong green tea from glass flasks and their faces are tense with concentration. Around the next turn I find a young couple arguing. With a very short skirt and high-heeled shoes, she looks dressed for a night on the town, not a lazy Saturday afternoon in the park. She sits crying loudly on the steps, as her boyfriend stands nearby, attempting to explain himself.
I had intended to climb the steps but, deterred by the crying girl and the mournful cries of a stray cat, I veer away, out of the bamboo forest into an open high walk. People sleep, backpacks under their heads on benches under the trees as I pass an elderly exerciser, walking backwards and clapping his hands, followed by a woman in her pyjamas walking a little dog while talking on a cell phone. This high path curves around the man-made lake at the center of the park, constructed with commercial units around it, none of which have yet been finished or filled. Children sit by the water with small nets, lunging for the fish that live in its shallows, while an elderly couple, their eyes sparkling with joy, bounce their infant grandchild on their knee.
One of my favorite things about this park is that it does not close at night. After dark falls, friends meet on the island in the center of the lake to drink beer and a group of dancers twirl to loud music on the wide plaza, attracting street sellers hawking cold drinks, fresh melon and cheap jewellery. The central water garden area reflects the bright lights of the city as well as the fairy lights that sparkling on the paths around. Visiting the park is not just one experience, but many; the park is not a space, but a canvas on which the life of the city and its inhabitants plays out. But it has not always been so here.
No dogs or Chinese allowed
“The concept of a public park, where common people can go for relaxation and recreation, is purely Western and modern,” says urban history scholar Shi Mingzheng of New York University – Shanghai. Traditional Chinese gardens are private and meticulously designed, intended to provide controlled views that mimic natural landscapes. So when the French, British and Americans arrived in Shanghai in the mid-1850s, they set about creating western-style public parks and gardens according to their different tastes. The Chinese were banned from many of Shanghai’s first public parks, set in the foreign concessions. According to a popular legend, a sign at the entrance to the city’s first public garden, Huangpu Park, read: “No dogs or Chinese allowed.”
Things are very different today. Little remains of the leafy Huangpu Park, with its pavilion and tennis court. An austere, grey Monument to the People’s Heroes rises at the junction of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek on the park’s grounds and retired Chinese gather for their morning exercises nearby. The area has been reclaimed and remodeled, Chinese-style, and, although Shanghai’s original public garden now looks dull, the city is blessed with a huge number of other parks, large and small, teeming with life.
“If you look at a map of Shanghai, it’s all parks,” says 80-year-old Song Jinshan, who arrived in Shanghai at the age of 14. Most of the parks in Shanghai today were created by the Maoist Government during the 1950s. Their communal concept is best demonstrated in the public exercise equipment found in almost all parks as well as other public areas such as apartment complex gardens. These brightly colored devices resemble a toned-down version of gym equipment (without any attached weights). For some, their use is obvious, like the elliptical machine, pull-up bars or seated chairs designed to stretch one’s back, but even the Chinese people I talk to are unsure as to the proper use of other pieces. Luckily, instructions are often available in Chinese and sometimes even in English.
This equipment is mostly intended for the elderly, but in reality people of all ages take a turn (I am particularly partial to the back scratchers). You see children swinging their legs far too fast on the “moon walkers” or young adults spinning around on the “hip twisters,” next to the elderly woman who earnestly pulls on hanging ropes to exercise her arms, counting repetitions under her breath.
This is an act of charity by the government
“Normally it is older people who use this equipment since they have more time,” says Zhang Suchuan, 30, a native of neighboring Jiangsu Province. “Young people prefer to use gyms where there is air conditioning and showers. Young people have a different idea of consumerism than older people; they would prefer to pay for better services. I don’t normally come here. I was just walking by and stopped to use the elliptical and wiggle-waist-walking machine.” “This is an act of charity by the government,” Zhang continues. “Elderly people have contributed the most to the country, so the government builds parks for them to exercise, rest, talk and relax.”
One of the things that makes park life here so exciting is the difference between Chinese and Western concepts of public space and public decorum. In a city of 23 million people, with a culture and traditional living style that places strong emphasis on community and family, Shanghai’s residents live much of their lives in the open without caring who might be watching. On the flip side, the Chinese are a curious people, with no qualms about staring or stopping to watch something that interests them. While I could not imagine a crowd gathering to watch me practice a flute (if I played one) or doing my morning yoga session, the Chinese don’t care if their activities attract an audience. In fact, they seem to enjoy the attention.
Traditional concepts of living space and community in the city are what make Shanghai’s parks so vibrant, says Zheng Qijun. “For older people in Shanghai, the environment they grew up in was very close together. In the small lane houses of the city, the conditions inside are not so good, especially in the summer when it is really hot. People just take a chair and go sit outside and talk with their neighbors, so there is a really strong sense of community.
“Now a lot of people have moved into high-rise apartments, but there are no public spaces there and those who live there, especially the retired people, sometimes get very lonely. These buildings don’t have common spaces like the lane houses did. So local parks now serve this function. They are a place for the local community to meet.”
It makes you strengthen yourself
This sense of parks as a meeting space makes them a rewarding experience for visitors and locals alike. Soon after sunrise, people begin to gather in parks across the city for their morning exercise. T’ai chi and other holistic approaches to exercise and health are an integral part of Chinese culture. Although, the t’ai chi in Shanghai’s Parks, influenced by the age of participants, tends towards slower movements, more active variations involving swords or sparring with a partner using the ‘pushing hands’ technique are also seen.
“T’ai chi is part of the Chinese culture of exercise with 400 years of history,” says 70-year-old Yi Jidao after finishing his two-hour morning practice session with a group in Xuhui Park. “Many exercises need strength but t’ai chi is soft. It makes you strengthen yourself, it makes you think, and it helps balance your qi (life force).
Eighty-year-old Song Jinshan spent his days playing cards and mahjong in the parks with other retirees until his doctor recommended he take up t’ai chi. That was over a year ago and he is now at Tianshan Park every morning before 7am for a class. “My knees feel better, my body feels better, I started sleeping better and my digestion is better,” Song says. Despite his happiness with this new lifestyle, Song says he sometimes misses the fun of playing mahjong all day with his friends in the park.
Huaihai Park, while close to the city centre, maintains a highly local feel. Locals chat, knit and read newspapers on every available park bench and every table is taken by card players with large groups gathering round to watch the action. Daguailuzi, a type of poker played with two teams of three people, is the most popular game in the park. The participants and onlookers are engrossed in the game but my simple questions turn into long discussions between them all, with jokes and exaggerations played for laughs. “Women cheat the most,” shouts one man. “The one in the red hat is the worst cheater,” counters the only woman at the table.
This is a unique thing in Chinese society
“It is mostly retired people who come here to play,” starts one man, genuinely enough. “No, it’s not,” breaks in another. “Look at the guy over there, he is 20 and comes here every day. And this one here, how old do you think he is?”
“This is a unique thing in Chinese society,” says a man across the table, taking a second to look up from his hand of cards. “We eat well and we don’t have anything to do, so we come play cards.” That comment draws a lot of laughs and then the game begins again.
Shanghai’s parks provide the structures and spaces that form the backbone of the daily life and social interactions of many locals. Of course, plenty of young people come too. I met my boyfriend playing Frisbee in the park. Young mother Zhai Jiajia brings her infant son so he can play. “I started coming when I was pregnant,” Zhai said. “The air is better here and it is nice and green. My mood feels better, I am more relaxed and it is good for the baby…. It is good to come talk to the other mothers and babies, it lifts your spirits.”
Traditional Chinese gardens aim to recreate the natural world in miniature, with artificial ponds, sculpted rock formations, and distinct areas dedicated to different types of landscape and plants, such as bamboo forest, mountains or grassland. Yuyuan, dating from the Ming Dynasty and now surrounded by an extensive tourist market, is Shanghai’s best example. Just getting to the park is an experience, since a prospective visitor must successfully navigate the circuitous streets of the encompassing bazaar without losing their way, or falling prey to tourist trinkets or Shanghai’s tasty snacks.
They fence off the lakes
Once inside the garden, the winding paths, wooden pavilions and teahouses, although beautiful, are often overcrowded, ruining the serenity and scripted views that traditional Chinese gardens are designed to provide. Visitors should head for the gardens of nearby Suzhou to better experience a true classical garden.
However, these classical concepts, with distinct areas, winding lanes and unfolding scripted views are reproduced in many of Shanghai’s city parks. This nature, while beautiful to walk through, leaves some locals wanting more. “I wish there were more things to interact with but that’s the Chinese way,” says Liu Xiao. “They fence off the lakes and you can only sit on the benches. If there is a lake, you cannot swim and if there are fish, you aren’t allowed to catch them.”
Larger parks, such as Zhongshan Park and Pudong’s Century Park, now have expansive lawns where visitors fly kites, picnic or play sports, and many city parks are now built with basketball and tennis courts next to the traditional exercise equipment. Parks also expand past Western traditions with fairground rides, roller rinks, horse riding, pleasure boats and zip lines. Xuhui Park, opened in 2001, recreates in miniature the city of Shanghai, with a meandering Huangpu River and massive elevated walkway that mimics the city’s major east-west thoroughfare Yanan Road.
With such diversity, Shanghai’s Parks provide a welcome break from the hectic and often impersonal nature of the gigantic city. “I’ve lived here all my life,” says Zhu Weiyi, 57, “The parks just keep getting prettier and prettier.”