Shanghai Street View: Park Play

Performers at Luxun Park
Performers at Luxun Park

This week I paid personal visits on 2 of our city’s biggest parks, which have been in the news due to different controversies. I’ve come to expect such colorful controversies from China’s parks, which seem to act as a major ground for socializing. By comparison, in the west such parks are quieter places where people often go to relax and escape from fast-paced city life.

In the north end of the city, I visited Lu Xun Park, named for one of China’s greatest novelists of the 20th century. But what should have been a moment for celebration during the park’s recent reopening after a year-long renovation instead turned ugly, as 2 groups of retirees clashed over territorial claims in a popular area for performers.

Umbrellas advertising singles at People's Park
Umbrellas advertising singles at People’s ParkEarlier in the day I traveled to the city center to visit People’s Park, a more compact but still large green space built on the site of a former horse racing track from the colonial era. The park has become a favorite spot in recent years for middle aged parents, with many coming there each weekend to literally promote their single children in hopes of finding a suitable mate.

The controversy at People’s Park stemmed from a Chinese tendency to commercialize just about anything with crowd appeal and money-making potential. In this case, the park had transformed from its roots as a quaint, natural meeting ground for parents. Over the years, it had become a full-fledged marriage market complete with commercial matchmakers, leading the city to take the controversial step of banning all money-making enterprises from the area.

I’ve always been a bit dazzled at the big role parks seem to play in Chinese society, especially for older retirees who probably didn’t have too many recreational options when they were growing up in earlier decades. Many such parks still become a mini-cosmos of Chinese at play each day, featuring crowds of people playing cards and chess, dancing, singing karaoke and classical Chinese opera and performing on a wide range of instruments.

By comparison, parks in the US are green places for people to relax in the middle of the crowded urban landscape, and are seldom very crowded. Many are simply big, open spaces without too many decorations, vendors or other fixtures, and individual families often come just to walk about, feed the ducks and fish in the ponds and sometimes to find a quiet spot for a picnic.

Weekends are a particularly busy time in China’s parks since everyone is off work, and the elimination of entrance fees has made the crowds even worse. Such was the situation when I visited both People’s Park and Luxun Park, which were both teaming with people on the Saturday I made my trip.

I often bring visiting friends to People’s Park on weekends just to see the unusual matchmaking scene, and have watched the park’s rapid commercialization in recent years. What was once a quaint meeting point for people to exchange information about their kids and chat became a far less attractive money-making ground, as professionals moved in and set up booths featuring long, typed lists and photos of young singles in need of mates.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I visited the park and found it had been cleansed of those matchmakers, and returned to the middle-aged parents anxiously looking for mates for their kids. Gone were the ugly booths, replaced by a quieter display of opened umbrellas lining the park’s pathways, each pinned with a page carrying all the vital statistics for a different youngster.

Of course, if it were up to me, I would tell all of those worried parents to mind their own business and let their kids manage their own private lives. At the very least, I would make each parent get his or her child’s written permission before coming to the park to search for mates. But that’s just my view as a foreigner.

Next I traveled a few kilometers north to Hongkou District, where the crowds were equally heavy at the newly reopened Luxun Park. It seems that Hongkou district officials were planning a grand gala event after the park’s major overhaul, only to see all the media drawn to a territorial scuffle between 2 groups of retirees over a popular performance area.

I saw some images of the scuffle, which were quite entertaining though also a little strange and even slightly surreal. There weren’t any conflicts during my visit, though I did count at least a dozen groups of performers doing everything from playing classical opera to partaking in more modern entertainment like ballroom dancing and karaoke singing. I also learned a new word, qinjing, which was written on the armbands of the numerous gray-clad police patrolling the area, and which roughly translates to “hard working officers”.

At the end of the day, I didn’t really find either of these 2 visits very relaxing. Most bothersome were the crowds, but I was also bothered by how serious many of the visitors were, some in their performances and others in their quest to find mates for their children. But then again, I’m clearly not the target audience for these parks, and suspect they will retain their crowded, slightly business-like nature for at least the next few decades.

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