Yangpu Park

This is the seventeenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a park I used to walk in daily.

Yangpu District (杨浦区), a concrete suburbia balanced on silt in Shanghai, sustains a vast swathe of people. It is a large urban area by
any standard, clocking in at sixty square kilometres, and as a result of a population density over six times higher than the Australian city of Melbourne, it has a population in the territory of millions.

In 2010 this inner-fringe corner of Shanghai had 1.24 million residents to be exact, all spread throughout hundreds of apartment buildings built up along the west bank of the Huang Pu river, four kilometres north of the famous Bund heritage area of Shanghai.

The name Yangpu means poplar bank, giving rise to a very different time in China’s history, evoking images of clean rivers, blue skies, and branches rustling in the wind, whispering serenity. The average visitor to urban Yangpu would be hard-pressed to feel the name justified, however, as very few poplars are in sight and the riverbank is dominated by industry.

What Yangpu lacked in serenity it makes up for in factories, firmly entrenched in the eastern and southern quarters, heaving rocks and spewing waste about the place; production, production, production, fueling the latest addition to the suburb – the Shanghai shopping malls; gleeful, shining-bright kingdoms of consumer chaos.

But when I lived in Yangpu, there was a place where one could go to attempt escape from the relentless rush, from constantly inhaling fumes, from the congested crowds of pedestrians. It was a place that gives a million people the chance to achieve that old elusive serenity, to reflect on poplar trees, golden banks, on what has been and could
be again. Smack bang in the centre of Yangpu district, hemmed in by concrete walls, iron gates and steady traffic, lies the Yangpu Park.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but venture within the arched gateway and you will find yourself in a surprisingly huge, tightly manicured, twenty-two hectare green space. The Shanghai Municipal Government published an English manifesto listing the qualities of the park in the early 2000s:

Originally built in 1957, Yangpu Park has been renovated three times, most recently in 2008, and offers a wonderful interactive experience with abundant wildlife. The Yuhu lake is at the park’s heart and is completed by exquisite pavilions, corridors, bridges and ornamental buildings, among other forms of garden architecture and botanic attractions in different sections. The rock garden and waterfall near the main entrance hold special appeal, the fragrant pond of water lilies and the fish pond by the waterside promenade offer amazing views. The botanic zone boasts a complete and juxtaposed collection of vegetation featuring the four seasons and the fitness centre provides a wonderful, highly integrated functional space for recreation, sports and entertainment.

Although delightfully hyperbolic, as most English government prose in China is, the manifesto is a decent summary of what the park offers Yangpu residents. There are huge lakes, meandering streams, arched bridges, traditional pavilions, open green spaces, a rose garden, an outdoor public gym, a chi ldren’s play area and more. The approach is strikingly artificial, with a strong human influence exhibited by the standard asphalt paths, colour-coded flowerbeds, carefully shaped hedges, and in one corner of the park, a roller-coaster and tennis courts.

At the main entrance is a brilliantly awkward presentation of the park rules in English.

Pursuant to the regulations of Shanghai Municipality Administration of Public Parks, visitors are advised to observe that ethic and moral codes should be duly honoured:

  • Visitors are expected not to urinate or shit, post advertisements or posters, write or carve around in the park, expose one’s top, lie about, wash or air clothes.
  • Scavenging or begging from others is unallowable; climbing artificial hills is objectionable, ball games and kite-flying are impermissible unless in a designated area.
  • Visitors are not supposed to tease, scare or capture birds, crickets, fish or shrimp, or cicada (except for commercial purposes).
  • The visitor to the park should discipline himself instead of making himself a nuisance to others; any group activity in the park shall be subject to the administration of the relevant department of the park; public speech or public meeting of any nature is inexpedient.
  • Activities of feudalistic and superstitious nature and gambling are prohibited; peddling about, practicing medicine or distribution of propaganda sheets is not allowed.

Walking through the park reveals an enormous number of people recharging away from the hostile city, many in blatant disregard of
the above rules (though thankfully rarely the first one). People stroll aimlessly, people stroll with great aim, people sit, people stand. By the rivers and streams sit solitary men, seated on plastic stools with fishing rods in the water. They don’t read, they don’t listen to music and they certainly don’t talk to other people. They simply stare at the water and concentrate on fishing.

I once asked an elderly fisherman if he had caught any fish that day. He slowly moved his head, stared at me for ten seconds like I just didn’t get it and then said no. Conversation over. Representative of solitary fishermen everywhere, perhaps.

Spread throughout the park are groups of people gathered around card tables playing Chinese poker. These are the stragglers, the not-so-serious players, for everyone knows there is only one corner of the park where the real action is at. Tucked away by a pond, and a decent walk from both entrances, is a concrete and cobble-stoned space that teems with enthusiastic gamblers. At any one time there will be upwards of a hundred people playing poker, exchanging their hard-earned yuan among each other. It is not uncommon to see twenty onlookers for a game with four participants as local reputations are solidified and liquefied, relationships are tested, and (some) people achieve their own form of $erenity.

By the banks of the lake stand the saxophonists, the flutists and the brass bands. It is common practice to claim a lake-side space by nailing a music sheet to the trunk of a tree, then unloading your instrument of choice and letting loose with no inhibitions. Music notes of all flavours float across the Yuhu lake, meeting and mixing in the middle to form a mighty confusing medley. The only people who hear the performers from this vantage point are the boaters, usually young families, plying the green water in plastic rentals. They lounge around the centre of the lake in between tackling the narrower canals, where they regularly bump into each other causing merriment for all – unless you fall into the murky green depths. Then you go to the hospital.

People come to the park to fly kites, feed the pigeons, perform tai chi and sing karaoke. Portable karaoke amplifiers can appear at any pavilion or lawn and it doesn’t take long for a crowd of admirers to applaud participants – and then join in with their own takes on the classics. Towards sunset the park brings its sound-scape into its own hands, playing traditional, if slightly repetitive, instrumental songs over a park-wide speaker system. At the same time every night, the park empties itself out to the same eerie tune, set on merciless repeat.

As the residents of Yangpu finish their serene sojourns through the gardens, other creatures begin their own. Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Yangpu park is that it is habitat to a burgeoning population of feral cats … and they all come out at night (… mostly). Tabbies, gingers, big fellas, little kitties, all ranges of cats prowl the park after dark, on the hunt for rodents, fish and left-over picnic tucker.

Clearly only a couple of generations away from domesticity yet still entirely freaky, strolling out of the park at dusk with all the other humans gives one the feeling of being part of a defeated army abandoning an outpost. At every turn the cats watch from the shadows, licking their lips, waiting for their chance … perhaps wondering about the taste of a different kind of flesh … God forbid an abandoned toddler estranged from its parents, wandering the paths in twilight … But I digress.

Yangpu park. For a time it was my local. A strange place, but a beautiful one in its own way, and I am still very fond of it, and for what it gave to me. Serenity now.