Tag Archives: china

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.

An Old Man Who Used To Dance

This is the twelfth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about moving to Shanghai in 2010.

These memoir posts have been largely chronological thus far, but today I’m skipping ahead from 2008 to 2010.  I had just finished my undergraduate Creative Arts degree and moved to Shanghai, China with a vague plan to travel, learn some Chinese and do some writing.  My creative output wasn’t too prolific in the end, but I did manage to see a decent amount of the country and in retrospect it was another formative period.

Anyone who has spent an amount of time living in China feels like it was special; and it always is, for the country changes so fast.  I think tier-one cities are beginning to plateau a little, but the Shanghai of 2010 was markedly different to the Shanghai of 2016, let alone 2000.

My partner and I had arrived via long-haul train and spent our first few days in the city arranging an apartment to live in.  We wanted to live close to Fudan University, but away from the foreigner-laden neighbourhood in its immediate vicinity.  Researching online was a fatiguing experience, for there was a ceaseless gush of expats chronicling real estate misadventures but very little concrete advice.  In the end we got lucky, walking into a random real estate agent in an area we liked and going from there.  I tried my hand at poetry soon after:

research to rent
rights responsibilities the dotted line
anjuke haozu you

incessant whinging expats
endless vendetta on home furnishings
concrete chaos danger don’t screw your fen
adopt an iron smile screw your head on straight

researched to rent
man from anhui woman from henan
friends migrants tingbudong tingbudong

electric bicycles blood glass buhao
deny access! apartments wrong shiny kitchen
time smiles handshakes decisions
iron smile head screwed on straight

After a few truly awful inspections (including as alluded to above, one place with smashed glass and blood everywhere on the floor of the kitchen), we ended up in an old, twelve-storey apartment building on the seventh floor.  We were the first foreigners to live there.  The elevator was scary.  But the people were friendly.  There was a park around the corner, the University was two kilometres away and we had a subway station.  After signing the lease and taking the keys we had a nice experience walking around our neighbourhood for the first time.

We were resting by the local police station deciding whether we should get a terrible beer. It was a balmy evening and many old folks were out for their daily strolls. Not to be sidelined, the young were out in abundance too, but instead of sharing the slow, methodical gait of the aged, they were rushing to and from shop to shop, a bakery here, a fashion store there, full of energy to spend. Instead of the trademark tracksuit pants and singlets of the older generations they wore tight jeans, trendy shoes and tank tops. It was a nice dichotomy, and easily put us into a romanticising mood, a mellow state of rhapsody: hey, we’re in Shanghai now!

Before long the mood manifested itself into a man in the uniform of the aged and plastic sandals. His face betrayed his early provenance, but his wrinkles were not roughly hewn or haggard, they were of soft and undulating, light, small and pleasant. There was not a trace of bitterness in his face. For someone like myself, who is afraid of aging almost more than anything (and therefore a little scared of the elderly), I liked this man immediately.

“Hello,” he said, “do you speak English?”

We chatted for twenty minutes and learned that he was a working resident deeply rooted in and shaped by Shanghai’s recent history. It’s hard to connect the Shanghai of today with China’s pre-Reform years, to the wars, the famines, and the revolutions so often espoused in literature and media. But this man connected the dots, he lived through it all, and continues living.

“Oh yes. Guess how old I am? Eh?” He leaned in towards me, favouring his good ear. I took a pot shot at eighty-three.

“Eighty five! Ha!” We congratulated him on his age and asked where he learned English.

“Oh, long story. I learn before. I learn a long time ago. But I don’t speak anymore. Now it is self-study. I am old, I have stopped work, so, I have nothing to do. Nothing to do,” he paused a little sadly, “so I read the dictionary.”

He spoke very slowly, taking great care when choosing his words and choosing them well.

We told him he was very sharp to be studying English at his age. An eighty-five year old man who spends his free time reading foreign language dictionaries is a rare thing indeed.

“No, no,” he humbly replied, “It’s OK but I need to … I just like to speak to foreigners. I live here, Yangpu district, but no foreigners here. Always at the Bund, ah, as … ah, tourists! Yes, sight-see tourists!”

He got very excited as he pushed his vocab to the limit, and this only increased when I told him we had ourselves just moved into Yangpu district. I asked him if he liked to play Chinese chess, as I’d been practising and wanted a partner.

“No. I don’t like it,” he dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand, “I like to … well, sixty years ago, I used to dance! When the Japanese … but then, they left.”

He continued in this fashion, fleeting here and there between the glory days of his life narrative. They were vignettes, and sometimes a little incoherent, but what the old man made very clear was that everything changed for him when he was invited, just before WW2, to work for a British business. He was introduced to the English language then, while working for this “foreign enterprise”. Unfortunately, the business collapsed in 1949 when the PLA liberated Shanghai.

The man’s exact words were, “when the Communists rose to power we were very poor, very poor.” He said he then worked for a “state-run enterprise” until he retired, but never spoke English at work again.

I pondered the role my girlfriend and I were filling for this chap. He had never left China, he had never had the opportunity to go to Britain or anywhere else in the world, but he had heard of all these places and had developed relationships with their people. He had grown into an adult during a pre-CCP China, in the midst of an influx of foreigners, with their money, power and mystery, and had then seen them leave at the drop of a hat – or the raising of a flag. Now he had the opportunity, time and inclination to reconnect with his early years, but he was old, hard of hearing, and not really up to seeking out tourists on the Bund.

My girlfriend and I were a golden opportunity and you could see in all of the man’s features just how much he was enjoying himself. The English language was significant; a lodestone, the exotic, the different, the non-China capitalist.

We didn’t get his name, but it wasn’t important at the time. He was nameless, a representation of a generation. For a brief moment I was completely proud to be an ignorant, non-Chinese speaking foreign resident of Shanghai (not at all the usual feeling).

Just as we had played a role for him, so had he for us.

This old man, who used to dance, opened the gates of Shanghai to us. He said: you’re welcome here.

Elegy to Cigarette

An excerpt from a satirical Guangdonghua love poem named “Elegy to Cigarette” and shared by folk in South China during the American boycott of 1905. This was a general protest against the United States’ exclusion of Chinese labourers.

You are really down and out
American cigarette.
Look at you down and out.
I think back to the way you used to be
In those days when you were flying high.
Who would have rejected you?
Everyone loved you
Saying you were better than silver dollars
Because your taste overwhelms people
And is even better than opium.
Inhaling it makes people’s mouths water.
We’ve had a relationship
In which up to now there has been no problem.
I thought our love affair would remain
Unchanged until earth and sky collapsed.

Ah cigarette,
You have the word American in your trademark for everyone to see
So I must give you up along with my bicycle.
Our love affair
Today must end.

Cigarette please don’t harbor resentment.
Perhaps a time might come when we meet again,
But it must be after Americans abrogate the treaty.
Then as before I shall be able to fondle you.

A romantic, ironic tragedy to be sure! The forbidden fondling of American cancer crutches. There’s a whole novel in that.

Excerpt from Lang, Che. 1960. “Tiao yin-chai”, in A, Ting (Ed.). A collection of Anti-American literature relating to the exclusion of Chinese labourers. Peking.