They say that China takes time to get used to. It is said that it is one of those cultures that gets under the skin gradually when you live here as an expatriate. The overcrowding, the noise, the pollution, the traffic jams, the incessant bustle and activity, the sensory overload of the cities is something that you are supposed to “get used to”. Even thrive upon. A colleague of mine said recently that he feared retirement and returning to his country, because he would be bored with the sudden adjustment from a life here; set amid a frenzied stew of humanity, the volume turned up to full, to one where he might be left alone with his own thoughts, in the polar opposite of rural calm.
Perhaps I am still in the adjustment phase of learning to love China. I’m still doing my Chinatime and I think it may be ruining my skin, as opposed to getting under it. I often joke with my students that the population of my home city (Edinburgh), would comfortably fit inside Grand View Mall, in my adopted Guangzhou, and nobody would notice. You see, I still cannot decide if I can live in an environment not unlike the set of “Blade Runner” or a journey into Panem’s Capitol from the “Hunger Games”; even though it has been several years already. Maybe this is what they mean about China “taking time’”? There are those days when I can celebrate it with the gritty, purposeful enthusiasm of a New York executive. Then, there are those other days where I have gone all Wordsworth and l want to wander lonely as a cloud. Days where I have longed for the commune of the wind in the trees, the sound of birdsong, or the sight of the colours in the sky against a verdant horizon. For those days, I have, somewhat naively. . . headed for the parks here. Out of these surprising experiences, dotted across various Chinese cities, a photography project was born.
Imagine my surprise that the parks here are anything but peaceful places? You saw that coming didn't you? And I bet you have that “Blur” song going on in your head, moments after reading the title of this posting? It does seem an appropriate soundtrack to this photo essay and yet it doesn’t for reasons I will expand upon. These are “peaceful” places it just requires an adjustment to your definition of “peace”. I cannot remember but in one middle eastern language (I think it may be Hebrew?) the word "peace" - literally translates to: “the sound of children playing". It's that sort of adjustment that I am talking about here.
If you are from United Kingdom then you will understand the nuances of city “Park Life”. The dog shit, the fitness-freaks, the single mothers with their prams, the drug dealers, the gay men cruising, the bald patches of grass at the goalmouth, the gangs of hooded teenagers, the broken swings, perverts, deranged old dears, the graffiti, the drunks and the darn-right weird often providing a greater part of the spectrum of activities normally associated with parks as places of recreation and leisure. They are not busy places necessarily and they tend to be places where people do things purposefully yet separately and never really together, unless it is a football match or a car-boot sale.
Not so in China it seems.
The Park offers you more space within your overcrowded life. It is a dedicated space for the populace to enjoy, yet people just cant help themselves assembling together.
The Park is a place where you can learn about your Nation from those who remember it from generations before. If you like you can interact and enter into the tribal spirit of communal song.
The Park is a spiritual space - literally a place to recharge your battery. Nature, in whatever guise is an energy source and an aid to meditation.
The Park is your community centre - you don't need to sign up for classes, often you can just stop and join in with activities. You can expect to spontaneously take part in a line dance, join with a fitness routine or participate in a series of ritualised de-stressing exercises.
The Park is a place to show and tell and to show-boat. Whether you have been creating beautiful hand stitched embroidery, crocheting woollen shawls or have been honing your paper-cut skills. The Park is a venue for you to meet with other enthusiasts.
The Park is a place for old-school gamers to meet. To sit around a card table or perhaps to lock heads over a chess board. It is not a place where you are under the same surveillance as you are on the city streets with their CCTV cameras every 10 paces. It is a venue for having a bit of a flutter - for making that card or mahjong game more interesting.
The Park is your photo-shoot location. Whether you are seeking an Elfin wonderland for you and your Cosplay buddies, creating a wedding portfolio, making that catalogue, creating arecord of your youthful beauty or just making memories don't leave home without your camera.
The Park is your open-air KTV lounge. A place where you can let your inhibitions fall away and let the therapy of music and dance offer you balm.
The Park is a place where your children can fight safely together. In these images one of many kung fu classes has young would-be Bruce Lee’s punching out some moves.
The Park is your jam session in waiting and your very own music studio.
The Park is your online dating agency. The line is a washing line, upon which are pegged adverts for people looking for marriage partners. The lines are organised into - men and women - age groups - people who are divorced -with children and without - even foreigners. Details such as salaries, job prospects and property portfolios are listed along with hobbies and interests. Searching for a prospective partner is often a family occasion and can turn into an impromtu picnic later.
The Park is your very own circus sideshow. Its a place where a burst of colourful athleticism can entertain you, raise your energy and bring you sunshine even on the gloomiest of days.
Weirdly, the Park doesn’t seem to be a place where you can walk your dog or watch a footy match.
This is an ongoing project and I hope to keep on discovering my Park Life in China. I won't be wandering lonely as a cloud but I will be observing, as put in the lyrics of Damon Albarn . . .aaaalllll the people going about their Park Life.