Sunday in the park in Qijing

Robert Guy Kemp

While the Chinese don’t do modern streetscapes very imaginatively, city parks and lakes are another matter.  In Qujing, as in other cities, there is the straight and narrow of streets and the straight and wide.  Urban layouts are predictably right-angular and compass-like; indeed, this is part of the language: strangers aren’t told to turn left or right, they are advised to head north or south.  Bends and twists are uncommon which seems to reflect the philosophy of the Chinese, certainly that of the twentieth-century leaders and administrators, which does not accept the notion of deviation in a political way, as well we know, or even in practical ways such as how a city is laid out.  Any number of those narrow curving laneways called hutongs in Beijing which are so appealing to Westerners with their food stalls and general buzz of purpose were levelled by City Hall in 2008 on the grounds of clearing up for the Olympics.  The modest, colonial-influenced, hundred-year-old two-storey houses (domestic living upstairs, trade and food downstairs) were razed. In their place were constructed unattractive straight-lined concrete buildings either side of a wider, straighter road.  The traders had either to relocate into these new and much more expensive premises or push their carts and businesses out and away from the city centre. Thus a new order was imposed from which physical dissent, if any (and there isn’t any, is there?), is now geometrically visible and impermissible philosophical and political differences have no winding, dark and secret places in which to flourish.

But the authorities are okay about centre-city parkland.  Off, as it were, Qujing High Street, and to its north, is a large and delightfully practical recreation area in the middle of which is a lake.  Unlike its Melbourne equivalent of the Botanic Gardens, there is very little grass and what there is is controlled and off-limited by tiny plastic fences.  The surface is mostly concrete which they have tried to make look cobbled and pebbly.  But it can be swept!  Large numbers of middle-aged ladies have been given, don’t you love the word?, besoms and spend their day clearing away any leaves that have dared to fall, together with the very few scraps of paper and soft-drink cans dropped by thoughtless recreationists.  How Dutch-tidy and clean it all is! Better, in the whole park there is not one right-angle to be seen. And there’s the lake in the distance, still and virginal in the early morning sunlight.

So who is here on this fine autumn Sunday?  Rather ask who isn’t.  One-child families, naturally, strolling with an aged relative or two; sets of card players, the winner exultantly taking the game with a loud Hai!; groups of advanced-age women waltzing and foxtrotting to assorted Strausses and  Ivor Novello; elderly exercisers and practisers of tai chi; men, somehow only men, playing dominoes or mah-jong; kite flyers. There are the students preparing for the day’s lessons, pressed by their parents to do extra work this day presumably to get on.  There are the lovers, innocently holding hands and talking either about their future together living with his parents or wondering where they will have lunch.  There is no public kissing here (or, indeed, anywhere in China), let alone heavy petting.  No way. It’s back to the fifties, folks, a time in Australia when guys were lucky to see their girlfriend’s second button undone and whose blood raced at the sight of a tiny patch of bare flesh above her knee. Traders have opened their stalls by now and you can buy all sorts of meaty noodly things, you can become the owner of a dog half the size of a cat, turtles and tortoises and goldfish are on sale and parrots and shoes and shirts, here’s a plasma TV if you want one and you can shoot balloons to kill just over there.  It’s all business and energy, even if there seems to be little actual money-changing going on.  No pushiness by the traders.  No spruiking.  No buttonholing to buy and spend. And no postcards! Truly, none.  Why not?  Answer: no tourists.  It’s blissful!

Past all this and the funfair is the lake.  In its shapelessness it is totally unlike the fixed flat grid plan of the city streets even though it is man-made. The Chinese do water very well. Here are bays and secret inlets, jungly islands connected by steep stone Venetian bridges and fountains with a hint of rainbow. Here the pictures on the willow-pattern plate are given life as are those super-tranquil dark-toned paintings of Chinese water scenes so popular in the West. Water is great, especially if you’ve got a lot of it.  But it has to be clean with no oil, please, and on it a boat or two, to it trees bowing the tips of their boughs and from it reflected sunlight. Ripples.  And lots of nice people like you and me enjoying it. All this is here now, and perfect, as midday approaches.

Let’s hire one of those little boats, shall we, the ones you pedal, and join the by now many others with the same idea.  The vessels are a bit old and rusty, the rudder works only occasionally and there’s just enough water in the bottom of the boat to soak through your shoes into your socks.  Mei guangxi!  (It doesn’t matter!) Just keep pedalling, all in the same direction, mind!  Now we’re in the middle and can see the city skyline which from here doesn’t seem so bad after all.  The kid who is piloting his boat straight towards us has his ear firmly twisted by his mum; he objects loudly but at least collision and sinking are avoided.  Careful of that bridge!  Backpedal!  But you must know how!  There, now we’ve hit it!  The kid is laughing at us and having his other ear twisted for his troubles; his mum smiles apologetically as she tries to stifle her own giggles.  Now we’ve managed to pass under the bridge. Hey, this is better than the Lido, yes?  Music floats past us but it’s different: Victor Sylvester’s strict-time tempo has yielded to the much higher-pitched strains of Chinese strings which is coming from . . . Let’s pedal towards …  Well, well, it’s a ten-piece band, right here on the edge of the lake.

It’s all very Under the Greenwood Tree except Hardy’s peasants are now a Chinese troupe of ill-assorted amateurs playing for their own enjoyment and sharing their music with whoever might be interested. (Quite a few, actually.) Aged fifty-plus, most of them, gnarled and all but dressed in smocks, they are playing stringed instruments like elongated banjos only just slightly smaller than a school crossing-lady’s lollipop while the brass trumpet and trombone-like instruments are only semi-coiled and resemble Alpine horns. The musicians’ stands hold music sheets with Chinese notations. The sound produced by all this is much, much higher pitched than its Western equivalent as is the vocalist’s soprano which might be described by the uncharitable as a screech.  Still, down here in the shade of a willow tree and just off-shore, the effect is magical. A tenor voice joins the soprano and then the tout ensemble.  What’s the song about?  Love gone wrong? or is it a people’s piece from the Cultural Revolution?  It sounds a little bit like Greensleeves. No, no, there’s a snatch of Night and Day. Surely that’s the Marseillaise?  Whatever, it’s unpindownably fascinating.

We should head back to the mini-harbour.  The autumn sun is becoming uncomfortably hot and we could do with an iced drink of some sort.  The numbers have grown and there is a veritable flotilla of craft waiting to moor.  Patience, patience.  You can buy some dry socks and shoes on the way home. You can buy anything except what you really need which is a cold beer.  There are no pubs here, no bars and no public drinking.  Not just in the park, but in the whole of Qujing.  If you want a beer you have go to one of the eating places, most of which do not serve it chilled; they simply bring some ice cubes to add to your glass.  The delicious cold tea available from the stalls is an inadequate substitute.  And what wouldn’t you give for a pie and sauce after your heavy day at the pedal!

More and more people.  Back towards the main street they have gathered to see a concert of some sort in the principal arena part of the parkland.  Here on stage are performers in the bright traditional costumes of the area to the north, near the Burmese border.  Awaiting their turn are scores more dancers and players.  Each act could be a fair bit shorter, one feels, but the applause is generous. As with the musicians by the lake it’s surely done for love.  Abruptly, they finish.  It is six o’clock and time for a proper meal. People make their various ways home or, more probably, to one of the ten thousand restaurants in the neighborhood where mum, dad, the kid, the friends, together with the aged grandparents, will stretch a meal out until about 8 when they’ll walk back to their mostly tiny apartments on the fringes of the city.  North a hundred metres, turn west at the roundabout, then two hundred metres north again, east past the market and they’re home.

Tomorrow is school, is work, is cleaning, is laundering.  Today has been just another Sunday much the same as the one last week and most likely the one to come next week as well.