It’s 10am on a Sunday morning at Fuxing Park, in the heart of Shanghai’s former French Concession, and activities are taking place everywhere, most of them by people of advanced age. Some are bewildering to an outsider’s eyes: the lone people who gently slap trees, an activity that’s said to improve qi, the Chinese concept of life force and energy flow, and help the liver; or those walking backwards and clapping, which is good for relaxing back muscles, according to the edicts of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some old boys play mahjong in the shade of traditional pavilions, while others stretch their limbs into impressive angles on fences, as the strains of old Communist songs ring out across the lush lawns.
Similar scenes play out across Shanghai’s parks, from People’s Park to Zhongshan Park and Xujiahui Park, on just about any morning – but Fuxing Park is arguably the best for its sheer variety of activities within a five-minute stroll. Shanghai’s parks rarely make it onto the list of essential things to do in the city, which is still better known for futuristic skylines and high living than municipal spaces. They should, because – whatever your views about modern China – this is still one of the best ways to get a sense of a culture that may be vanishing.
“Being here reminds me of the good old days,” says Zhang Zhengwen, 62, who is part of a group of 100 or so people that sing traditional Communist songs in the park. “It makes us feel like we are young and life is simple.” We met some more of the Fuxing regulars.
The maracas man
Fang Wufu, 73
“About six years ago, I walked past a group of people shaking maracas. There was just something about the rhythm of it, and how contented they seemed when they were doing it. I’ve been coming to this group for six years now, usually at the weekend. I dance, too, if people ask me. There’s something similar about shaking the maracas and dancing – you have to find the rhythm, then you can let go. It feels good.”
The Ballroom dancer
Tao Lindi, 81
“I come here at 7.30am every morning if it’s not raining, and I’ve been doing that for six years. There are usually around 50 of us, and there are a few instructors who come round and help people. I had lots of health problems before I started: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart issues… but doing this has helped me feel normal again. It’s good for my soul, too – just dancing, and feeling free, it makes me feel like a young woman again.”