Having lived in China for over a decade, we're big fans of Chinese public parks. Even before I had a child in China, way back to the first time I visited the country in 1997, the public parks enchanted me. There's just so much going on. While I have never managed to see a dawn meeting of early-bird tai chi students moving slowly in unison as the sun rises, there's still plenty to take in for a visitor.
Of course, now that I have an active child in a city where we don't exactly have big green backyards out our doorsteps, Shanghai's parks in particular, have become our playgrounds. Here's a little introduction to what Chinese parks are like and what to expect.
Many parks are free but some charge a nominal fee for entry.
Parks are open daily, usually between 8am-6pm. Some may open earlier but most are closed by sundown.
Facilities range from park to park but basically, you can expect public toilets, refreshment stands (for bottled water and snacks) and a guard house (in case you have any questions or problems).
Bigger parks may be equipped with restaurants and tea houses, amusement areas for children, exercise equipment for retirees, man-made lakes with paddle-boats and maybe - if you're lucky - grass that is admissible to tread upon (more about this below).
About the Grass
In some parks, you can tread, sit and play on the grass. In some parks, a man with a whistle will come after you if you do this. In some parks, the "don't tread on the grass" signs are summarily ignored and no one blows a whistle or cares. How do you navigate this? Just do what the locals are doing. If they're on the grass, go for it.
Activities in Unison
Parks are places for people to meet up, especially retirees. You'll see all kinds of activities going on that you most likely wouldn't encounter in your neighborhood park.
- Ballroom dancing - this takes place with or without music. Oldies get together, stake out a place in the park and dance the day away. You'll see quite a few partner-less dancers, some very professional decked out dancers and some just there to watch. You might even be asked to join.
- Tai Chi - not as popular as the dancing, you'll find a few small groups practicing the slow movements.
- Sword & fan dance - I've only ever seen women practice this traditional dance performed with a large red fan as well as a flimsy silver sword. It's great fun to watch.
- Traditional music, singing & dancing - this is one of my favorite things to watch, especially the oldies with their traditional Chinese instruments. A large group can gather, or it might just be two or three. An impromptu jam session will start. Some will sing, some will play music. This can be very lively and interesting to sit for a while and listen.
There are plenty of people just enjoying the park on their own. Here are a few things you might see them doing.
- Tree hugging - You can see a variety of exercises being performed by folks just getting their circulation going like jogging in place, rapid circular movements with arms and legs and, my favorite, tree hugging, which lets the practitioner stretch his or her arms.
- Calligraphy writing - Many people, mostly men I've noticed, come to parks armed with a jug of water and their calligraphy brush. They practice the strokes with water and the characters last on the pavement for a few minutes before they dry away. Last time I watched a man in Zhongshan Park, Shanghai, he smiled at me and then wrote: "One World, One Dream" (the 2008 Beijing Olympics slogan) in English.
- Kite flying- this quintessential Chinese activity is taken very seriously. Some of the kites are truly amazing but what's more fantastic is how high the flyers fly them in the air. Wherever kites are flown, there's someone there selling them so you can take part.
Is Everyone Getting Married Today?
Some parks are more popular than others for wedding photos. Wedding photos are not taken on the day of the ceremony in China. Most couples go to the studio, get dressed up in rented outfits (big white wedding gowns for the girls and a varied array of tuxedos for the boys) and head off with photographer and assistants to the park for photos. You may see as many as 50 different couples in one day!
Parks for Kids
There are specific amusement parks of course. But aside from those, many public parks have some kind of amusement set up for children. Unfortunately, this doesn't translate into a playground with grass or sandpits. Usually, the amusement area consists of a set of dilapidated rides and a bouncy castle.
On the weekends, parks might have other activities set up like fishing for goldfish and art stations where kids can decorate a scene of their choice with squeezie-paint that then gets baked to form a plastic Hello Kitty (or whatever) adornment for your fridge.
If you've got kids in tow, come armed with a bit of money and they'll have a ball.
Parks With Kids
Parks are places where lots of nannies and grannies bring their charges to play or hang about. If you are non-Chinese in appearance, then your children, especially babies and toddlers in strollers, will draw lots of nicely meant attention from passersby and folks in the park.
You may be asked if they can hold your child and likely as not, a friendly grannie will slip them a sweet. I've never seen a more friendly folk when it comes to kids. And while you may find the attention overwhelming or even annoying, remember that it's meant in a kindly way.
Good tools for managing this are
- smiling and being friendly while continuing to stroll;
- smiling but waving your hand back and forth if someone offers food that you'd rather your child not have;
- another way to deal with food is just accept it on behalf of your child (and then decide yourself whether to share it with them);
- indicating that your child is asleep in the stroller and you'd rather not have them disturbed.
Parks for Lovers
The most outward displays of affection you'll witness at parks are couples reclining perhaps with the girlfriend's head in the lap of the boyfriend's while he plays with her hair and she naps. Maybe, you'll see an old couple holding hands.
Chinese parks are not a place to go if you want to smooch and nuzzle. Kindly, go back to your room for that.