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Life Is Alive: Portraits of Fuxing Park, Shanghai

In the middle of the fashionable French Concession district in Shanghai, there is a city park where life seems to exist on a more exalted plane. I had read of Fuxing Park on a travel website which featured an alternative Shanghai ‘bucket list’- or at least 10 of the most interesting, often overlooked places to visit. A photo of a couple waltzing en plein air accompanied the minimal but tantalizing text promising spectacle and novelty in this urban park.

One morning during my week in Shanghai, I accidentally woke very early, so after a hasty breakfast, I climbed into a cab and pointed to Fuxing Park on a tourist map. The name was written in both English and Chinese characters and I had circled it in pen, but still the cabby seemed irritatingly confounded. I later came to think that this is just a role the drivers play, particularly with tourists: the exasperated cabby throws up his hands, shouts back and forth to the Chinese valet- possibly seeking destination clarity or simply engaging in a routine gripe session about tourists- and then without notice, the cab lurches forward and off you go. It happened at least 5 times during my visit.

This was my first solo excursion in the enormous, engulfing city of Shanghai. Abandoning the comfort of ‘safety in numbers’, no matter how obviously clueless our little Anglo-centric group was, made me nervous, but I reasoned this away with the assurance that nothing dangerous or untoward happens at 7am, even in Shanghai. Despite the early hour, this cab, like all taxis there, sped jerkily through the crowded streets like a frantic wounded goose, honking, lurching and hurtling its way across town. Occasionally we would skid to a begrudging stop at a red light. Green light! The sequence started again from the top until finally, we drove up over a curb, down a pedestrian walkway and finally stopped across the street from what appeared to be the edge of a gated, tree-lined common area. The driver pointed irritably and stopped the meter.  I paid the 24 Yuan, equivalent to about $4, hoping I hadn’t just risked my life for a mediocre, run of the mill city park, got out and walked through the hedge. As if I had just passed through an enchanted barrier, the noise and stink of the Shanghai streets immediately evaporated, exposing a shimmering, pristine park packed with people of all ages, each and every one of them, doing something absolutely fascinating.

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Directly in front of me, a dozen or so people were practicing TaiChi in unison with unyielding focus and no discernible leader. A few of them stole quick glances at me, the blonde woman with a large camera, but most chose to ignore me, their fluid movements never faltering as I stood gaping and smiling at them. My eyes shifted to the common green just a few meters ahead which was punctuated by colorful kites and the whirring hum of Chinese yoyos. A scattering of people, mostly men, each occupied their own small piece of grass and as if engaged in a solo performance for an invisible audience, operated their yoyo contraptions without acknowledging each other or passersby. The Chinese are masters of the fourth wall.

I walked past the common area and deeper into the park, past thick greenery which in one spot, partially hid a man meditating. In another spot, I spied a woman with her arms wrapped around the trunk of a tall, thick tree. Apparently tree-hugging is a common Chinese warm-up stretch which loosens the arms, and in my opinion, raises public park morale. I found it impossible to walk by a tree-hugger and not smile.

Further little twists and turns of the path revealed individuals rehearsing operatic numbers, practicing wind instruments and chanting prayers, all in semi-private nooks and crannies of the park. The open sidewalks were full of people on morning walks, some moving very briskly, others ambling at a slower, more contemplative pace. As I slowed down to fumble with my bag, I saw a cat crouching amidst some dark green foliage. Then another cat cautiously peered out. Then, another. It dawned on me that like many urban oases around the world, the park was probably home to a feral cat colony. The Colosseum cats in Rome for example, are beloved by residents and tourists alike. I’ve seen them lounging in the shadows of the ancient arena, sprawling on fallen columns, and peeking out from the mouths of hollows which once housed Tigers, Rhinos, Hippos and other doomed exotic animals. Rome is notoriously fond of their Colosseum cats. So much so that they and other feline colonies living in several prominent ruins, have officially been declared part of Rome’s “bio-heritage” by the city council.

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The Fuxing Park cats were neither as numerous nor as obviously healthy as the Colosseum cats, but they were, overall, living a pretty good cat life with mammoth trellises to climb, a park full of rodents to stalk, plentiful shade, fresh water ponds and lots of cat food delivered daily by park regulars. For the most part, the cats were exceptionally friendly too. Several would come right up and rub on your leg or plop down next to you on a bench. Some of the young adults used the park as a romping ground all day, stalking each other through the bushes and then leaping out in mock attack, clawing up lush arbor and hanging upside down as their kitty companions scanned the perimeter for them. They even co-opted discarded human detritus as playthings. One older kitten kept picking up an empty cigarette pack and carrying it over to a grassy area in front of a Venus de Milo statue where he would drop it as an offering to his playmate.

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The Chinese park-goers seemed to either ignore or adore the cats. Either way, everyone appears to co-exist peacefully. This is by far, the overarching theme of Fuxing Park. In a city with 18 million people, it must be very difficult to find your own mental or physical space. While it is true that in Asia, the concept of personal space is not nearly as cherished as it is in the US, people still long to find fresh(er) air and a modicum of tranquility in a place where both are sparse.

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I longed to photograph every person and every inch of the spectacularly choreographed scene that continually unfolded before me in the park, but my giant camera was just one more reason for sidewalks to part and mouths to gape when I passed. The average white person is not a super common site in Shanghai (although there are ex-pat areas loaded with them) but blondes are a very rare bird indeed. The Chinese do not attach the same stigma to staring as Westerners do. They indulge in it quite freely. They also feel no qualms about taking your picture without asking. I, on the other hand, am terrified of approaching strangers whom I wish to photograph.

Someone at a lecture I was giving recently asked me why I felt so much more comfortable photographing animals than people. The easy answer to this is that people make me nervous and animals put me at ease. There is no judgment, manipulation or disappointment in dealing with animals. In general, I feel that my people portraits are rigid and self-conscious. Someone once said that every portrait is in fact a portrait of the photographer, so maybe I simply don’t like what I see. It is rare that I am deeply inspired by the human activity around me, certainly not enough to justify the vulnerability of dealing with strangers, so Fuxing Park was a big exception.

I returned to the park on my last day in Shanghai. It was a warm, sunny Sunday and instead of emptying out with the morning rush, the flow of people and fascinating activity continued all day. On my second trip, I was bolder. Although I still shot furtively and more or less from the hip, I stayed all day and actually did directly approach a few people for photos.

Under a gazebo type structure, a small, seemingly random crowd had gathered to sing what appeared to be traditional songs or anthems. There was a conductor standing in front of poster sized lyric sheets, who led the people through the songs, accompanied by a sprinkling of acoustic instruments. The crowd sang with solemn, patriotic gusto. Many, like the man I photographed, proudly puffed out their chests, breathed from the diaphragm and belted out each word. I came upon at least two other such choral gatherings in different parts of the park that same day. Apparently these semi-impromptu choral gatherings are quite common in Chinese parks, which traditionally, are a place for people to come together whether it is over a game of mahjong, a cup of tea, or even a silent but shared tai chi practice.

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Just like in the US, parks are a very popular place to take kids. Although there was no playground, Fuxing had an ‘amusement’ midway catering to young children featuring a traditional western carousel with beautifully painted, glistening ponies, refreshment stands and a bizarre, antiquated kiddie ride tantamount to toddler target practice. Here, small brightly painted cars ran on a track encircling a lush, jungle-themed island of vegetation. Lurking in the overgrown green, were chipped and weathered statues of tigers, lions and monkeys with circular sensors on them.  Parents swarmed to buy tickets so that their toddlers could ride in the little cars around and around the island and shoot at the animals with plastic guns which were mounted to the dashboards. The guns made the customary Hollywood laser gun sound (PEW, PEW, PEW) that we have come to identify with futuristic, make-believe weapons-and the kids were delighted. I seemed to be the only one who even remotely found this attraction ironic or disturbing.

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Politically incorrect carnival games aside, I think that I was acutely aware of all small children that I saw in China. My journey to Shanghai was the first time I had been apart from my 13 month old daughter since her birth, so I looked a little longer when a child passed and often paused to smile when I would have otherwise kept walking. As a result, I began to notice several things. One is that the Chinese positively dote on their wee ones. The other, was that almost all of the children- everywhere- were boys. Although this shouldn’t be surprising, it was still a little unnerving. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that about 8 out of 10 children under the age of 5 were boys. China’s one child policy implemented 34 years ago in 1978, is notorious, and it’s no secret that Chinese culture bears a strong “son preference” but whether what I was seeing was due to an actual surplus of males, or the fact that female children are more often left at home, I don’t know.

Although gender itself seemed evenly matched among adults in Fuxing Park, what did seem to be missing were young women. There were plenty of middle aged women and a great deal of elderly women, but very few young, under-30 women. Perhaps they were pursuing other activities or maybe two generations of forced family planning is catching up with China.

Although China’s average life expectancy is actually lower than ours, they have the largest population of elderly people (over 65) in the world. The general presence of older people is also much more noticeable than it is in the US. Although a number of cultural differences are most likely responsible for this, including the fact that the Chinese are less sedentary and far less prone to obesity than us, the fact is that the elderly seem to be viewed differently, and are therefore more visible in Chinese society. It was, therefore, no surprise that Fuxing Park was full of retirees, grandmothers and wizened mahjong players, but what I didn’t expect to see were the Birdmen. The Birdmen are national icons, a staple of Chinese culture  comprised almost exclusively of old guys.

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Songbirds are extremely popular pets in China. Perhaps it’s because they take up so little space, or maybe it’s simply because their delicate song stirs something in the hearts of Chinese men. It is said that hearing the songbird’s serenade first thing in the morning brings the owner his greatest joy, so ensuring the bird’s happiness is essential. Bird enthusiasts believe that keeping a pet bird cooped up indoors will make it depressed, despondent and ultimately, less likely to sing, so for centuries, men have taken their birds for walks.

Very early in the morning, you can see men walking the streets swinging bird cages covered in dark cloth. Usually, they are headed to a park where they will hang the cage in a low tree branch and sit on nearby bench enjoying fresh air and conversation with other birders. The birds, very often Thrushes or Larks, hang in the trees for hours. I came across a lush little park lane with about 10 cages each hung from a small tree, and containing an individual Thrush who was singing and flitting about. I kept coming back to see them and couldn’t help but feel that the birds were chronically frustrated by the fact that nature had been put within sight but not reach of them. It seemed slightly cruel to me, but I think perhaps all caged birds make me a little melancholy. At least these pets were treasured and got a daily dose of sunshine and socialization, which is something we can all benefit from.

My impression of Shanghai was of a city in transition, where old ways and traditions are wilting alongside smog choked flowers. It is a place where progress and ambition and western culture are converging to create a chaotic place with a confused identity, not unlike many major cities in the world. Most of the city did not interest me beyond being innately appealing as a tourist destination, but my days at Fuxing Park made the 26 hour plane ride worthwhile. It was like nothing I have ever seen before and I long to go back to breathe it in again and again. Fuxing Park and its people, a great entanglement of humanity whose collective energy produced the most spectacular sight I have ever seen, were sparkling, transcendent and truly alive.

 
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