Perhaps it is some innate longing to let loose myself, or perhaps that fact that public performance on such an impressive scale is now almost dead in my home country, but Beijing’s various park performers never fail to bring a smile to my face. Whether it’s a group of old boys with traditional instruments plucking away a slightly whiny tune, a choir singing lullabies, or couples ballroom dancing to music from a battered tape player there really is something magical about these wholly inclusive get-togethers, and if you haven’t seen it yet, then you really haven’t gotten to know Beijing- and you can’t argue, I’ve got the Washington Post on my side this time.
There isn’t unfortunately any guaranteed way of catching these performers at their art, nor of guaranteeing that what you do find will be any good; cack-handed instrumentalists and wobbly voiced singers are just part of the package, and in my humble opinion add to the charm of the whole set-up. But if I were to deliver any advice it would be to try and get down to the parks at the weekend, Ritan, Ditan, Tiantan, and Yuyuantan seem to be pretty good bets, oh and early in the morning, since the main reason the elderly go to the parks is to prepare for the day ahead, and lunch often brings an end to this cultural production.
But it would be condescending in the utmost to label these shows as just another thing to see and do in Beijing. In reality it is much more than that. As mentioned previously one of the reasons for their existence is to help people wake up in the morning; but they are also key sites for socializing (particularly among the older generation), as outlets for maintaining traditional folk culture and for self-expression. As I sat down in Tiantan last weekend to listen to a burgeoning choir (as more people arrived and recognized the song they joined in too) I got into conversation with an elderly local who told me that he had sung these songs as a kid, whilst just half an hour previously a group of passerby’s had started dancing in response to the wailing of a Chinese orchestra. With Beijing’s rapid transition into westernized urban metropolis, the importance of maintaining these rituals have never been higher.
Which made me think of home and wonder how much of our own folk culture has been lost, perhaps through the lack of these very public performances. A chorus of The Derby Ram and some Morris Dancing anyone?
P.S On an altogether different note, I’d like to say commiserations to all the Aussies out there suffering over the recent Ashes defeat to England. With all good grace it was nothing to do with the pitch, we were just better than you.