China National Day holiday. I went to Shanghai with a mate and we did a lot of covetous wandering around the streets. We were in total and vehement agreement that Shanghai was a much more convivial city than Beijing. Looking back on our couple of days there in a lovely section of town – just near the French Concession – I realised that perhaps Shanghai was simply more familiar. The building materials were familiar to me and I knew what kind of building was built with that kind of material in that period of time. Sydney is full of it. Lovely, heavy, big stone block colonial buildings. Though China or even Shanghai was not colonised, the colonising powers rushed in. China allowed them areas of the city – concessions – where they had to live and work, so the streets are quite European. The layout of the streets was familiar because of the types of buildings lining the streets. There were masses of trees. Almost every street we wandered down was lined with trees still bursting with summer-green leaves.
But there were other things, less familiar things that filled me with an effervescence that I am yet to experience in Beijing. One of these things was the Shanghai Civilized Park.
In this park, people were doing everything from a spot of quiet Tai Chi with handbags hung in trees, ballroom dancing, diablo work, kite flying, playing cards, playing mah-jong… And the weird thing was that we were pretty much the youngest people in the park. There were no kids hanging with their grandparents, no young people mooching about.
As we wandered through the park, a strange, powerful, lusty singing started up. It was a choir. As I am yet without my stuff, I cannot connect my phone (which doubles as my camera) to download the little recording I was able to make. But imagine this:
60 voices, male and female, deep and controlled and proud, pouring out into the park under a stunner of a blue sky (I guess they turned the factories off in Shanghai too). The first song was rousing and had a jaunty yet dignified 4/4 beat. This was followed by another celebratory tune and one old, old lady sitting in the front row was pumping her fist across her lap and had her face turned up to that glorious autumnal blue. One more of these stirring songs was followed by one of a distinctly different tone. This had hints of melancholy, it spoke of a burden and the faces of the singers lost their smiles. The conductor used her body more and her arms less to direct her throng, grouped under a fir tree beside a rotunda.
As with the rest of the people in the park, the people in the choir were all older than me, some quite old indeed. I was left with wondering what they had seen in their lives, and what did they remember when they sung these songs. Once again, I felt that terrible sadness that my lack of language skill generates.