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August 19, 2009

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All human life is here: Fuxing Park celebrates a century of history

A park is a society in miniature. The century-old Fuxing Park's director Zhang Xinhong tells everyone so.

The beautiful park - in its centenary this year - in bustling downtown Luwan District is popular with locals and is witness to joy, sorrow as well as the daily trivia of people's lives.

Centenary celebration activities were held in the park early this month, attracting thousands of visitors, government officials and celebrities who hold a deep affection for it.

Residents, from the very young to the elderly, do morning exercise, practice ballroom dancing and karaoke, play chess and walk their pets, date and break up in the park.

"The park is usually crowded with the young in the evening while packed by the elderly in the morning," Zhang says.

However, it's not all about sunny days. What has impressed the park workers most is the hard work done in the stormy weather.

When typhoon Morakot recently approached Shanghai, the workers were all on duty 24 hours around the clock in case of any emergency with the trees that might have affected residents or traffic.

"We need to help restore the traffic flow as soon as possible," Zhang says. They usually clip off the twigs and help the tree trunks stand or transport them away from the site in rainstorms.

Zhao Lihong, vice chairman of the Shanghai Writers Association, lived close to Fuxing Park about 20 years ago.

Holding his toddler's hand, he went for a walk along the winding path in the park at dusk every day for many years.

"The park is a paradise in my son's childhood memory," he wrote in an early essay "The Sounds of Nature in the Park."

"We visited every corner of the park - bushes, ponds, lawns, rockeries, squares, tea house and children's playground as well," he says.

Fuxing Park was installed with the city's first 30-seat roundabouts in 1965 and became its first amusement park.

Long queues of children accompanied by their parents were always seen outside the merry-go-rounds.

Children would rush in to pick up their favorite flying horse when it was their turn.

Many childhood memories revolve around seesaws and merry-go-rounds in this carnival paradise.

When people grow up, they also have fun with friends and date lovers in the park.

"My first girlfriend and I always dated in the park and took pictures," recalls Zheng Changli, now retired.

"These were the best moments of my life."

It was extremely popular for young lovers to have dates in the romantic French-style park decades ago, due to limited space at home and rare leisure facilities at that time.

Love stories started, and also ended, in the park every day.

Zhang, the park director who is now 50, couldn't whisper sweet nothings to his beloved girlfriend in the local parks as other young men did. "It would have been embarrassing as everybody knew me," he smiles.

Zhang started working in the park in 1975 and has witnessed the decline of some once-popular activities and the re-emergence of some that had almost died out over years.

"The activities people enjoy are changing with the times," he says.

The popularity of the Peking Opera Corner and the English Corner is decreasing in the park, he says.

"Fewer young people show interest in the traditional art nowadays and many old people who sang the traditional opera in the park seldom come.

"The extreme popularity of English Corner in every park in the 1980s and 1990s reflected the social craze for going abroad at the beginning of the reform and opening-up and the lack of study materials at that time," he says.

On the other hand, more people are showing an interest in writing calligraphy in the park.

A man good at writing comes to the park to practice calligraphy for about an hour every morning. He dips the brush in water and writes on the ground, Zhang says.

"Now many people follow him to write every day," he says.

As one of the oldest parks in the downtown area, Fuxing Park has witnessed the ups and downs of history.

The park - featuring symmetric flower beds, lawns, plane trees and fountains - was a foreign park built by the French government in 1909.

It was not open to local citizens until the rules were changed under public pressure nearly two decades later.

Many heavyweight people in China's contemporary history once lived by the park, including the revered Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat-sen, "Young Marshal" Zhang Xueliang and Zou Taofen, a famous journalist, political commentator and publisher.

Their feet once trod on the park's winding paths.

During the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many intellectuals and government officials were forced to sweep the park.

"I regarded it as physical exercise in the beautiful park," says a former director at the district greenery bureau surnamed Chen, who was prosecuted at the time.

The park was transformed from government-sponsored organization to state-owned enterprise in 2000, meaning it had to pay for itself and turn in some profit in a country-wide organization reform to spur productivity.

"Most workers cannot accept the big change," Zhang says. "They have been accustomed to a stable income regardless of their work."

The new policy put Zhang in the hot seat. "I had to manage a way to pay for the 200 workers," he says.

The park and its staff are branching out these days.

As an enterprise, it bids to participate in other greenery construction projects in the city.

Meanwhile, lands rented to bars and clubs including Guandii, Park 97 and Baby Face help the park earn its keep and attract celebrities and overseas performers and visitors.

Ironically, the park director doesn't enjoy the bars.

"People of my generation are not accustomed to the pub culture - too noisy," he says.

The pubs have made Fuxing Park a rare spot in the city for where diverse cultures come together.

But the increasing number of cars parked in the park at night, because of the bar business, has raised opposition from nearby residents and visitors.

"We are tying to strike a balance," Zhang says.

The park also endeavors to hold many performances and festivals in its open square including international fashion, jazz and beer festivals.

The "Rose Wedding," the city's annual mass wedding, also originated in the park as a district activity.

Entry to Fuxing Park has been free to the public since 2005 and attracts more and more people to enjoy its facilities.

"It extends into society with no barriers now," Zhang says.


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