Chinese Buffet – Part 7: Remembering Ritan Park

Appropriately, the sun was shining when I first visited Ritan Park. The name literally means “Temple of the Sun” and the site used to be the place where Ming and Qing emperors would make sacrifices to the Gods. Now it is a peaceful oasis, one of the loveliest parks in the city. And the place where I spent my very first hours getting to know China.

Ritan Park is in the eastern park of the city, surrounded by embassies and the “Little Moscow” district. (If you’ve read Oracle Bones, you may recall that this is the part of the city where Peter and Polat used to meet.)

I gravitate towards urban parks, especially when I am overwhelmed by a new city and not sure where to begin my exploring. Since this square of green was located fairly close to where I was staying, it naturally seemed like a perfect place to begin.

I entered through the West Gate, and within seconds I saw examples of the morning park activities I had read about. To my right, off the main entranceway, was a small group of couples dancing, while a lawnmower churned behind them. I moved to the north side of the main path and spied yet another small group of waltzers. No one seemed bothered by the shifting noises, melodies merging in the morning breeze.

The fan ladies were the ones I was really looking for, but unfortunately, as I approached a large group, I could sense their routine was about to end. I snapped this shot just as they finished up:

I went and sat under the tree near where these ladies had gathered, hoping they would start up again, but it was clear I was too late. I admired their pink and red fans, marveled at all the pastel umbrellas bopping by and practiced saying “Ni hao” to some Chinese children.

Circling through a few other nooks and crannies of the park, I came upon young boys playing with a hackey sack toy topped with colorful feathers. There was also a girl practicing her flute, two older men playing cards and a group of women, performing together with this “yo-yo” like device that they pass to each other using only the strings attached to sticks that they hold in their hands. I’ve still been unable to figure out what this contraption is called, but it was fun to watch them for a while:

Eventually I came upon this stunning pagoda and lotus pond, which was glistening in the morning sun. This is only one of about 35 shots I look, trying to capture each low-waving willow branch and blossoming lotus.

The musicians shaded underneath seemed to be in between sets, there were only sporadic notes and tunes coming from their direction. I picked a rock to sit on, had a snack and waited for them to start up again. To my surprise, they began with a musical interlude of the Scottish hymn Auld Lang Syne. (As my trip progressed, I learned that musicians play just about anything on their instruments here, from traditional Chinese folk songs to Christmas tunes!)

To the left of the pagoda is this unique stone boat, home of the popular Stone Boat Cafe. The place was just opening up as I passed by, and didn’t look ready for business just yet, or I might have gone in for a cool beverage. Instead, I walked back around to the other side to take this shot, and watch the fisherman:

I read that these anglers pay to buy a fish that they then throw in the man-made lake and try to catch. Hours of enjoyment…if you like fishing! There was a whole bunch of them scattered around, but I just watched this one guy for a while, hanging out on his own little jetty.

A few days later I would return to this spot in the evening with my Couchsurfing host, Johanna, for some drinks at the cafe. The park (which is free to enter, unlike some others in the city) closes about 10 pm, but one gate is left open for folks to access the cafe, which has live music performances every Thursday night, and more often in the summer. I didn’t know this until now, but it seems the stone boat has free wireless too.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this place left such a lasting impression on me, but it’s probably my most favorite spot in China. Is it because it was the very first place I visited in the country? Or was it the simple understated beauty of people just doing things in a park? The every day regularity of the place is what struck me most. In the end, it doesn’t really matter why — but I certainly know it will be easy for me to cherish this early and perfect moment of my travels through China.

A Canadian in Beijing: Floating at Bloody Sunday

Bloody Sunday worried me when I first heard about it. I thought it might be a hardcore women’s event that discussed menstruation and girl power, which to be honest is not for me. I mean, I’ve ‘been there, done that’ and it’s no longer my speed. No offence to all the blood sisters out there who are currently reclaiming their bodies, self-worth and sisterhood; it’s wonderful to experience this kind of transition and learning, especially about patriarchy and empowerment. For me, time passed and now I look back on that time in my life, raise my fist in solidarity and realize I’ve moved on. No crime in that. Part of that very movement is thanks to the empowerment, so credit given where credit is due.

Now, along a different empowerment path, this monthly event is about connecting the arts community here in Beijing. A woman named Pauline organizes the night along with several friends and volunteers. She works full-time in the gallery district of Beijing and is interested in combining arts media together to form alternative gathering spaces in this city. Pauline is from Belgium and she has lived here for many years and so she is very connected to the ex-pat community. We met through my friend Sarah (who I told you about in this blog.)

Anyway, Pauline asked me if I wanted to take part in May’s “Bloody Sunday” event and I agreed to play some songs. This month, it took place in the beautiful Ritan Park ??????????? at the Stone Boat Café, a small restaurant set on the water across a small bridge. It was built about twenty years ago to replicate the traditional structures often built into the water as permanent boat-shaped entertainment spots. (I spoke about a famous one of these structures when I visited the Summer Palace.) Ritan Park itself was built in the year 1530 and is one of the oldest parks in the city. I was told that it once served as an altar site where the emperor made sacrificial offerings to the sun god. By the time I learned that, it was too dark to go exploring. Maybe next time.

I arrived in the early evening to do a sound check and, of course, nothing was ready. I had brought my Chinese textbooks, however, and I was thrilled to sit on the restaurant’s patio working on my reading comprehension while the sound system was slowly assembled on the outdoor platform that would double as the evening stage. I sat right next to the water’s edge and intermittently lifted my head to peer over the railing at the families fishing or laughing as they sat on the rocks around the small lake. I even watched one man successfully pull in a large fish. I have no idea what kind of fish it was but I did notice that he took it home with him, smiling proudly. All in all, everyone here seemed peaceful and the energy was infectious. I felt my muscles relax when I hadn’t even realized I’d been tense.

I sipped tea, translated a text, eventually had some dinner at a very leisurely pace and then it was time for me to plug in my guitar and test the levels. Everything worked out fine and I sat back down again and chatted with the strangers that had taken up residence at my table. It was more of a communal table, really, since there were perhaps eight possible seats (an estimate considering two sides were benches built into the stone boat’s “deck”) and so several people came and went, almost wholly non-Chinese but from various countries. English was our common language.

Some other individuals arrived from the organizing committee and began to pull a large sheet between two trees on the shore. These were the people in charge of programming visuals for the night. As the sun slipped out of the sky, their images lit up the area and gathered a crowd of Chinese migrant workers and Sunday park-goers who gathered on the rocks and watched the silent film clips for several hours as though hypnotized. They were hypnotic, I must admit, and coupled with the music that was spinning by several dj’s including NARA (whose mixes were exquisite), they became hard to ignore.

When it came time for my set, a few of my school friends suddenly appeared to support me and I was grateful. The small area that I was facing was otherwise filled with strangers, so seeing some familiar faces was a treat. Behind me just a few paces was the water and this platform had no railing. I’m sure it was beautiful to see from the perspective of the audience, but I had visions of falling backwards with a splash and electrocution. . . and so I mostly stuck to the microphone and didn’t look behind me!

My voice carried to the tables and chairs on the shore as well, but the performance was really directed at this small area on the restaurant’s patio. The visuals continued throughout my set as well and I occasionally found my eyes pulled to watch while I sang as though I were simultaneously in two different roles: performer and audience. I had to consciously pull myself back and focus on what I was doing because the images were so compelling!

When my set was finished, (and it was very casual and consisted of both English and Chinese – quick spontaneous translations on my part – considering the very mixed audience), I walked around the site more and discovered a brilliant display of items for “exchange.” This was a pile of items that anyone could take, like a free garage sale. People were sorting through the clothing and sifting through smaller items and I’m not sure if much was taken and given a new home, but I love the concept. There was no expectation to actually “exchange” item for item, but the idea of giving away things to others is always positive, both for the person who is minimizing their possessions and for the person who is happy to acquire something new. In this way, it’s a “win-win” exchange, so aptly named.

The best feature of this restaurant was its upstairs room that truly resembled an enclosed upper deck and/or sleeping cabin in a mid-sized leisure craft. Climbing the super steep stairs was also interesting (treacherous?!) and when I got to the top, I found a young man sitting cross-legged on a couch directly facing the stairs who was offering tarot card readings. I asked how much he charged and he told me (with a French accent) that it was 100 kuai. I answered him in French that I’d be happy to have a reading if he’d take a barter of one CD. He smiled and agreed. I sat down to a fairly accurate description of my current life by a complete stranger. I do love a good fortune and this one was fairly encouraging.

I slipped him a CD later on in the evening by ascending the stairs enough to show my head above the landing and then extending a CD through the railings. I leaned it against the chair within my reach. He was in the process of giving someone else a reading and he smiled at me quietly and nodded. Another exchange.

I left the Bloody Sunday event feeling relaxed and smooth, as though the whole event had been a giant reefer for my spirit. I don’t smoke, but this kind of event felt the way I have heard friends describe that feeling; I sort of floated away into the dark night air of the park. I fell asleep soundly that night and dreamt colourful dreams filled with water and travel and painted rafters.

I felt fortunate.