Pocket parks, remolded woodlands are a perfect community fit
"Zao!" an elderly man greeted me with a cheerful grin over the weekend as he sauntered toward a tree-lined playground where I was standing. Zao is a Chinese word for "morning."
We didn't know each other, but the warmth from his face and in his voice made me feel right at home.
"Zao!" I greeted back in earnest.
It was about 6:30am. A fresh morning breeze brought a number of early-bird exercisers to the playground in a neighborhood pocket park in suburban Shanghai.
The old man, smiling to whomever he saw along the way, was shouldering three long canvas bags, his back kept straight all the time. He looked fit, but his age was hard to guess.
"You are in your 70s at most, I guess?" I ventured to ask him loudly from a distance of about 7 or 8 meters. Morning exercisers usually stand apart to give each other enough space to maneuver.
He was not in a hurry to answer my question. Instead, he did several deep squats before opening his bags one by one. He first took out a red-tasseled spear, then a martial arts stick. Both are made of wood, except for the soft metal head of the spear. In the end he took out a broadsword for kung fu practice, which is made of thin stainless steel. All the three tools are apparently designed for fitness workouts rather than for real combat.
After trying his spear for a few seconds, he came closer to me light-footedly and said with a smile: "I'm 89."
"You're 89!" I heard myself screaming in disbelief. "You don't look like an octogenarian!"
He smiled, said nothing, and played with his wooden stick, slowly cutting one beautiful curve after another in the air.
It was the first time I had seen an 89-year-old man performing martial arts with such deft movements. He was not as fast as he used to be, the senior pointed out, but he remained dexterous nonetheless. He could still balance on one leg.
"I've been practicing martial arts for fitness since 1958, and I bought all these stuff ― the spear, the stick, and the broadsword ― that year," he said. "You can't practice martial arts with these big tools at home, so a small neighborhood park is a plus for my daily life. I come here every morning, unless it rains."
Such a pocket park is a plus not just for the old man, but for many other people who live nearby as well.
As he moved back and forth with a broadsword in hand, a middle-aged woman was practicing mind-body balance by trying to find the balancing point on a plastic sword. She failed many times but finally succeeded with the help of the old man, who had taken a break from his sword game and taught her how to keep her back straight so that she could better control her breath.
She said she had a tiring job of handling household chores, and would hardly have time to relax had it not been for this pocket park at the doorstep of her home.
An easy access and a communal spirit are among the major attractions of such neighborhood pocket parks. For both the old man and the middle-aged woman, who live in different residential communities in a town in Qingpu District, the mini park is only a 10-minute walk away.
The distance is more or less the same in my case. And when the three of us met for the first time in the park, I immediately felt a keen communal spirit, demonstrated in particular by the old man's generous help in guiding us through our exercises.
"I've been suffering a sudden leg weakness these past few days, possibly as a result of my previous infection with COVID-19," I said, hoping to get his advice on how to recover or improve my leg power.
"Tone your legs with daily exercises – just bit by bit," he gave me a tip with a wink. "And if you have time, learn how to use a spear or a stick or a sword. That way you can build stronger legs and feet for better balance."
"Have you been infected with COVID-19 as well? And if so, did you also suffer from leg weakness?" I asked with a frankness bordering on bluntness, knowing that he was good-natured and open-minded.
"No, I haven't been infected so far," he said. "Before it was temporarily closed down during the pandemic, I came to the pocket park almost every morning to strengthen my leg power through martial arts exercises. Leg strength holds the key to one's health. I'm glad the park has reopened."
I don't know if he has gone too far in asserting the role of leg power in keeping one's health, but there's a popular saying in China that corroborates his statement: Leg weakness is an early sign of old age.
On August 16, in another neighborhood park in Qingpu, I encountered an old woman who, despite her wobbly legs, rode a tricycle in what she called a daily exercise to improve her leg power.
"I live nearby, so I can easily exercise in our neighborhood park," she told me. "I can't walk steadily for long periods of time, but thanks to this park, I can pedal along the paths to prevent muscle atrophy."
Better parks, better communities
As China celebrated its 15th National Fitness Day on August 8, neighborhood pocket parks came under the spotlight partly because of their convenient and free access, especially for the elderly or people recovering from health problems.
On August 11, Jiefang Daily, a leading newspaper in Shanghai, commented that "neighborhood pocket parks have probably become the most utilized urban open spaces."
In June, Xinhua news agency reported that Shanghai had so far built 390 pocket parks and that more would be developed in the future. For example, The Paper, a leading Shanghai-based news portal, reported on August 16 that a low-carbon-themed pocket park in Changning District would open to the public soon. That report came a day after China marked its first National Ecology Day.
In addition to building more pocket parks, Shanghai has also remolded many rural forests into forest parks at the doorstep of suburban residents. Compared with traditional parks, these remolded woodlands are more like mini wild habitats connected with vast stretches of farmland.
"I've run about 15 kilometers this morning, doushu!" a young neighbor of mine said on Saturday morning when we ran into each other in a mini forest park in a village near our residential community. He was so glad to bump into me that he called me by my nickname – doushu – which means Uncle Bean.
He told me he now runs 21 kilometers every day along this rural forest area to prepare for future half-marathon races.
Xinmin Evening News reported on August 7 that, by 2025, Shanghai will have built 200 mini forest parks in villages, in addition to 50 large forest parks across the city.
Better parks, better communities.