Songs of the Old Days at Chinese Park

At Beijing's Coal Hill Park, older residents gather to sing Mao-era songs and gripe about current day discontents. The Sunday get-togethers are a sort of living oldies radio channel.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Young people in China are that country's first generation to grow up under the influence of global consumer culture. As a result, their idea of a good time is quite different from that of their parents.

Today, NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to Beijing's Coal Hill Park, that's where many in the older generations go to remember what it was like to grow up in an age before shopping malls, karaoke bars, and video games.

ANTHONY KUHN: Every Sunday, Jingshan Park, as it's known in Chinese, is transformed into a sort of living oldies radio channel.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Just inside the park's east gate is an all-harmonica band of dozens of people honking, dancing and singing. The youngest are in their 40s. Many of the songs praised Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. Fifty-eight-year-old retired clerk Wong Jan Sho(ph) is one of the bandleaders.

Mr. WONG JAN SHO (Retired Clerk): (Through translator) These are all nostalgic songs from the 1950s to 60s. For example, there's "I Contribute Petroleum to the Motherland." It's a song praising oil workers. Every one here can sing that one. We all lived through those times.

KUHN: The emperors of the Ming Dynasty had Coal Hill built by piling up the earth dug from the moat around the Forbidden City just to the south. The pavilions atop Coal Hill offer a panoramic view of the city. For less than a dollar's ticket, people come to enjoy the Pianese in May, lotuses in July and cypresses and bamboo all year-round.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Halfway up Coal Hill amid the rocks and trees, a band of people are practicing a traditional art form known as (unintelligible). The practitioners hold bamboo clappers, kind of like castanets, and they do a little rap like this one about the sights and sounds of old Beijing.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Chinese)

KUHN: On Sundays in Jingshan Park, you can find just about anything except for peace and quiet.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in Chinese)

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: There are clusters of accordion players. There are also disco dancing grandmas and tangoing couples. There are circles of four or five people kicking shuttlecocks a bit like Hacky Sacks. The flipside of reminiscing about the past, it seems, is griping about the present.

(Soundbite of people talking)

KUHN: There's an area where people come just to vent about unaffordable housing, corrupt officials, or whatever else ticks them off. People up here are free to speak their minds provided there aren't any foreigners aiming microphones at them.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: When I finally had enough of the crowds and leave the park, I don't have far to go. My home is in an alleyway just across the street. Standing in my yard, the distant sound of singing makes a fine soundtrack to the day's end.

I hear the singers roaring with one voice seemingly oblivious to the lengthening shadows, the setting sun, and the stillness, which finally envelops everything - except for the rustling of the wind in the trees and the buzzing of cicadas.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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