Spring has been in the air for a little while now; the early soothing spells a prelude to the slow awakening of swelling buds and flowers exploding into radiant bloom. Only interspersing arctic shocks remain, the biting spasms of a dying winter. A bit like an English Spring really… although when the sun bursts through the grey of the polluted Shanghai air, it is already quite hot, sunscreen hot.
I am lucky that my walk to school takes me through the local park, an oasis of calm and colour where alluring music perfumes the air with tranquillity, and where I witnessed the spectacle of spring unfurling. When I arrived here in February, the park looked sombre with its lakes and ponds reflecting the bleakness of the surrounding skyscrapers; frivolity added by sculptures dotted around the area as the Chinese know a thing or two about dressing up nature in all its splendour. The lanky naked branches of the willow trees drooped low over the water; the only bright sparks coming from the ever-present red lanterns festooning trees and lampposts. With the Chinese New Year barely a week old then, I smiled at being greeted by Old Lang Syne….
But over the short period of a few weeks, the park transformed into a pot-pourri of vivid tints and bright colours as trees cascaded into blossom and spring flowers pushed through the perfectly tended borders and beds to expose their brightness and hues. Magnolias in various tones dressed tree branches, tulips in many shades eagerly reached for the sun, deep purple and pink violets vied for attention with a mélange of poppies. And it did not escape the notice of the locals who, just like me, whipped out their mobiles to take snaps of the display and almost certainly a fair few selfies as is the habit of the Chinese… And keen photographers exploited the eye-catching extravaganza as a background for friend, family and wedding pictures.
But the park is not just an exotic place to visit on a whim or a special occasion; it is part of the town’s living space, used to full extent by the locals. The Chinese are masters of imitation, copying the best of what they see whilst diligently improving and refining, and their approach to landscape architecture is no exception. Newly developed and developing satellite towns, housing huge numbers of people in massive flat blocks, benefit from wide, spacious roads and plenty of shared green spaces; no crowded, narrow streets blocking light and air… although maybe the number of car parking spaces seems woefully inadequate or is it merely that the Chinese park just about anywhere a space is available without due regard for other road users???. And most mornings on my way to school through the park I bump into joggers and power walkers; I spot the small but conscientious groups of Taichi devotees; I watch mothers and grandmothers bringing babies and toddlers out in pushchairs and catch sight of a duo of badminton players. The Chinese certainly take healthy living, fresh air and a good dose of exercise to heart.
And to ensure the park and other green areas remain spotless and pristine, a little army of gardeners is always on hand for the daily sweeping up of the leaves, thinning out stubborn and invading bamboo, sprucing up the flower borders with new specimens, dredging the lakes and other spring gardening tasks. There is no such thing as litter in this park.
But I have yet to see a place where children can go, run wild, let off steam, or kick a football without destroying the carefully guarded lawns and immaculate flowerbeds….