Retirees in Beijing come together for a sing-along at Yuyuantan Park.
WANDER through Yuyuantan Park in Beijing from 9.30am to 11.30am on any Wednesday or weekend morning, and you can hardly miss the old-time chorus made up of hundreds of senior residents, mostly retired, from all over the capital.
Not all of the voluntary performers that have gathered for the past five years can be Sarah Brightman, of course, but they still attract crowds. The 30 core singers and musicians of New Beijing Choir, wearing dark-green military uniforms, have accumulated more than 1,000 followers over the years, according to Zhou Yuhui. The 60-year-old conductor co-founded the group in Beijing in May 2008 with her husband, Bao Yunting, 67.
“Too many people have retired. They’ve got nowhere to go. They are looking for fun,” Zhou says. “Then they came to my choir. And here they have it.”
Zhou and Bao live in the Daxing district of Beijing’s southern suburbs, at least 45 minutes from the park by subway and one-and-a-half hours by bus, according to Bao, choir leader and chief horn player.
Since 2008, every Wednesday morning the couple leaves home no later than 6.15am to catch the subway, with two medium-sized carts full of performance props that have to go through security checks.
They arrive at the park to start preparation at 7am sharp, rain or shine. Weekend mornings start the same way – except they take the bus in the slim hope that a seat or two might be there for them.
Many followers say that old songs keep them coming – the pop songs of the last century, that they listened to when they were young, like Sky Road, Long March and Girl, I Love You.
Gong Guiying, 58, a retired saleswoman from Dahongmen, is among the most loyal followers who inspire the couple to keep coming. She has been following their lead since 2006, well before the choir’s debut in Yuyuantan.
“From the Temple of Heaven (Park) to Taoranting Park to Xuanwu Park and then to here, finally,” recalls Gong, with a beam of triumph. “I’ve always been following them. It’s been eight years.”
So has Liu Yan, 52, a healthy young retiree from a post office, who enjoys dancing in front of a big crowd. “I always come here an hour earlier, just to give them a hand,” Liu says. “Mrs Zhou sometimes gets sick. She really needs our support.”
Other than the 30 core members of the choir, Zhou and Bao do not keep personal contacts or records of the approximately 1,000 participants.
The choir may be more likely to grow than to shrink: Beijing’s elderly population is growing rapidly, with 400 people reaching the age of 60 every day, according to a report by the city government. In 2012, the total number of registered Beijing residents was 12.98 million, of which nearly 2.63 million were 60 or older, the report said.
After half a day’s performance, the couple tidies up and packs their things before heading to a small canteen nearby for dumplings as a treat.
“Of course, we have thought of giving up. We’ve thought about that quite a few times. My wife is not in good health. She had fever again this morning,” says Bao on a gusty winter morning when temperatures fell well below freezing. “But every time I see my retired friends’ happy faces, I’d say to my wife, ‘this is worth it!’ “ – China Daily/Asia News Network