By Matt Cutugno
Hubei Province, China
Matt Cutugno at Local Farm
You hear the place before you arrive. Depending on the direction from which you approach you might note lilting sounds of classical Chinese music. Or instead you hear the boom of modern dance, or the festive carnival sounds of children’s rides.
You may enter at the street corner where a large movie screen shows war films featuring the brave forces of the People’s Liberation Army against the struggling Nationalist Party, the Guomindang. The audience is mostly made up of riders who stop their electric scooters and motorcycles and bicycles to watch.
The place is a public plaza, yuăng chăng in Mandarin. On any given night, hundreds of people of all ages gather there. It is the charming cultural center of Yingcheng, a district in Hubei Province. It is my wife’s hometown, and it is a sprawling, midsized Chinese municipality.
During daylight hours, the plaza is nondescript enough, and in the hot summer weather it is nearly empty. It reminds me of Washington Square Park in New York, as it is a four block square that is a focal point for its citizens. Both are spacious, with paths for strolling and benches for resting. There is the requisite ornate water fountain, and places for vendors to sell their wares.
A Dance Club Begins
At night, Yingcheng Plaza comes marvelously alive. With the evening’s cooling breezes, dance clubs gather to move to the rhythms of music. The clubs are composed of women of adult ages. Some wear the same outfits―a black dress with red trim, their club uniform. Lines of dancers form, some dozen across and four rows deep. As music plays, they move in near unison, each woman exhibiting some individual dance step or sway of their arms. They move gracefully and with joyful faces―it’s great fun to watch.
In other parts of the yuăng chăng the focus is on entertaining children. Under the illumination of portable lighting kids ride rides, run and giggle, and try to persuade their parents and grandparents to buy them toys from the ready vendors that surround.
One warm summer evening I ventured to an area where men and women were gathered. I witnessed a singular activity. Each participant had a bullwhip; they would snap it toward the ground at a large-sized spinning top (tuó luó in Mandarin), to make it spin.
Man with a Tuó Luó
Some of the tops had colorful lights, and blinked in a kind of strobe effect as they spun in the dark to the audible force of the bullwhip’s crack. I had a friend ask a local if I could give it a try, and I was handed a whip. I backed up, focused on the spinning object, and gave the whip a crack. I hit the top, it happily spun. Not bad for a lǎo wài, that is, a foreigner.
As August in Yingcheng unfolded, I passed through the plaza at night several times a week. I was continually impressed by the peaceful, active, happy scenes. Citizens exercise, and socialize, surrounded by family and friends.
This kind of social bonding is common in China, and I envy it. I admire too the small town mentality of rural communities. My hosts are often greeted by neighbors who know them. And because I’m a guest, they smile at me welcomingly.