As he disappears from sight, he’s still pounding that ball against the ground. He’s been playing basketball for at least the last half-hour, and is still playing. Yet at no point was there a hoop, a sideline, an opponent. Just a boy and his ball.
If you’re ever looking for something to do in Beijing, go to Houhai Lake and rent a boat. You can get pedal boats or motorboats or, if you’re feeling especially lazy, you can hire someone to navigate your boat for you. My girlfriend and I to hit up Houhai Lake tonight, and it was lush. Sure, the Houhai area is a little kitschy – a Starbucks abuts the lake to the west, and a bar smeared with the word “Jazz” sits to the east. But innumerable things along China’s tourist trails are kitschy, so good riddance. Besides, I like Starbucks and jazz. We have the last boat on the water, so smitten with the scene (and warmed by the wine) that heading back before sundown seems like a sin.
After we fork over our ride – a battery-powered vessel that worked fine despite the disconcerting noises coming from within – we proceed to traipse around the lake on foot. We wander with a half-bottle of Great Wall wine along the streets surrounding the lake.
It takes about three minutes to see something basketball-related – a single hoop resting in a tiny courtyard, encased by pointed, wrought iron fence. The court that the goal presides over is small – too small, surely, to fire up a three-pointer (unless you hopped the fence). But it nonetheless smacks of basketball in China: a basketball hoop slipped in someplace that, at first blush, makes it look hopelessly out of place. I don’t stop to play, but I do snap a picture and proceed to traipse along.
After about three more minutes, we come to a small area that boasts a few dozen little exercise stations. These stations can be found anywhere in China. I worked out on a few in Urumuqi, which is in the largely-Muslim province of Xinjiang way out west; I saw some while on vacation in Shanghai, the nation’s poshest city and financial capital; crummy little Jinan has them as well; and obviously they’re Beijing. Author Peter Hessler wrote about the exercise stations in a 2006 article for the New Yorker:
Not long after I moved into Little Ju-er, Beijing stepped up its campaign to host the 2008 Games, and traces of Olympic glory began to touch the hutong. In an effort to boost the athleticism and health of average Beijing residents, the government constructed hundreds of outdoor exercise stations. The painted steel equipment is well-intentioned but odd, as if the designer had caught a fleeting glimpse of a gym and then worked from memory. At the exercise stations, people can spin giant wheels with their hands, push big levers that offer no resistance, and swing on pendulums like children at a park.
I personally think the exercise stations are pretty cool. They’re not necessarily designed for getting strong; don’t think weight-lifting on South Beach. Instead, they’re more for staying flexible, for moving around, for getting the blood pumping, so to speak. We could use some back home in Kansas City, which – like USC football or Kansas basketball – is perennially in the Top 10. But not among the nation’s best cities. No, it’s a mainstay in the top 10 fattest cities.
We walk enter the exercise area via a swinging, waist-high door and decide to have a little workout. While foreigners abound in Beijing, we are the only white people on this side of the fence. We hop onto a glorified teeter-totter amid a throng of Chinese men and women who are – just like Hessler said – spinning wheels and pushing levers and swinging on pendulums.
There are no basketball courts, but there are nonetheless people playing basketball. You see, one of the pieces of equipment is a modified set of monkey bars. Unlike traditional monkey bars – which have two polls running length-wise and single planks connecting those polls – these monkey bars are pretty snazzy. There is a central beam that runs from end to end, and then a series of handles that are formed by intersecting ovals. Those looping ovals forms symmetrical half-circles on either side of the structure, cutting the central bar at consistent intervals.
Right now, though, this monkey bar set isn’t being used for monkey bar purposes. There is no one dangling from the polls. There is no one doing pull-ups. There is no one scurrying from end to end. Instead, there are people playing basketball.
The half-circles formed by the curving piece of metal are about the diameter of a basketball hoop – probably a little tighter. And one boy in particular, Feng Yuan, is using those little hoops as…well, a hoop. He is wearing a Chinese school uniform, which consists of matching jacket and pants. In his case, the get-up is bright red, like the Chinese flag. He has glasses and an innocent face. His ball is alternating slices of brown and white.
He stands a few feet back and lofts shots at the monkey bars, which are about six-and-a-half feet off the ground. The rim is utterly unforgiving, and since the hole is small to begin with, this complicates getting the ball through the hoops. But Feng Yuan keeps shooting and shooting. Sometimes the ball pops off the monkey bars, over the beam, and falls on the other side, where someone will pick it up and shoot it himself. After a few minutes of watching, I become one of these people, snatching loose balls and lofting them at the basket – er, monkey bars.
Every now and then someone will snare a rebound and go in for a huge dunk – which, per the low height of the goal, is very doable. People watch, oo-ing and ah-ing, as though the dunks were being made on a real basket. I try to imitate one of these high-flyers, but I botch the finish and the ball is blasted into the air off the “rim.” My girlfriend, who is on a nearby exercise machine – it’s a sort of rowing device – shouts out “Mae you!!!” Mae you, if you remember from the March 11 discussion of Chinese basketball banter, means “Don’t have.” It is what people sometimes shout when you miss a shot or take a bad one. The Chinese people playing basketball get a kick out of her mockery, laughing with her and at me.
Feng Yuan leaves a minute before we do. Turns out we are going in the same direction, and after a moment we gain enough ground to see him off in the distance. We can tell it’s him by his bright red uniform. That, and the fact that he’s still dribbling. He is walking with a dad-aged man, slowly, like they don’t have anywhere to go.
We hang a left where he had gone straight. As he disappears from sight, he’s still pounding that ball against the ground. He’s been playing basketball for at least the last half-hour, and is still playing. Yet at no point was there a hoop, a sideline, an opponent. Just a boy and his ball. Which, really, is all you need.