When hopping into a taxi in Chengdu to return to my apartment, I have come to rely on the same phrase, one that experience has proven far more reliable than street names or directions.
“Yo Le Yuan,” I tell the driver, meaning “Amusement Park.”
I live, quite fortunately, close to Chengdu’s most famous amusement park, located in the northeast section of town, a largely industrial, less developed area, which often feels a world away from the nouveau riche glitz of the city’s southern districts, favored by well-heeled professionals and foreigners. In a city famous for its leisurely ways, but which increasingly feels the inescapable pinch of modernization, Yo Le Yuan provides a temporary step back towards a more relaxed era. In a country in which it seems everyone has a business pitch or moonlighting income streams, Yo Le Yuan is increasingly necessary in its quaint, honorable refusal to join the commercial frenzy.
The front entrance to the park, located along the Funan river, is gaudy and neon, an accurate indication of the park itself. Outside, Uighur men sell lamb kebabs, distinctive as ever with their Muslim white caps and non-Chinese features (originally from northwestern Xinjiang province, they are Central Asian and speak a Turkic-family tongue). Over the entrance looms the park’s defining feature, an enormous Ferris wheel, vaguely reminiscent of the London Eye or a piece of the Starship Enterprise. For the two-yuan admission fee, one is free to roam the park’s small collection of rides and games; it’s horror houses and video game arcades. I mostly go alone, where I am free to observe its fascinating patrons at play. I love the “oohs” of the elderly as the roller coaster zooms by, pointing out the physical marvel on display to their grandchildren. Or the detached boredom of stall keepers, serving traditional candy snacks or monitoring a robot tiger as it trawls along in slow, mechanical circles. At the heart of the park’s appeal, though, is the children: enthralled, squealing, laughing, crying and rambunctious.
Compared to American theme parks, with their bigger, better, “5D” attractions, slickly executed promotional tie-ins and Hollywood marketing, Yo Le Yuan couldn’t begin to compete. Instead of Disneyland’s Wild West water slide, we get Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey King, presiding over a decidedly smaller, less fantabulous ride. The monsters of the horror house, at least those outside its doors, more closely resemble grumpy old men than nightmare-inducing ghouls. (One of them, perhaps the scariest, uses a knock-off mask from the “Scream” movie franchise.) Some of its facades are fading; its style badly in need of updating. Yo Le Yuan’s greatness, however, cannot be marked by quarter profit margins or turnstile figures.
The beauty of Yo Le Yuan is not to be found in the draw of its attractions, but in the park’s patrons themselves. Just beyond the park’s low walls, a giant construction site is loudly at work, migrant laborers dotting the scaffolding, crane a-swinging. It’s a site almost as familiar as the stall sellers and afternoon mahjong games that constitute significant slices of Chengdu’s vibrant street life. Construction, with it’s chaos and its noise, serves to inform you, through sheer inconvenience if nothing else, of the breakneck speed at which the city and country is developing. But within Yo Le Yuan, the relentless, exhaustive pace of the country’s growth seems, at least momentarily, a world away. In giving primacy to family, friends and the necessarily silly release that a day in an amusement park provides, Chengdu locals are succeeding in balancing their striving with pleasure, doing as their ancestors have done long before the term “work life balance” became en vogue.
A local friend told me that most Chinese people’s dream is to have “an easy life,” one of ample leisure. It reminds me of the many conversations I’ve had back home about yearning to engage in pastimes “if only I had the time,” or describing weekends and vacations simply as “too short.” One of the best metaphors I’ve seen in art is a photograph of a group of faceless men in business suits, each clutching a suitcase. Falling out of their suitcases is a giant, colorful beach ball, signifying the long-standing struggle that Americans have had in trying to fit work and play into their lives. Here in Chengdu, long a symbol of unhurried, pleasant living, the pressures of a large population, coupled with suddenly widespread opportunities at upward mobility, have created a frightfully competitive society. Various pressures, from academic and financial success to tradition-laden duties like marriage and child rearing, seem to weigh heavily on the minds of my local friends.
In such times then, taking the bus to Yo Le Yuan and strolling through its stalls, gaudy and visibly aged as they are, is as much a statement of intent as it is one of temporary escape. Through recreation, that most elusive but sought after of pursuits, we relearn what things we hold most dear, we re-live what it is to be young, we return to an age less hurried. We recreate, often subconsciously and without purpose, the arc of our lives as we strive to live them.
In this hurricane period of speculation and investment, of incredible prosperity and egregious inequality, Yo Le Yuan demarcates the physical space in which our minds are free to wander, to feel the adrenaline shot of a loop-the-loop, the stinging spray off the water slide, the unhurried joy of watching one’s children discover and delight. Modern society, in the glass and concrete temples we construct, in the electronic tools into which we are plugged, will lose the meaning behind its creation without time away from its upkeep. Like the free marketplace off of which it is fueled, modernity as we know it can consume the humanity it originally served, like imagined mutinous A.I. machines or aggrieved peasants of past decades. The amusement park is a bulwark, a symbol of what makes us human beyond simple consumer forces.
My favorite memory from Yo Le Yuan is of a solitary man, waltzing alone in the fading dusk light some months ago. His eyes were closed, perhaps envisioning a partner at his fingertips, mirroring his nimble steps. But, even more evident, was the feeling of deep mindfulness, of such pure, untainted pleasure, experienced on a tiny stage before an unseen audience of one.