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Arts & Culture
UPDATED: June 29, 2015 NO. 27 JULY 2, 2015
In Tune With One Another
A small instrument unites a group of senior citizens in Beijing together
By Ji Jing

Wang Suzhen (center) performs with other harmonica enthusiasts in Beijing's Temple of Heaven on June 7 (WEI YAO)

Wang Suzhen, a 64-year-old lady who lives in Wangjing, a prime residential area in the northeastern part of Beijing, travels for two hours by bus and subway to the Temple of Heaven every Sunday, simply for the purpose of playing harmonica with her ensemble.

"I forget all the unhappy things in life whenever I come and meet the group," said Wang.

The group Wang is speaking about is a mouth organ ensemble that consists of nearly 50 senior citizens with an average age of around 65, most of whom are retired local residents.

Open access

Established in 2005, the team play harmonica together twice every week: from 9 to 11 a.m. in Jingshan Park on Saturday and in the Temple of Heaven on Sunday. Both parks are located in downtown Beijing.

Wang first encountered the group performing in 2005, when she had retired from her factory job. An active and lively character, she joined the group without any hesitation.

Wang said that she learned to play harmonica in the late 1960s. But since she got married in the late 1970s, she had been kept busy by her work and family life and had to completely lay her mouth organ aside.

It was not until 10 years ago that she picked up her hobby once more.

Wang has regularly taken part in the group's activities during the past 10 years except for several years in-between when she looked after her daughter's baby.

Wang quoted her daughter as saying, "My mother has found in the group a place where she belongs. She will relinquish all other commitments in order to take part in the activities, as it would truly kill her to give them up."

Wang told Beijing Review that she has made friends with many of her teammates and whenever a fellow member is ill, she will pay them a visit with her other teammates.

Jiang Wenlan, a wheelchair-bound member of the ensemble (WEI YAO)

Sixty-five-year-old Jiang Wenlan said that she could not have lived to the present day without having joined the ensemble. Jiang has been paralyzed since she was 3 months old by a disease that left her unable to walk. To make matters worse, she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005.

"Ever since joining the ensemble, I have been in a very good mood. All the teammates are warm-hearted and treat me well. Nobody looks down upon me because of my physical conditions," said Jiang, seated in her wheelchair.

Every weekend, Jiang's husband and daughter carry her to the two parks by an electro-tricycle from home.

Not only Beijing residents but also some people from other regions across China have joined the group.

Sun Guoqiang is one such member. The 55-year-old is also the youngest in the group. His work location changed from his hometown in east China's Jiangsu Province to Beijing six years ago.

Feeling lonely and bored one Sunday, Sun went to a park and found the group performing. The erudite-looking man, who has been playing the instrument since junior middle school, later brought his mouth organ to play with the group and they immediately hit it off.

"My life has been enriched by the activities. I work hard during the weekdays and sometimes go on business trips. Playing the instrument with my teammates allows me to relax a little," said Sun.

"Beijing people are very hospitable and tolerant, which has enabled me to fit into the group quickly," Sun added.

Besides their regular gatherings at weekends, the ensemble has also actively engaged in charity programs, such as performing for seniors in nursing homes and planting trees in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region every May.

Yuwen Jianhua, the ensemble's "lady in red" and dancer (WEI YAO)

Hummable beginnings

By the end of 2014, the number of senior citizens, those aged above 60, had reached 212 million in China, accounting for 15.5 percent of the country's population. It is predicted that this number will exceed 400 million by the middle of this century.

Therefore the issues of caring for such a large magnitude of people and how they might spend their life productively have become more and more pressing.

Senior citizens in China spend their retired life in the following ways: Some babysit their grandchildren because the parents have no time to do that themselves owing to their busy working lives; some who have adequate money at their disposal choose to go traveling, often signing up with a tourist agency; and some join various recreational activities to develop a hobby and entertain themselves.

"We have no threshold age-wise and welcome all who are willing to join us," said Zhang Qinglin, the 76-year-old head and conductor of the group.

Zhang worked as a senior engineer before retiring from China CNR Corp. Ltd., a leading state-owned high-speed train manufacturer. He is referred to as "Engineer Zhang" by his teammates.

"There are vast differences between the members of the group in terms of age, educational background, economic conditions and social status. However, we are bound together by a common hobby," said Zhang.

Most of the songs played by the group are from the 1960s to the 1980s. "These songs accompanied us growing up and our memories of them have never faded," said Zhang.

The performances have attracted a lot of attention from passers-by, with dozens of people stopping by to watch.

"These songs are pleasant and familiar. I come here to listen to them play every weekend," said Ma Yuqing, a 57-year-old member of the ensemble's audience who looks after her grandson during the weekdays and takes the opportunity of the weekend to grab some rest and relaxation.

Previously, the group had focused exclusively on the mouth organ. Gradually, other instruments and accompaniments such as drumming, dancing and singing performances were added to supplement the instrument and make the performance more vibrant.

One of the leaders of the ensemble, 60-year-old Yuwen Jianhua, looks younger than her years. Habitually dressed in red, she likes to dance along to the music even though her legs ache from time to time.

When asked how she is able to perform so enthusiastically, she said, "There are so many people looking at me. One old man in a wheelchair who is over 90 years old comes to see me perform every Sunday."

Copyedited by Eric Daly

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