In the last blog I attempted to re-imagine the ideal Chinese style beach holiday, taking what was a generally western concept and re-orienting it more to the East. There are lots of aspects of current Chinese culture that are more or less borrowed wholesale from the West without much adulteration. Clothing is one aspect – traditional clothing is only for very special occasions and many wouldn't go near it if they didn't have to. As a result, clothing habits are pretty much in line with what the rest of the world wears.
Gyms are also something more European than Asian. Traditionally health was maintained by martial arts and medical theory. These days martial arts and qigong are neglected by all except that aged; plaza dancing is hugely popular right now among middle-aged women; and a small portion of the youth rely on sports such as badminton, table tennis and football to remain fit and active. As for the others, some are chronically unfit. For the youth, the demands of the education system make it difficult to maintain fitness.
Gyms have come to China since the reforms and there is the same kind of muscle-obsessed people supporting them, just like in western countries. I used to go to a well-equipped modern gym a couple of years ago. The customers were almost all young or international; the atmosphere was the same as in a gym back home. But after breaking my knee though, I decided to go to a smaller nearer local gym and was really surprised at what I found: a Chinese style gym. Unfortunately the things that make it more Chinese are the things that make it less desireable.
Let me describe it before I get to the people: Firstly, it is not in a sealed room. It is open to the outside air. This could actually work in New Zealand – it's cooler – but in Guangzhou at 10am, when I usually go, it's already 30 degrees. (It was a quite a shock having just returned from Bali where I'd just managed to run 20 continuous minutes in an air conditioned gym to not even make 8 minutes before feeling my heart was about to explode.) It also has its own overpopulated 20 metre pool. The equipment is time-worn and regularly out of order.
The staff have the normal low paid service attitude; that is, they sometimes don't notice you standing in front of them waiting for their attention. They sometimes get caught in their own topics of conversation and miss opportunities to serve. There are regular loud verbal altercations between patrons and the staff which they make no effort to hide, especially at the front desk that often becomes akin to a fort.
But let's focus a little on the people because modern gyms and small gyms split people culturally. Modern gyms get the people who adopted the culture of the west. Small gyms capture older people who will make the gym in their own image. Retired people here are naturally gregarious and treat the gym as a social thing, not completely focussed on health. So around the pool you'll find a table of guys, all in black togs, smoking after their morning swims and work-outs. There are no "no smoking" signs.
The gym does have some signs, though. One of them says: "Work out in a civilised way; Keep your body covered". This is ignored by about half the male patrons who go to the gym for the purpose of showing off their upper body. (This echoes another interesting summer habit that I call the "paunch show", where guys in the older districts will roll up the bottoms of their t-shirts to reveal their bellies, ostensibly to keep cooler.)
Another interesting thing is the occupation of machines. People will take machines not for use but as their own place which incidentally also denies other people's use of them. Someone might do some exercise on a machine, then sit on the machine for five to ten minutes to rest, before continuing a little more, then resting for a few minutes. I've seen people eating while sitting on some of the most popular machines. My favourite machine is the treadmill and sometimes people half-way through a run will leave all their possessions on a machine, with the machine running, and go to the bathroom for a few minutes and then come back to use it, while people are still waiting to use one.