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Over the top for a Sunday of free fun

By John Clark (China Daily)

10:57, May 18, 2012

(Photo from China Daily)

If you want to learn a new skill, you should go to the top exponents in the field.

In this case the top men aren't in the field, they are in the park. You can hear them before you see them.

A low-pitched humming noise came from six spinning tops, diabolos or Chinese yo-yos (kongzhu) expertly wielded by their middle-aged and elderly owners.

I pedaled home quickly and picked up the top I was given as a birthday present. All my attempts to work the darn thing had failed. It either fell or the string ended up in a fankle (Scots for twisted mess).

What I needed was a lesson from experts. I expected my clumsy attempts would be a source of amusement and me, the ignorant laowai, would be the butt of their jokes. I could live with that. I wanted to learn.

I nodded and smiled at the group of men gathered on a Sunday on a sandy square in Yuan Dynasty Wall Park. Taking out my blue plastic top and two wooden sticks connected by string, I wrapped the string around the top and tried to get it going. It fell in the dust.

A dozen top men guffawed delightedly. Then a gray-haired expert showed me how to loop the string around the top and roll it to and fro on the ground before lifting it up by moving the sticks like a percussionist performing a drum roll.

I tried to copy his actions, without success. I wasn't getting the top to spin fast enough.

Meanwhile, an expert with a top attached to about 3 meters of string was creating the sound of an aircraft coming in to land.

My gray-haired tutor went off to fly his kongzhu in elliptical planes around his head and shoulders. He made it look effortless.

A man in his 80s came over and handed me the sticks of his already spinning top. He showed me how to keep it going by shifting my feet and turning in a circle. I managed for a minute and the audience applauded.

The gray-haired tutor returned. The Chinese yo-yo was mushroom shaped. He held it by the shaft where the string goes and demonstrated that both ends could rotate. My plastic spinning top was obviously an inferior model. Despite this, one of my tutors got it going fast enough for it to emit a humming sound. It was now the turn of the champions to demonstrate their exquisite skills.

A middle-aged man in a cap was throwing his kongzhu into the air and catching it on the end of his stick (the stick had a little plastic cap about the size of a 1 yuan coin).

The top continued to spin on the end of the stick and then he pitched it up and caught it on his string bow.

I returned to the park several Sundays later. What sounded like gunshots rang out. A man with a bullwhip had joined the top men. He was teaching a little lad of about 10 how to crack the 4-meter-long whip. Like a ringmaster or lion tamer, the father swung the whip in a lazy arc over his head and then made it crack loudly with a sharp jerk of his arm.

He coached the child. Then the father took over again and let rip with a series of fierce whipcracks, which reduced the rope tail of the bullwhip to shreds.

Two men attached ribbons to their kongzhu and sent them looping around their heads like elegant, wailing banshees. Spontaneous applause broke out from onlookers. On my way home I stopped to watch teams of in-line speed skaters practice, presumably for the 2020 Olympics, on a skating circuit off Huixin Dongjie.

Their average age was about 12. Each eight-person team was led by the youngest, who set the pace. After a lap, he or she dropped back and the next in line took up pacemaking. The teams of skaters, in single file and close together moved with perfect coordination like express trains.

I returned home delighted with my Sunday afternoon's free entertainment.

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