There's a scene that crops up in American TV shows and movies as diverse as Friends and Psych, The Rockford Files and Independence Day, that I wonder about every time I see it. I guarantee you have all seen it in something, no matter what your taste in entertainment. It's the scene where the hero wanders down to the park to find someone and there are lots of old men sitting around playing chess. Whoever he is looking for is usually busily involved in a game.
It always makes me wonder if this is an accurate depiction of something that is commonplace in the US or just something that is commonplace on the screen.
I can say with certainty that it's not something that I have ever encountered in the UK and my highly scientific straw poll of two other people indicates that they have never seen it either.
The reason I mention it now is that in China it isn't just commonplace, it's ubiquitous. My walk to school in the morning is a couple of hundred yards. It takes under five minutes if you include the five flights of stairs from my apartment to the street. On that walk I will rarely pass fewer than three groups of men sitting around a table on the pavement playing. Sometimes they are playing Chinese Chess, sometimes cards, sometimes Mahjong and sometimes a strange and inexplicable game with long thin cards with mysterious writing on them. They are always playing something.
You see it in the parks, outside the shops and on every street corner.
And, unlike the version in American programs, this is no sedate and thoughtful battle of the wits. This is a lively and animated pastime. They slam the pieces down onto the board with vigour. The chess pieces are heavy, round, wooden discs about two inches across that are pounded onto the board with the force of a pile driver. The mahjong tiles rattle as loud as a train going by. Even the cards hit the table with a violent slap of the hand. And all of it is accompanied by shouts of triumph as the winner exults in his victory.
Moreover every game gathers a crowd of eager spectators, avidly watching the action and cheering and groaning along with the fortunes of the players.
It's one of the typical scenes of daily life in China that I have never seen anywhere else. Definitely something different.