Feathered friends

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 December, 2003, 12:00am

Holden Caufield, in The Catcher in the Rye, asks what happens to the ducks in New York's Central Park when the pond freezes over. The grown-ups have no patience with the question.

That got me thinking. Has anyone wondered what happens to the ducks in Beijing's parks now that the lakes are covered with ice?

No, they do not end up on the table as roasted Peking ducks. Their gamey taste would ruin the reputation of the capital's fine delicacy.

In summer, I have watched ducks swimming in the greenish waters of the park in Houhai, which is rapidly becoming the new trendy bar district. As the harsh winter sets in, the outdoor plastic tables and chairs disappear. And so do the ducks.

In fact, their welfare is on the minds of old and the young alike in the neighbourhood. It warms my heart to see a picture in the Beijing News of a few ducks casting shadows on the lake's glassy surface. The wild ducks make their home on the south shore, where the people who live in the narrow alleys and traditional courtyards have adopted them. But they like to spend their days on the north shore, where they enjoy the open space, the sun and warmer water.

Ice forming outwards from the shore had gradually narrowed the channel which the ducks use to swim between home and their playground.

One early afternoon, the man who hires out boats in warmer days saw that the encroaching ice had covered the channel, while the ducks sunned themselves on the north shore. So, he used one of his boats as an ice-breaker to clear the channel. After five hours of smashing the ice with an oar, he finally got to the ducks, leaving behind him a four-metre wide, 500-metre long channel.

The stranded ducks plopped into the water and swam home at dusk. Just as they set off, their exhausted saviour lost his balance and fell into the icy water. He quickly climbed back into the boat and headed back to his shack to dry off.

For some of the elderly people in the neighbourhood, feeding the wild ducks is as serious a task as walking the dog. Carrying their day-old steamed buns to the lakeside, they call out ya, ya, (ducky, ducky) and the birds move in for the food 'like obedient children'.

Children in the nearby elementary school are taught to love the wild ducks; a duck club has even been formed.

The lakeside neighbourhood has seen the rise and fall of dynastic fortunes. The stately palaces, which once belonged to some of the most powerful figures of the imperial clan, are still part of the landscape. Today, bars throng the streets. Beijing white-collar workers love their new haunt for what they call the 'petit-bourgeois ambiance'.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield struggles with the fact that everyone has to grow up.

Beijing also struggles with its development. The wild ducks and their saviour in his boat are a reminder that innocence still lives on.