Bathers at the world’s busiest beach, Fujiazhuang in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, are too busy slapping on the factor 50 and edging between towels and tents at the Gulf of Bohai to hear reminders of their civic duty on the public-address systems that blare out along the promenade.
“If you are suffering from eye disease, or a skin ailment, or diarrhoea, or other ailments, please don’t swim and consult your doctor. Please do not spit, litter or smoke,” urges the voice of a young woman, in a reasonable tone underpinned by an authority that makes anyone raised in the Chinese communist system attentive, even in 33-degree heat.
During peak season, about 40,000 people come to this 500m stretch of beach every day. There is no room for sand castles, or even sand apartments. A sand Portaloo would struggle to fit here.
Fujiazhuang is advertised as a park but it's really just a question of crossing a strip of greenery behind a giant conch shell before you emerge on to the beach itself. Those few steps tell you so much about Chinese culture, and also remind one that how people behave on the beach says an awful lot about how China is as a country.
It's a lovely natural setting, with mountains behind you, the smell of grilled fish and the beautiful ocean, but it has to be said that the initial sighting reminds you of a coastal invasion in a war movie, like D-Day in Saving Private Ryan, or a much busier Dunkirk.
There are thousands of people bobbing offshore, aimlessly, in flotation devices (okay, these lurid lifebelts are more Hello Kitty than The Longest Day) while on the beach itself tents have been set up in lines and older people are supplying water and locally sourced food. Spirits are high. There are dozens of pleasure craft anchored within sight of shore. It's like Brittas Bay in the 1970s, but well-organised.
Li Zheng from Changchun, an industrial city in nearby Jilin province in the Dongbei region of northern China, came to Dalian specifically to enjoy the beach.
“First of all, because most places here in Dongbei has no beach, so we chose to go to Dalian. When the weather is hot, the beach is of course the best choice for relaxing. We go there mainly for leisure. Water makes me feel so spacious and there is no noise from the city, only the sky and the ocean. We walk around, we swim, we lay around and eat lots of seafood,” said Li, who runs an account for a property company and is 46 years old. She is here with her mother and her young son.
The smoking rule is ignored, as the many Speedo-wearing smokers along the waterfront attest, although it is notable that in 15 years here I have noticed that public spitting is definitely becoming less common in China.
Generally in China, people like to do their own thing, just like anywhere else. Although no one wants to be seen to step out of line, most people go their own way, discreetly.
Most of what the woman on the public-address system says is sensible, but some of her requests are fairly unappetising when you view how just many bathers are expected to follow the cadre’s entreaties and dictums.
A few grassy knolls around trees and in the shade of rubbish bins smell strongly of urine, so clearly someone is ignoring the rules about public urination, including at least four elderly men I spotted.
One family with a small child told me the instructions not to urinate in public only apply to adults, which chimes with traditional Chinese open nappies and public acceptance of allowing kids to urinate and defecate wherever the need takes them.
No one seems overly concerned when I ask about the nearby trench, they just say to swim carefully
Men of all ages like to roll up their shirts and expose their midriffs to cool down. This is known as “bang ye” or “Chinese shirt roll” which I’ve also heard referred to as the “general’s roll”. Exposed non-six packs notwithstanding, the loudspeaker advice continues.
“Do not swim after drunk [sic]. Warm up before you swim. Do not swim alone. Do not swim at dawn, at dusk or at night. Do not swim if you are bleeding or have any open wounds. Do not rely on swimming aids. Stay out of the water during thunderstorms,” she says.
Her advice is sensible, reassuring, but then comes the bombshell: “Please bear in mind there is a steep, 100-metre drop-off a short distance offshore. Those with limited swimming skills should be careful. We wish you have a nice day [sic]. Thanks.”
A 100m drop-off! Does it suddenly become 100m deep? Or does the drop-off take place after 100 metres. No one seems overly concerned when I ask about the nearby trench, they just say to swim carefully.
Between the continental shelf looming within a few breaststrokes and the open wounds possibly seeping into the Bohai Gulf, I’ve decided I’m staying within paddling range.
Guo Ningxue is getting changed on a bench by the waterfront and he calls me over, wanting to speak English. Although Dalian is a very international city, foreigners remain less common than in places such as Beijing and Shanghai, and you are still regularly approached by people wanting to practice their language skills.
It used to be a pain for foreigners in China, as it happened all the time, but for this long-time Beijing resident it feels like a throwback to the early days of China’s opening up and is not unenjoyable.
Guo is a big fan of the beach and he tells me not to be worried about the water.
“I think this is the best beach in Dalian, this one right here. It’s very suitable for the local people to swim. The temperature today is very high, 33 degrees, so most people have come here to lower their temperatures, they need to cool down. Every summer, I come nearly every day to swim,” said Guo.
“If the people plunge into the water, it makes them feel very comfortable,” he said.
No one resents the tourists coming in, especially as local people from Dalian can get there earlier in the day.
“Most of the people come from Dalian, part of them come from other northern cities like Harbin in Heilongjiang province and also suburbs around our city. They are smaller cities than Dalian,” said Guo, who speaks excellent English. He goes by the English name Watson.
Dalian is a welcoming place. It sells itself these days as a “romantic and trendy” city, and still enjoying its reputation as a “garden city”, over the four decades of China’s opening up and reform Dalian has established a reputation as a progressive, innovative city.
Another young fan of Fujiazhuang who gave her surname as Feng and who works for an overseas company said she enjoys the beach in China. While she prefers foreign beaches, she thinks Dalian’s beaches are cool.
“There is no snorkelling or sailing or surfboarding like I saw when I was abroad,” she said. “But people from everywhere, it doesn’t matter where, are close to the water, right?”
The role of the lifeguard seems different here – it extends to ensure that people behave themselves, a group of monitors that functions a bit like the Shore Patrol in the US navy. These lifeguard-monitors are locals too, like everyone else, and the most enjoyable part of the day is inspecting the seafood tanks. Despite the enormous numbers of people, things function efficiently.
China is anarchic in ways that are hard for westerners to immediately understand. Most Chinese people are dismissive of the rules – just look at the traffic – but highly aware of convention and Confucian tradition.
There is a cultural dislike of tanned skin, associated with poverty because you get sunburned working in the fields as a farmer
This means that even if the country makes a chaotic impression most of the time, there is order beneath. And you can see this order on Fujiazhuang beach.
The Fujiazhuang beachfront is in no way crowded with restaurants like other places. In the fish restaurant, there are rows of tanks filled with all manner of fish, including prawns, sea cucumber, scallops, sea conch, sea bream, small octopuses, seaweed and crabs. And it’s not just fish and seafood: there is so much more, including dumplings, pancakes, tea eggs and kebabs.
These dishes are cooked in the local manner, but because of the influence of Japan, which occupied the city for 40 years in the early part of the last century, and nearby Korea, the range of different seafood options is bewildering and truly fantastic.
Great food aside, Dalian has always been of key military significance, and its naval academy is among China's most important. Dalian is located in Liaoning province, and China's first aircraft carrier is called Liaoning, a source of intense pride. The Liaoning is a reconditioned Soviet vessel, but in May this year China's first homegrown aircraft carrier sailed out of Dalian for its first sea trial.
Dalian’s appeal is wide. When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made the second of his three trips to ideological ally China in May, he went for a walk on the beach in Dalian, enjoying “laughs and deep conversation”.
China is a socially conservative country, and along the beach most Chinese women are modestly dressed in skirted bikinis but the atmosphere is generally relaxed.
There is a cultural dislike of tanned skin, associated with poverty because you get sunburned working in the fields as a farmer, so many sunbathers keep their arms covered, and sport enormous sun visors that are not unlike the bonnets worn by the downtrodden women of The Handmaid's Tale, except for in lurid plastic colours.
Behind the beach, dozens of groups of old blokes play poker on the walkway. They are friendly, keen to share tea and stories of meeting Russian and Japanese sailors over their years in Dalian.
These older men are charming, but also a demographic challenge for China, where the population, currently running at about 1.37 billion, is expected to peak at 1.45 billion in 2030.
Thereafter the population is expected to start falling rapidly, dropping to 1.4 billion by 2050 and 1.1 billion by the end of this century. By 2050, the elderly will comprise a third of Chinese people – it looks like many will want to hang out on the beach.
After seafood restaurants and beach toy shops, the main industry on Fujiazhuang beach is wedding photography. I witnessed this when I first visited the beach in 2005 and it has since expanded massively. The rocky headland is filled with photo shoots – snappers with cameras and tripods, assistants with reflectors and even klieg lights, and brides wearing their bridal dresses over shorts or jeans. These are jagged rocks and the people’s ability to stay upright is impressive.
They whip off the gowns after the pictures are taken to keep them pristine for the big day, which can often be months away. They bustle for places on the rocks for the best shot against the glorious Dalian skyline. And what a beautiful vista it is.