Shanghai Bird Association

We explore the city's annual bird keeping competition

Yang Xiaozhe
Shanghai's bird keeping tradition stretches back centuries. Time Out join the city's annual bird compeititon in Guilin Park and discover a new generation of young people flocking to take up a new hobby.

Typically, Shanghainese animal markets are not the kind of places you want to visit on a sticky Saturday afternoon. However, Guilin Park’s bird competition might just be the exception. During one of the competitions the park is a world of Lilliputian feeders, cages, perches, grubs and seed sticks where feathered beasts outnumber men and a cacophony of tweets incessantly sings out.

Every May, veteran bird owners from Nanjing, Suzhou and Hangzhou flock here to either trade birds and equipment or enter their pet twitterers into the biggest bird fight in Jiangsu and Zhejiang province.

The ancient tradition of bird keeping reached its height in China during the Qing dynasty. Nowadays in Shanghai, bird lovers meet weekly at the foot of the City God Temple, gearing up for the annual Golden Cup Championship which starts in Suzhou in April. Part market, part tournament, it passes through Wuxi and Shanghai before ending in Jiaxing in late May.

The Guilin Park contest starts at 9am, with battle rounds taking place in hushed circles away from the raucous market area. There are a total of 11 teams in the league and, so far this season, the Shanghai Association (the ‘home’ side at Guilin Park) have won three times. First prize for the winning team is 200-300RMB, plus certificates; the solo champion is awarded a valuable bird feeder.

The singing competitions are contested by xiu yan (or zosterops), a white-eyed Australasian songbird of about 8-15cm. Five birds are positioned in a plum blossom formation (wu meihua), one on each imaginary petal. The birds are then rotated in five rounds. Judges score them according to their volume,change of tone and length of song. Basically, the louder and longer, the better.

For the fights, huang teng (or vinous-throated crowtits) a plain brown, muscular version of the xiu yan are selected. Two cages are bound together, while the birds warm up by letting out battle cries. The tiny territorial birds then violently peck each other through the bars in bloody combat, while absorbed. The fights can be cruel, often ending in one of the birds being injured, however only the cages are bound together and the birds are free to retreat at all times – the first bird to back away from the bars, or sing for surrender, loses the bout.

To enter the competition you’ll need to register with the Shanghai Bird Association a week before the next scheduled match. A basic starter kit for bird keeping costs 200-400RMB. Small mountain birds and plain birds, the most common species, cost 150-20,000RMB from the Wan Shang Bird and Flower Market at Xizang Lu, with the best breeds native to Zhejiang, Nanjing and Shaoxing. This year’s competition is limited to two breeds – though the odd lark or parrot can be spotted about the park, too.

According to Mr Shen, one of the Championship’s organisers, the hobby’s popularity has shrunk over recent years following eviction from its former premises, the Worker’s Cultural Palace at People’s Square. Yet, on our visit,there’s clear interest among youths.

We meet this year’s star player, Lawrence, from Nanjing. He is around 30, and trendy, with a TV presenter smile and thick-rim glasses. He’s also constantly surrounded by a small group of fans who appear to fancy more than just the birds that Lawrence holds.

‘There are many good players in Nanjing but they come to Shanghai for the best equipment,’ he says, explaining that he too has made the trip especially. Bird-keeping paraphernalia can cost a fortune. At the top end, handmade cages from the 1930s cost over 200,000RMB. It’s no coincidence that the hobby is gaining momentum with twenty-somethings at a time when the demographic’s income is climbing rapidly.

‘A lot of young people gather regularly to talk and to admire each others’ birds,’ says Lawrence. ‘For them, it’s a new, highbrow way to hang out together.’

Additional reporting by Cherry Liu.

The Shanghai Bird Association meets every week at the City God Temple, from 9am-midday. See Listings for details