Now that the spring winds have left behind the annual layers of dust on Peking window sills and the dry summer heat has settled in for the season, people in this north China metropolis are exploring how to spend their spare time. It's a challenge for young and old alike.
An evening of small talk with friends. Watching foreign (often East European) films on television. Playing chess on the street under a dim pole light. Hanging around a hotel disco.
These activities sum up the possibilities for most Peking residents. It's the sort of entertainment fare Chinese love to complain about, and the official press perennially voices sympathy for their ennui, which erupts each year when the weather gets hot.
``Peking is a boring place,'' groused one young college graduate.
A recent survey of Peking residents by the official Economics Daily newspaper came to the same conclusion. The survey also showed that, perhaps for lack of anything better to do, the most popular spare-time activity is watching television.
``We are hooked on television,'' said a college-educated factory engineer disdainfully.
Asked if he thought this year's innovation of daylight-savings time had changed people's viewing habits (since there is an extra hour of daylight in the evening), he was quite sure it hadn't.
``Television is a novelty, so most people still watch every night from newstime [at 7 p.m.] until it goes off the air [about 10 p.m.],'' he said.
Moviegoing is also popular, according to the newspaper survey, though less so than a few years ago. TV (despite its dull offerings) has taken its toll on the size of movie audiences, and film buffs add that the bland fare of China's eight major film studios is another reason movie houses have empty seats.
Peking's current selection features a half-dozen foreign films, including one popular Soviet production, ``Romance of the Battlefield'' -- a nonideological love story set during World War II. After an absence of more than 20 years, Soviet films have a special attraction.
Last year's sampling of American films has played out, though several new releases are expected this summer, including one called ``The Great Wall is the Great Wall.'' It is the first US-China coproduction film venture and tells the story of a Chinese-American family who visit Peking relatives and discover their roots. The film is fiction, though presented in a documentary style that gives it the feel of everyday life in this city.
The film's vitality and cross-cultural humor are a rarity, and it's certain to be a hit. It touches on the experiences of thousands who have encountered overseas relations and discovered that there is more to a person's identity than merely being born Chinese.
Except for Chinese opera (tickets for which sell out weeks in advance), the theater scene is spare. China's Shakespeare festival in April left a deep impression on many theatergoers and whetted their appetite for more foreign drama. In fact, most of the handful of plays now being staged in Peking are by foreign playwrights.
If families and young couples want to go out, it's usually off to the parks. Here people take unaccountable pleasure in climbing over strange and sometimes dangerously constructed rock formations and paddling squeaky metal boats around the lakes.
In Long Tan Park one recent Sunday afternoon, children delighted in scooping up tiny frogs from the water's edge and, for less than five cents each, chased their friends through a bamboo maze to the sound of Hong Kong disco music or watched trained bears ride bicycles in a tent side-show.
Even for singles, the scarcity of tickets to plays and concerts and the dull programming on national television do not present serious obstacles to spare-time happiness.
``Sure, there's little to do in the evenings,'' one factory worker commented, ``but it's more exciting here than in the suburbs.''
Each week the young man takes the bus to Peking from his factory some 30 miles away. On his one day off, he looks up friends and browses in bookstores. After a plate of dumplings or a bowl of noodles at a street-food stall, he and his buddies seek out a dance party or visit one of the few tea houses that have opened.
Peking is a cheap weekend and it offers good prospects for finding a wife, he said cheerfully.