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Asian Games

Through the clouds, Hangzhou's people shine through

The Hangzhou Asian Games are the most futuristic Games, replete with robot volunteers, facial recognition systems, driverless cars. But through all this and the gloomy weather, the Chinese people's warmth shines through.

Through the clouds, Hangzhous people shine through

The Asian Games Village in Hangzhou; volunteers prepare for the Games (Dipankar Lahiri/The Bridge; Xinhua Agency)


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 23 Sep 2023 3:30 AM GMT

Hangzhou: When European explorer Marco Polo went through China in the 12th century, it was the people of Hangzhou who captivated him the most. As all of Asia converges here on the eve of the 19th Asian Games, it is easy to see why.

Around eight centuries ago, the world's first great travel writer had described this Chinese city as the 'city of heaven'. The men here 'are of peaceful character', while the women 'are extremely accomplished in the arts of allurement, such that strangers seem to get bewitched and never can get them out of their heads', reads The Travels of Marco Polo. '(They) treat foreigners who visit for trade with great cordiality, and entertain them in the most winning manner, affording them every help,' he wrote.

Here at the Asian Games Village, where last-minute preparations are underway, the behaviour of volunteers and staff indicates that Hangzhou's people have remained just as Marco Polo had seen. If one takes a walk down a seemingly deserted street, smiling volunteers pop up from nowhere with profuse Ni haos (Chinese welcome). They stop playing games on their mobile phones when any visitor approaches, whether their assistance is solicited or not.

When asked for directions, no one is content to just give them, they must also walk at least half the way to make sure the message has been conveyed.

Nina, one of the volunteers at the Village, had a look of shock on her face when a guest started to walk away without her as her translator app spoke out in English: "People go to the...". She later explained that she had meant, "Let us go to the...".

"This is a translation app the Asian Games organisers have provided us. Most of us have working knowledge of English, but this is usually very helpful in talking to guests from so many countries," Nina later said, asking the guest at the end of the walk if she could have a photo with him.

A metro in Hangzhou sports Asian Games icons

Even guests who arrive late in the night have a reception arranged at the Hangzhou airport. "Where are you from? Oh, India is so near to us! Let us exchange cigarettes," said a volunteer who was part of the reception party on Thursday night. That this diplomatic offer was in earnest was made clear when he fumbled in his pockets to retrieve one.

Hangzhou's festival has one threat - rain

'Asian Games for a better city', blares out one of the recurrent messages on the city-scape. This is one of the many messages on the Asiad splattered across buildings, bridges, stations and roads. Hangzhou has endured an impatient wait to host the Asiad because of the one-year Covid delay, but for some residents, the wait has not been all that bad.

"There wasn't much to see here before, the city has been rebuilt over the last few years. You get a sense of poetry when walking down the streets now. The Asian Games are not just about sportspersons, it's also a festival for people here," said Chen Yi, a local who stays near the Village.

The gates of this festival will be thrown open with the opening ceremony at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium on Saturday evening. A two-hour performance, the highlight of which is set to be the lighting of the cauldron by a virtual torchbearer coming down from the sky, will officially begin the Games.

Tops of skyscrapers disappear into clouds on Friday night

There is one worry on everyone's minds though - rain. It has been raining in Hangzhou continuously for the past few days. If the weather does not change on Saturday evening, much of the year-long preparations for the ceremony will have gone down the drain. There is a back-up plan in place to hold a shortened version of the performance at an indoor venue nearby.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who is on his first trip to China in 20 years, Nepal PM Pushpa Prachanda are some of the heads of states who will be at the opening ceremony. Leaders from South Korea, Malaysia, Cambodia and Kuwait are also being hosted, China's foreign ministry announced earlier this week.

Much like during the recent G20 meet in New Delhi, a lot of the roads near the main venue in Hangzhou have been skirted off with banners, hiding how the city would usually look. 'Access to dirty area', says one of the signs on a banner. This must also be a case of translation error, as the 'dirty area' turns out to be a pretty clean parking area.

A futuristic, green Games

The most visible messages across Hangzhou are of sustainability and futuristic technology. Robot volunteers, facial recognition systems and driverless cars are some of the marvels the city offers.

It is as if China, set to become the world's largest economy by 2028, is seeking to convince the world that despite its global image, especially battered over the last three years, it holds the secret to the future. Now until the future, the theme song of the Games, plays at stations and traffic intersections. The slogan of the Games is 'Heart to Heart, @Future'.

There is a stress on making the Games environment-friendly. The venues of the events are powered by green energy. Only 12 of the 56 venues were inaugurated, the others were renovated or repurposed.

The city has the world's largest bicycle sharing system, where 75,000 bicycles are for public use, including guests at the Asian Games.

Inside the Asian Games Village

There is also a low carbon programme at the Asian Games Village for athletes, media and technical officials, where residents earn points by adopting eco-friendly practices like recycling bottles and refraining from using plastic bags. These points can be exchanged for Asian Games memorabilia.

"There is such a degree of good will and neighborly attachment among men and women that you would take the people who live in the same street to be one family," Marco Polo had written about Hangzhou. The Venetian explorer would have had no way to predict the challenge of sustainability, but he would have been proud to see how the people of his favourite city have banded together to face the challenge.

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