PEKING — Chinese are buying tickets to talk to each other--in English.
English Corner, a bleak roof space atop a bookstore on Peking's busy Wangfujing Street, is attracting hundreds of mostly young Chinese anxious to improve their English. They pay .15 yuan (6 U.S. cents) admission and gab, usually with each other.
It's the latest twist in an English-language craze that began in the late 1970s. A freewheeling English Corner also exists in Shanghai, China's largest and most cosmopolitan city.
Many schools teach English, thousands of workers attend spare-time classes and many listen to the BBC and Voice of America, which has special slow-speed programs for learners.
But opportunities to practice speaking are few.
'Talk About Everything'
"We talk about everything, but mostly how to study English," said technician Li Xiaoling, 29. "We discuss Peking traffic jams, economic reforms, supermarkets, Syrian-Israeli jet battles in the sky."
The state-run Foreign Languages Bookstore recently started the Corner on the roof and in a small, adjoining room. It opens weekends and several times during the week.
At one Sunday-morning session, enthusiasts included high school and university students, clerks, soldiers, engineers, a doctor and a musician. One man, speaking in barely accented English, said "unemployed" when asked his job.
Few foreigners show up, but when one does, Chinese immediately gather round. In the 1960s and 1970s a Chinese who approached a foreign visitor was courting police trouble, but conditions have eased with China's opening to the outside world.
"What does 'shake the legs' mean?" asked one student. "Dilly dally" and "like a dodo bird" were other puzzling idioms, most now dated in the West.
For most, English fluency is an advantage at work and a possible key to overseas travel.
Musician Liu Gong, a clarinet player with a Peking ensemble, said: "After performances, many foreigners come up to talk. I want to speak to them myself, not through an interpreter." Liu also wants to study overseas, as do many of those at English Corner.
Many Chinese attend spare-time English schools, some of them private. Tuition averages three yuan ($1.10) monthly, usually for 24-36 hours of instruction.
The price is right, "but sometimes the Chinese teachers are not so good," said one English speaker.
Few took the leap like 27-year-old He Tongning, who quit his job and is polishing his English before moving to the southern city of Canton "to establish my own company."
"I am more capable than my boss," he said to sympathetic smiles from onlookers. "I quit because I could not develop my ability. Not so many people dare to work for themselves," he added proudly.
Any expression of discontent, especially to a foreigner, was enough to land the garrulous in jail during the 1960s Cultural Revolution.
"Now days," bank clerk Zhang Jianqin, 25, said in stumbling English, "it is very, very freedom."