BEIJING (Reuters) – Each afternoon without fail, a handful of men mostly in their 60s gather at an old bicycle shed in southwest Beijing, clad in sweatshirts and track pants and ready to pump iron.
Up to eight men could be doing bench presses, dumbbell curls or wide-grip pulldowns in the windowless shed, their rust-stained equipment built decades ago with scrap metal from a nearby railway wagon factory where they used to work – a far cry from modern gyms elsewhere in the Chinese capital.
Many club members were young men in their 20s and 30s when it was founded in 1984 by Zhang Wei, winner of Beijing’s first long-distance race in 1956 and a fellow worker at the state-owned Erqi factory, said current gym manager Xu Wei, 63.
Zhang had visited a hotel where some foreign athletes were staying and was impressed by their strength and musculature as they worked out. He made sketches of the equipment the foreign athletes were using, reproducing it later using scrap metal from the factory, Xu said.
Zhang opened his gym just one year after the government had lifted a ban on bodybuilding in place since 1953. The sport, which first emerged in China in the 1930s, was outlawed by the Communist Party because it was “bourgeois” and “narcissistic”.
Xu moved the gym to the 130-square-metre shed – about the size of a four-bedroom apartment – in 2018 with the help of his former colleagues after Zhang died four years earlier.
“In the factory, there were many different specialised workers. For example, I was the fitter,” said Xu.
“We had the electrician and the bricklayer to help us build the gym. We did it all by ourselves.”
Xu has posted on the walls of the gym numerous photos he’s cut from a local magazine of bodybuilding greats from the 1980s and 1990s, including Lee Labrada and Kevin Levrone.
The gym has never closed in its near 40-year history. Not even the COVID-19 pandemic could keep its 29 members – the oldest of whom is 82 – away over the past year.
With the rise of thousands of private gyms and training studios to cater to a younger generation obsessed with fitness and looks, Xu’s club will face stiff competition.
Xu said he will try to keep it running for as long as possible. The membership fee is just 300 yuan ($46) a year, he said, but the gym is free for students, people aged 80 and above, and the unemployed.
($1 = 6.5522 yuan)
(Reporting by Thomas Suen and Ryan Woo; Editing by Tom Hogue)