Finding the Future in the Land of Heaven
Chengdu, the gateway to southwestern China, moves forward while still preserving its past.
There’s a resplendent three-story teahouse-style building in the heart of the Wide and Narrow Alleys, a traditional-looking shopping and dining quarter in downtown Chengdu. Verdant green moss coats the step-shingled roofs, the afternoon light casting long shadows courtesy of the buildings’ winged eaves; classical features of Qing dynasty architecture. The characters hanging above the slate gray brick entryway read 星巴克咖啡. My pulse quickens as I step into the inner courtyard, excited to unearth what’s certain to be an ancient store housed within. It’s not until I cross the threshold that the Latin characters come into full view: Starbucks Coffee. I laugh loudly in spite of myself.
This is China. More specifically, this is Chengdu, the Sichuan province’s capital city. It hasn’t yet reached tier one city status in terms of population or smog levels, although you can taste the slimy, smoky pollution when inhaling. Luxury goods companies have already set up shop, but locals will brag about their beloved giant pandas before noting the Prada flagship or three neighborhood Burberry stores.
It’s these small yet significant paradoxes, and others like them, that have thrust Chengdu into the global limelight. Straddling tradition and modernity, this municipality of roughly 14 million people treasures sentiments of the old while also prizing the new. This push and pull has elevated Chengdu into both a domestic and international destination.
What’s “real” got to do with it?
“It’s a fake,” says Carol Pouget, a French anthropologist who’s been living in Chendgu for more than 10 years. She’s referring to the architecture throughout the Wide and Narrow Alleys, a handful of streets lined with one- or two-story buildings. Elevated thresholds and striking archways buttressed by commanding stone-carved dragons abound. Pushcart food stalls fill the gaps, hawking tian shui mian (sweet water noodles) out of steaming pots and guo kui (baked bread pockets packed with shredded carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts and pork). “There’s no real built history, but a reimagining of what these edifices and streets might have looked like in their prime.” (The Qing dynasty ruled from 1644 until 1912).
The Wide and Narrow Alleys is a textbook example of fanggu, a term that translates to “imitating the old,” a popular way to replicate historical buildings and an immensely popular building style throughout China. In its haste to erect infrastructure, the Chinese government destroyed many relics throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The old buildings that remained intact either were leveled or sustained immense damage when a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the rugged, mountainous region northwest of Chengdu in 2008.
Rather than preserving the buildings themselves, residents sought to preserve the essence of Chengdu. Locals continue to flood into the city’s green spaces, like the aptly named People’s Park, to practice tai chi in the mornings and play mahjong in evenings. The Sichuan Opera’s acrobatic dancing and earsplitting falsettos remain alive and well, as does the continued practice of traditional arts like brocade and silver making. In fact, in recent years, traditional handicrafts produced throughout the region have attracted the global eye of preservationists and contemporary designers alike.
Jason Keehn, the founder of Accompany — a New York–based, fashion-forward online marketplace that partners with local communities to promote ethical fashion and preserve local handicrafts — traveled specifically to Chengdu in 2016 to scout artisans. There, he discovered the woven brocade traditions of the Miao, one of the most ancient ethnic minorities in southern China.
Miao women are stunning. I watch as a trio of petite dark-haired ladies adorned with shimmering silver bracelets, combs, pins and chest plates emerge from their upstairs studio. Their hair is pinned exquisitely in three giant arches atop each of their heads, and the Miao women squeal when they touch my loose, wavy, almond-colored locks — a decidedly different color and texture than their own. Their tiny knuckles are engorged from years of manipulating thread and looms, but the women remain graceful and adept as they begin to sort garments and lay out samples.
“Their level of craftsmanship is astounding and the detail is gorgeous,” Keehn says, running his fingers across a neon pink, sultry purple and black Miao-made brocade jacket, “but to appeal to a contemporary audience it needs to be applied in an unexpected way with a stylized, modern twist.” After returning to New York, Keehn will begin working with a group of Miao ladies to apply their techniques onto a man’s work shirt, his appropriation of a centuries-old practice for a contemporary consumer.
It took Keehn some serious pavement-pounding to separate the fake, often machine-made work from the truly hand-stitched. Yet another example of the discord between past and present Chengdu: fast-cheap industry versus national treasure. One most directly affects the country’s GDP, the other, its cultural legacy.
Walk it off then shop it out
Since ancient times Chengdu has had the reputation of “Land of Heaven.” Geographically, Sichuan’s capital city is surrounded by mountains, so its people rarely feared invasion. Climate-wise, it’s hot and humid, with the kind of sticky, sweltering summers that encourage plentiful fall and winter harvests. “Put a stick in the ground and it will grow flowers,” goes one centuries-old saying.
The city’s most famous residents are its “bear cats,” the literal Chinese translation for giant pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is the biggest captive-bred population of giant pandas globally. Located on the outskirts of town, it attracts both foreign and domestic tourists as well as locals. In addition to its pandas, the research base boasts rivers, lakes, brooks, wild bamboo forests, caves and plant pits — presenting the closest thing to a lush forest for these metropolis-dwellers.
Upon touring the grounds, I first encounter Jiao Qing, “a big foodie,” according to the placard displayed just outside his quarters, and he has a stomach to show for it. A large crowded amasses in an instant as Jiao Qing audibly begins chomping on bamboo. (Pandas only absorb 20 percent of bamboo’s nutrients.) The audience claps and cheers joyously when the panda, clearly exhausted from his roughly two minutes of eating, falls onto his back, off of his man-made platform and into a tumble executed with a kind of clumsy grace that would make most stuntmen jealous.
Perhaps it’s the combination of pandas, Chengdu’s beloved lazy locals, and the city’s oasis of greenery that leads residents to seek out a work-life balance — something unthinkable in China’s larger cities. As has been the case for centuries, parks here are meeting places for games or sports, evening dancing, or even a walk.
Simultaneously, Chengdu has become one of the country’s largest markets for luxury goods. By the end of October 2016, the city’s overall retail sales reached US$66.7 billion, up 10.2 percent from 2015, according to a retail briefing from Savills China, a global real-estate services provider.
Cartier presented an East-meets-West exhibit entitled “The Making of Art” at the Sichuan Museum in 2015. The installation focused on the Chinese inspiration throughout Cartier’s pieces, a kind of transcultural ricochet. That same year, Givenchy and Giorgio Armani also landed, and Céline and Fendi introduced their second set of Chengdu stores.
Since then, marquee brands like Cartier and Dior have debuted their large-scale fashion exhibitions in Chengdu before sending them onto China’s fashion capitals.
Eat it up
These contrasts of ancient and new, old and young, dissolve over a feverishly boiling pot of broth. Hungry patrons, myself included, crowd around to dunk, dip and roll leafy greens and every kind of sliced meat, adding voluminous textures to an already robust vessel of flavor. It’s impossible to walk a block in Chengdu without stumbling across a hot pot restaurant, a quintessentially local dining experience.
After diving into my own pot with friends, I almost instantaneously can’t feel my throat. Neither, it seems, can the nearly bald, bespectacled man to my left, who’s mirroring my movements. There’s what feels to be a gasping for air and a natural instinct to touch — as if my throat may have somehow disappeared from my body.
Locals have a name for that — Ma, the numbing, occasionally burning sensation that travels through your mouth, down your throat and into your stomach after eating Sichuan fare, is par for the course in Chengdu.
Tradition and modernity fuse together in this culinary scene; one cannot exist without the other. Ingredients and recipes have been passed down for generations, but one thing’s for sure: Sichuan cuisine has always been hot and spicy.
At first bite, Sichuan cooking is a labyrinth of herbs and spices, much like at first glance the city is a maze of malls and skyscrapers. But just as a feast of flavor slouches below the spice, a charming city lies beneath Chengdu’s concrete exterior. Finishing up my broth, wiping my brow, and still habitually checking the existence of my trachea, I learn that UNESCO declared Chengdu a “city of gastronomy” in 2011. This, I realize, is a city rooted in the land but fostered by its people, old but new all at once.
Alexandra Cheney is the Los Angeles editor of Centurion Magazine and a contributor to Luxury Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter and InStyle, among other publications. She still chuckles whenever she spots a Starbucks Coffee.