The Unchanged in the Changing City

Authors: Go Chengdu


You could get a drink in the hotel bar, a luxurious blend of futuristic and traditional Chinese design, while you contemplate what Chengdu will be like five years from now.
I came to Chengdu because of a man in a peculiar fedora hat that I met at a Beijing artist party. I asked: Where should I go in China if I am interested in culture? He gazed into the air for a few moments, as if tracking a fly, before the conclusive answer came: Chengdu. A week later I found myself in one of the artist villages on the outskirts of Chengdu poking around the studios of several internationally renowned painters.
I find something deeply intriguing about the city where people nevertheless are able to kick back and linger over a pot of tea with friends for hours amid the urban hustle and bustle. It makes you think that Chengdu may be an example to the world on how to combine the demands of a modern mega city with an appreciation of quality of life.
I like to take friends who come to visit on an introductory tour that follows a north-south axis. We start out with the best preserved Buddhist monastery in Chengdu, Wenshu Yuan. In addition to its exquisite buildings and tranquil atmosphere, you get an interesting glimpse into Buddhism as it is practiced in present day China, with young students making offerings to secure good luck in the upcoming exams, or some elderly lady conspiring with the deities in her efforts to become a granny.
For another taste of traditional China in a modern guise, we head to the Chengdu University of Traditional Medicine's Hospital. Whereas in Western hospitals the patients right to privacy ranks above all, we were on our guided tour allowed to get up close with patients and doctors and explore every corner of this rather rustic and odorous institution. An experience deeply imprinted in my mind is giving some frail, old lady a shoulder rub, after being enthusiastically urged by her doctor. The herbal pharmacy is particularly famous, an organized chaos, with bags of herbs pouring out from every cupboard.
I love to stroll around the old residential areas and take in the street scenes, like Yu Lin and the pleasant alleys south of Yu Lin Xi Lu. We are not talking ancient-old, most of the buildings were raised in the 50s and 60s, but you do feel you are observing the continuation of a life style that goes much further back. Hairdressers, butchers, fruit sellers, seamstresses all doing their thing, neighbors gathering around a mahjong table while surrounded by hordes of onlookers. Will the lifestyle survive the day the neighborhood gets renovated? When darkness falls Chengdu's signature sound grows even more intense, the clickety-clack of smooth mahjong tiles coming at you from all directions.
It is then time to haul a taxi and head south beyond the third ring road, to experience the thrill and awe of the new Chengdu that is taking shape there. Clusters of shiny new high rises shoot up at a dazzling speed, filling in the vast expanses of former farmland. Go to Century City and the InterContinental Hotel - you will recognize its sleek neon-lit outline from afar, like something out of the science fiction movie «Tron». You could get a drink in the hotel bar, a luxurious blend of futuristic and traditional Chinese design, while you contemplate what Chengdu will be like five years from now.

By Asgeir:He is a Norwegian anthropologist who is interested in innovation and social change. He has stayed in Chengdu for one year in an attempt to understand a little bit about what is going on here, and has also made some meager efforts to learn Chinese.
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