Pan­das plus in Chengdu

Chic and cheer­ful in the cap­i­tal of Sichuan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - GE­OR­GIA FREED­MAN

On the gen­tle slopes of Futou Moun­tain, 56km from the Chi­nese city of Chengdu, a small posse of gi­ant pan­das is sleep­ing in the shade, obliv­i­ous to the hun­dreds of tourists call­ing out, hop­ing they’ll wake up and move around a lit­tle so the in­ter­lop­ers can get a good photo.

I was one of those im­pa­tient tourists a few years ago, when I first trav­elled to the city. Most Western­ers who go to Chengdu, the cap­i­tal of Sichuan prov­ince, come to visit its panda re­search and breed­ing cen­tre, af­ter they’ve seen the Great Wall in Bei­jing and the ter­ra­cotta war­riors in Xi’an.

Many Chi­nese, how­ever, value Chengdu for another rea­son — its laid-back life­style. In this river­side city, which tends to be hot and hu­mid year-round, life takes place out­doors. Restau­rant ta­bles spill out onto side­walks, parks are full of peo­ple drink­ing tea and catch­ing up with friends. In the his­toric pedes­trian-only streets you can line up for bowls of spicy dan-dan noo­dles, then, less ro­man­ti­cally, get your ears cleaned on a nearby side­walk by pro­fes­sion­als wield­ing long metal and bam­boo ear scrap­ers.

This city of eight mil­lion (mid-size by Chi­nese stan­dards) off­sets its re­laxed at­mos­phere with an en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and a cut­ting-edge style.

Both the art and food scenes have re­cently dis­tin­guished them­selves, giv­ing the city new cred among the coun­try’s young so­phis­ti­cates.

Over the years, I’ve vis­ited Chengdu four times while liv­ing and trav­el­ling in western China and spent much of my time wan­der­ing the city’s charm­ing old quar­ters. On my most re­cent trip, how­ever, foiled by a rainy fore­cast, I de­cide to fo­cus my sight­see­ing in­doors, seek­ing out the city’s more mod­ern at­trac­tions.

I start at A Thou­sand Plateaus, one of Chengdu’s best­known con­tem­po­rary art gal­leries, where the direc­tor, Liu Jie, of­fers up a crash course in the city’s eco­nomic his­tory. “China’s eco­nomic re­forms started in Sichuan and An­hui in the late 1970s,” he tells me. “The gov­ern­ment felt it would be safer to start it far from the big cities, such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai.”

Chengdu had suf­fered through a par­tic­u­larly high level of in­sta­bil­ity and de­struc­tion dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, and when res­i­dents were given the op­por­tu­nity to start busi­nesses, the city flour­ished. These days, it’s home to a va­ri­ety of in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing a boom­ing tech sec­tor that in­cludes a large soft­ware park, tech star­tups and an Ap­ple iPhone fac­tory.

These same free­doms also catal­ysed a con­tem­po­rary art scene, and Liu Jie rep­re­sents many of the top names in the Chi­nese art world. When I visit A Thou­sand Plateaus, the ground-floor gallery is de­voted to a show by Chengdu-born Yang Mian, who has ren­dered an­cient works of art into pointil­list-like dots in the cyan, ma­genta, yel­low and black hues used in colour print­ing.

The gallery re­cently moved to a new com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ment in the south of the city, not too far from the re­lo­cated restau­rant of Yu Bo, one of Chengdu’s most fa­mous con­tem­po­rary chefs. Yu’s Fam­ily Kitchen is housed in the chef’s home, a three-storey pen­t­house apart­ment dec­o­rated with Louis XVI-style fur­ni­ture. Yu’s cook­ing is a so­phis­ti­cated rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of tra­di­tional Sichuan cui­sine, best known for its spicy, numb­ing flavours.

I sit at one of just two small ta­bles set up in the liv­ing room and work my way through a tast­ing menu that in­cludes more than 15 dishes, from a piece of poached cod in a bowl of sour-spicy broth to slices of tea-smoked duck served with lit­tle buns for sand­wich-mak­ing, to more steamed buns shaped like tiny por­cu­pines. With each dish, I feel I’ve learned some­thing new about the sub­tleties and com­plex­ity of Sichuan’s cui­sine.

In the heart of the old city, in a shiny new shop­ping cen­tre called Tai Koo Li, the two-year-old Tem­ple House Ho­tel also ex­em­pli­fies how even the city’s most mod­ern es­tab­lish­ments draw on Chengdu’s past. The gue­strooms are hi-tech and lux­u­ri­ous, with fancy linens and espresso ma­chines, but de­sign de­tails through­out the ho­tel ref­er­ence the city’s his­tory. The “wo­ven” bronze fret­work on the fa­cade echoes the re­gion’s fa­mous bro­cade, and the reception area sits in a care­fully ren­o­vated Qing Dy­nasty court­yard house.

The ho­tel’s Jing Bar, set in a cov­ered cor­ner of the ho­tel’s court­yard and or­na­mented with enor­mous ferns in bur­nished cop­per bowls, is one of the few clas­sic cock­tail bars in the city. On my first evening, I drop in for a Za­capa Saz­erac, a rich mix of aged rum, le­mon, bit­ters and ab­sinthe. As I nurse my drink, I eaves­drop on Chi­nese women sip­ping Moscow Mules out of per­fectly chilled cop­per cups, busi­ness­men in tai­lored suits pour­ing $265 bot­tles of Aglian­ico and young cou­ples out on dates, gin­gerly sip­ping elab­o­rate tiki drinks.

In­ter­na­tional brands such as Tif­fany and Zara pop­u­late Tai Koo Li, but a few more sur­pris­ing pur­vey­ors are tucked into the mix. In the base­ment I stum­ble across Fang­suo Com­mune, a mas­sive, high-de­sign book­store (with stacks of Kin­folk, the Port­land-based magazine that caters to ur­ban hip­sters), which also sells cloth­ing from in­ter­na­tional de­sign­ers and hand­made ce­ram­ics.

Near the ho­tel, the bou­tique Si He cham­pi­ons Chi­nese de­sign­ers — a rel­a­tive rarity in a coun­try that prizes Western la­bels — with an eclec­tic ar­ray of of­fer­ings, from girlie lace dresses by a company called To Be Adored to high-con­cept items such as com­i­cally wide-legged felt tuxedo pants. A few blocks away, the bou­tique Zola dis­plays chic silk blouses and el­e­gantly tai­lored coats from Chengdu-born de­signer Ke Dan.

Even some of the city’s most cher­ished in­sti­tu­tions are get­ting a facelift. At Wen­shu Yuan, a work­ing Bud­dhist tem­ple, I am sur­prised to find a brand-new tea­house in a side court­yard dec­o­rated with blond­wood fur­ni­ture and pre­cisely placed tea tins — far more el­e­gant than most tem­ple tea­houses with their util­i­tar­ian fur­ni­ture and cheap pack­ets of leaves. I or­der a del­i­cate oo­long tea served in a porce­lain gai­wan, a lid­ded bowl, which comes with a small tray of pe­tits fours. The ef­fect is lovely, but af­ter an hour of con­tem­pla­tive quiet, I long to get back into the thick of the bustling city.

The next morn­ing, once the weather clears, I head over to Qingyang District, an area with a mix of apart­ment com­plexes, restau­rants and small busi­nesses seem­ingly al­ways abuzz. I make a bee­line to my favourite lunch spot, a small restau­rant called Chun Yang Yuan, where I al­ways get the lo­cal spe­cialty, hong you chaoshou, pork won­tons in chilli oil. The owner, a youth­ful­look­ing man known as “Hand­some Ma”, greets me like an old friend.

Af­ter lunch I walk the few blocks to the pop­u­lar Peo­ple’s Park. Along a wind­ing path, a mar­riage mar­ket is in full swing, with par­ents of lo­cal 20-some­things sit­ting next to print­outs de­tail­ing their child’s height, weight, ed­u­ca­tion and in­come, wait­ing for a par­ent with a com­pat­i­ble child to set up a date. Nearby, a large group of elderly lo­cals are tak­ing part in a tal­ent com­pe­ti­tion, singing rous­ing songs, act­ing out scenes from Chi­nese op­eras and per­form­ing lo­cal dances, all backed by full bands.

On the east side of the park, hun­dreds of peo­ple have set­tled into an­gu­lar bam­boo chairs in out­door tea­houses. Many are dressed for work or carry shop­ping bags from high-end bou­tiques. Soon, no doubt, they will head back to their shiny new of­fices. But for now they talk with friends, play cards, check their phones and snack on sun­flower seeds, their grow­ing piles of dis­carded shells vis­ual proof of time well-spent. I find an empty ta­ble un­der a small flow­er­ing tree, buy a cup of green tea, and set­tle in to en­joy the sunny af­ter­noon.

THE WALL STREET JOUR­NAL

Panda in Chengdu, top; Jing Bar at Tem­ple House Ho­tel, above left; Peo­ple’s Park, where a mar­riage mar­ket is held, above; Fang­suo Com­mune book and de­sign store, left

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