Pandas plus in Chengdu
Chic and cheerful in the capital of Sichuan
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