TRAVEL

Best known for its gi­ant pan­das, the cap­i­tal of China’s Sichuan prov­ince has its eye on be­com­ing Asia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley

BC Business Magazine - - Contents - By Janet Gyenes

There’s much more to Chengdu than gi­ant pan­das

It's early morn­ing at the Chengdu Re­search Base of Gi­ant Panda Breed­ing on Futou Moun­tain, part of the rare bears’ an­ces­tral home­land. A small group of us are hud­dled against a wooden fence. We’re hop­ing to glimpse some of the gi­ant pan­das that have been bred and raised in this sprawl­ing habi­tat of lau­rel trees (both real and ar­ti­fi­cial) and bam­boo for­est.

The cap­i­tal of Sichuan prov­ince in south­west China, Chengdu is home to 16 mil­lion peo­ple. (With 24 mil­lion res­i­dents, Shang­hai is the coun­try’s largest city.) But it’s prob­a­bly best known for the 150 black-and-white bears liv­ing at the re­search base. Al­though the base and its park are just 10 kilo­me­tres north of down­town, they’re an oth­er­worldly es­cape from the city’s snarled traf­fic and mod­ern sky­scrapers—ar­chi­tec­tural eye candy when not hid­den by haze. Chengdu’s an­cient al­ley­ways and lush sur­round­ing forests served as in­spi­ra­tion for Dream­works An­i­ma­tion SKG Inc.’s Kung Fu Panda films. Art and life im­i­tate one an­other in this deep-rooted but for­ward-think­ing city, which is lay­ing the ground­work for its lofty goal of be­com­ing Asia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Two portly pan­das lum­ber to a bam­boo plat­form. One plops down on its plush back­side, grabs a bam­boo stalk from a pile and starts chomp­ing away. It’s like an an­i­mated char­ac­ter pro­grammed to chew in per­pet­ual mo­tion, more Zen master than kung fu fighter. We wan­der to an­other panda den just as a park staff mem­ber—clad in a lab coat, rub­ber boots, hair­net and face mask—is de­posit­ing three cubs on a plat­form in a furry heap.

Watch­ing these an­i­mals romp is a med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, but there’s more in­cu­bat­ing in Chengdu than pan­das. Al­though the city is over­shad­owed by busi­ness be­he­moths Bei­jing and Shang­hai, al­most 280 For­tune 500 com­pa­nies al­ready op­er­ate here, ac­cord­ing

to the Chengdu Mu­nic­i­pal Gov­ern­ment. Growth has been brisk and big.

The su­per­size New Cen­tury Global Cen­ter, whose 1.7 mil­lion square me­tres make it the world’s largest build­ing by floor area, opened in 2013. Un­der the steel struc­ture’s wavy roof trimmed with glow­ing pur­ple lights are myr­iad of­fices, the new five-star In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Chengdu Global Cen­ter ho­tel and a shop­ping mall with 3,200 stores. It all wraps around the Par­adise Is­land Water­park, which has an ar­ti­fi­cial beach where the surf’s up and the sun shines 24/7. This colos­sus sits at the core of the Tianfu New Area, a 1,578-squarek­ilo­me­tre mod­ern metropo­lis in the mak­ing, whose ameni­ties will in­clude a high-tech hub. Man­u­fac­tur­ing is still a main­stay for Chengdu, but the city is at­tract­ing new in­vest­ment by of­fer­ing gov­ern­ment in­cen­tives for innovators and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists.

Chengdu’s Cal­i­for­nia dreams are tak­ing shape. At its first so­called fire­side chat last De­cem­ber, Startup Grind Chengdu, a new chap­ter of the global com­mu­nity con­ceived in Sil­i­con Val­ley in 2010, hosted more than 100 en­trepreneurs and in­vestors. Since then, the monthly events have fea­tured com­pa­nies such as Aus­tralia’s Eu­clideon Pty Ltd., which claims that its holo­gram tech­nol­ogy will eclipse vir­tual re­al­ity in the gam­ing uni­verse.

It’s too soon to tell whether Chengdu is primed to be a breed­ing ground for Chi­nese uni­corns like e-com­merce gi­ant Alibaba Group Hold­ing Ltd. and smart­phone maker Xiaomi Inc. But it will al­ways have its rock stars, the gi­ant pan­das.

SEE

Chengdu is the birth­place of Sichuan opera, whose folk­loric acts have been per­formed in its tea­houses since the 16th cen­tury. For­get what you know about clas­sic Ital­ian op­eras; the Sichuan ver­sion at Shufeng Yayun Tea­house is like a Chi­nese va­ri­ety show, with shadow pup­petry, singing and danc­ing, ac­ro­bats and fire breath­ing.

EAT

The clas­sic hot­pot with lip-numb­ing (yet not al­ways fiery) Sichuan pep­per­corns is a sta­ple in Chengdu. At Huangcheng Laoma, a chain of Chi­nese hot­pot restau­rants founded in Chengdu, bowls of fish heads, lo­tus root, pork balls and other raw del­i­ca­cies roll by on a gleam­ing con­veyer belt. Grab a few items to cook in your per­sonal hot­pot of bub­bling pep­per­corn-spiced oil, then dip them in sauces made with gar­lic and peanuts.

SHOP

Traces of an­cient Chengdu can be found in the ren­o­vated Kuan Xiangzi (Wide Al­ley) and Zhai Xiangzi (Nar­row Al­ley) as well as Jinli Old Street, where ven­dors have been sell­ing goods since the Qin Dy­nasty (221 to 206 BC). Both ar­eas are crowded, yet there’s an easy­go­ing vibe, with quiet court­yards, char­ac­ter­is­tic red pa­per lanterns and lively en­ter­tain­ment such as pup­pet shows. Shop for jade jew­elry, cloth­ing made from silk bro­cade and panda-themed sou­venirs. Stop to sip chrysan­the­mum tea, duck into a bar for a beer or sam­ple snacks such as sugar can­dies stud­ded with flow­ers—or, if you’re ad­ven­tur­ous, whole deep­fried birds that fit in the palm of your hand.

STROLL

Find tran­quil­ity and tra­di­tion on the paths and shaded parks along­side Chengdu’s nar­row rivers. Wan­der to Chengdu Ren­min Park (Peo­ple’s Park) to watch lo­cals play­ing mahjong or prac­tis­ing their morn­ing rit­ual, tai chi.

BEAR MAX­I­MUM (Clock­wise from left) Gi­ant panda at the Chengdu Re­search Base of Gi­ant Panda Breed­ing; Jinli Old Street; Chengdu city; park staff mem­ber pho­to­graphs a panda cub; hot­pot at Huangcheng Laoma; panda cubs; New Cen­tury Global Cen­ter; Sichuan oper

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