A Tale of Two Cities: Chongqing and Chengdu
I’ve had a blessed run here in China and I owe it all to my first two years.
Back then, I lived outside of Chongqing and although that city is not as suitable as others for foreigners planning on staying in China long term, it sure does have some character. Everyone has an entry point when they encounter and eventually sink into a foreign culture and mine was Chongqing: it was the first time I realized that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” meant “fat cat capitalism”. It was the first time I saw the people most alien to my own do things I do every day. It was here that I first stared at a crowd and experienced “population-induced vertigo”. Chongqing’s counterpart in the West is probably Mexico City, neither of which have any real counterpart in the developed West, but it was here that I found out that the things that bind us together far outnumber the things that tear us apart.
Legends of the “Mountain City”
Chongqing has so many legends surrounding it that just trying to list them all makes me fall in love with the place all over again. I’ll just give you a brief overview here, because what I really want to do is tell you about the differences between Chongqing and Chengdu as I see them by explaining why I moved from one to the other.
Chongqing has the hottest women in China. The interesting thing is why: why are the hottest women in China living in one of the hottest, sweatiest most crowded example of social stratification, gangster government and rag tag modernization in all of China? I have heard the following:
- When the Nationalists ran from the Japanese sack of Nanjing and made Chongqing their capital, they brought all of their concubines with them. In the 50 odd years since, these concubines have populated the city with their sexy, audacious offspring.
- The Ba Kingdom, as Chongqing was once and still is referred to, was a multi-ethnic empire that eventually became one people. The fusion of the many tribes that once dominated the many valleys and mountains of Chongqing produced a rare individual and a rare beauty.
- The water here is special. The confluence of the Yangzte and the Jialing Rivers and the flowing of the greater combination thereof through the erstwhile Three Gorges produced a rare individual and a rare beauty
- Hot Pot was invented here. The sublime aroma and taste of this most potent of southwest concoctions produced a rare individual and a rare beauty.
Chongqing’s Motto: “Yeah, we crazy!”
“Luan jiu luan” (乱就乱, roughly acknowledging Chongqing’s hectic nature) is a suitable motto for Chongqing because these rare individuals truly embrace the craziness. If you have ever seen the movie Crazy Stone (highly recommended!), then you have an idea of what Chongqingnese think of themselves and what the rest of China thinks of that. In the movie, a professional thief from Hong Kong is repeatedly humiliated by a bungling band of irreligious scam artists. The band know they bungle. They thrive off of it. They try to bungle, Chongqing-style, just to prove a point. Chongqing is luan. Luan means chaotic, but it means so much more than that.
It means the streets zig zag around piles of buildings not only inhabited, but housing a flourishing business clinging to the last days as five-star hotels go up on either side. It means that there will be a fist fight at 5am in the morning between two motorists on their way to work. Real fistfights, not the “get out and check your ride for tiny scratches while all of China is backed up behind you type of mini-scuffle more concerned with money than anything else”-type of car accident. I mean a real fist fight with someone going down for the count. I am not even coming close. This city was built on mountains so the first floor of one might be 10 floors below the first floor of its neighbor and they will be connected by quaint stone stairways, skyways, scaffolding, balconies, business storefronts and roof gardens. In every one of these connecting routes, there will be:
- Three hairdressers
- Two hot pot restaurants
- A poor man’s Wal-Mart
- A stationary store
I know I know, you are saying to the screen, Sascha, all of China is like this. No my friend, it is not. All of China is described like this, but very few places can keep the show going for more than a few city blocks. Chongqing is this chaos spread out over an entire 32 million people-and-counting municipality beholden only to Beijing, and that only in name. Every neighborhood in Chongqing is infected with Chongqing-itis, which basically is a willful pride in all things irreverent. Other cities care about their face and will try to show foreigners and rich Taiwanese or officials from Beijing their pretty face. Chongqing has it written in blood that any local that bows and scrapes to outsiders is actually a Chengdunese spy, trying to learn the secret of hot pot.
Someday, I’ll write down all of my Chongqing stories, but now I gotta turn to the city I chose as my home away from the world, Chengdu.
The Chengdu Vibe: “Anyi” (Comfortable)
I left Chongqing’s madness for Chengdu because the city was flat, the roads spider-webbed and the living easy. Chengdu is the fat provincial nobleman to Chongqing’s beer and hotpot steel worker; the Shu to Chongqing’s Ba, 安逸 (comfort) to Chongqing’s 乱 (craziness). They constantly sneer at each other, but Chengdu’s sneer is preceded by a quick peek left and right. Chengdu also has a reputation for beautiful women and a penchant for the good life, but there doesn’t really need to be an explanation for it. It’s just the way it is. Chengdu is smack dab in the middle of the Land of Abundance and the genius of Li Bing’s waterworks in Dujiangyan are a constant wind blowing south, carrying the smells of good food, jasmine flowers and the slow sweatiness of a lazy land.
I can’t help it. In Chongqing, I would have had to be a gangster or end up in the gutter. Here in Chengdu, I can get a feta cheese hamburger. There aren’t many hamburgers in Chongqing.
Chengdu is for me the most suitable city in China to live in. Kunming comes a close second, followed perhaps by Dali or maybe one of the coastal cities like Xiamen, but basically I am a southwest boy at heart, no matter where I am. There is a vibe here in Chengdu that attracts a certain type of foreigner and I consider myself to be representative of that type of person. Chongqing does not attract foreigners. I love it there and I still go back every chance I can, but its a tough place to live. Not when you have the easiest city in China just an hour away.
What do you think of the contrasts between Chengdu and Chongqing?