A Glimpse of Chongqing’s Past, Present, and Future

I recently spent a weekend in Chengdu’s neighboring metropolis of Chongqing and was lucky enough to capture a glimpse of this unique city’s past, present, and future.

Chongqing (previously called ‘Chungking’) is famous for all kinds of things: hot-pot, fog, having no bicycles, intense heat, and for being the industrial heart of southwest China. Chungking has a romantic sound – like Peking, Soochow and Hangchow – code for the mysterious Far East. But Chongqing has little of that old world feel to it left these days.

Chongqing landscape

In The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester describes how Englishman Joseph Needham landed on the wartime airfield built on a sand bar right in the middle of the mighty Yangtze River. Things have changed a lot since then. Chongqing’s Jiangbei Airport is now a good hour drive outside of the city, and the Yangtze is crowded with barges loaded with cargo heading east to international ports in Shanghai and Ningbo.

Getting to Chongqing back in the “Chunking days” was an adventure; today high-speed rail links between Chengdu, Chongqing and Shanghai make the trip almost an afterthought. Even as little as 10 years ago the trip would have taken anywhere from 12 to 18 hours. The high speed “Harmony Train” stops at Chengdu’s North Railway Station, served conveniently by the Metro Line #3, which takes you directly into the city. Chongqing currently has four lines, but a total of eighteen lines are planned. The above-ground line into town from the north gives you a window into the furious pace of construction taking place all across one of the world’s most populous municipalities.

Chongqing

While scanning the cranes and construction sites, I also notice some of Chongqing’s unique geographic characteristics. The city center is built on steep hills at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers, creating a mosaic of buildings rising and falling with the ridges that dominate the entire municipality. “Mountain City”, the locals call it. The constricted atmosphere created by the two rivers and construction teetering on cliff-sides funnels the activities of millions of people down into the valleys and gullies of Chongqing.

Heart of the City

The frenetic activity in the center of Chongqing is one of the most intense experiences you will have in China, echoing the teeming laneways on the southern side of Hong Kong Island – surely the most densely populated neighbourhoods in mainland China. The tall steel fences built along the roads to stop pedestrian access reinforce visions of Hong Kong – albeit a more raucous, chaotic, and decidedly messy version.

Down at the river’s edge, a thronging, informal, freight-forwarding terminal is Chongqing’s answer to Hong Kong’s international port. Columns of trucks and carts line the esplanade, parked curb-side adjacent to lock-up garages containing food, building materials, consumer items, machinery, furniture, electrical goods, boxed-up motorbikes and more. They ferry goods to the barges night and day; the beating heart of Chongqing’s industrial might.

Chongqing stickman

The ubiquitous bamboo & rope

The so-called “Stickman Army” (棒棒军) - migrant workers with poles and rope – roam the informal terminals and the inner city looking for work carrying cargo up and down the steep steps. For a moment you imagine that you are standing in the middle of activity that is at least a thousand years old – farm products being transported further down the river and manufactured products arriving from the east – but will these terminals and the Stickmen have a place in future Chongqing?

Clues to the Past

Around the city are remnants and echoes of the rickety white-walled multi-storied timber houses for which Chongqing was once famous. An informal marriage market is hidden under a bridge between two such neighborhoods. Hundreds of parents equipped with documentation about their children, enjoying rare sunny weather and just doing their job.

“Man aged 53 – in good health, own apartment, with a stable job.”

We decide to explore the old port district of Ciqikou where they once made porcelain. The last stop on Metro Line 1 heading west is the closest station to Ciqikou, but we find – to the great amusement of the ladies at the ticket counter – that the station does not yet exist, despite government maps stating otherwise.

We end up in the Shaping Ba district of Chongqing instead. This suburb is far to the northwest of the city center, but when we climb to street level it is although we had never left the city’s heart: raucous noise, a suffocating ‘sea of people’, and bumper to bumper traffic. When we finally make it to Ciqikou, we find nothing resembling the old porcelain factories that once defined this district. The place is a bit like Chengdu’s Kuanzhai Alley: a tourist site half-heartedly replicating the traditions of old.

Sister Cities

Chongqing is something of a ‘sister city’ to Chengdu, once vying for status as the premier city of Sichuan. The same language is spoken, the cuisine is similar, and the people of each city have entrenched opinions of each other. We wrote once that Chengdu is the nobleman to Chongqing’s blue collar laborer. How has it changed?

Chongqing

Both cities are putting their heart and soul into modernization. Both are tunneling furiously in order to deliver a modern metro system; office towers and apartment buildings are reaching for the sky, vying for foreign investment.

Chongqing, however, has serious geography to deal with: Infrastructure is bent to shape to the confluence of two major rivers. Housing clings precariously to the sides of steep hills. Buildings and freeways hang out over the river banks (Blade Runner-style flying cars would not surprise.) By comparison, Chengdu spreads more comfortably over a rich fertile plain.

Futuristic ChongqingChengdu has a fat, easy lifestyle, compared to the stresses and strains in Chongqing where it seems that everything could unravel at any second. Chongqing, perhaps more than any other Chinese city, embodies the tension between the ancient and the modern.

It feels like everything and nothing has changed: Chengdunese lounge at dusk playing cards and Chongqingnese break their back over the last shipment of factory goods before enjoying hotpot.

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About David Brett

Having grown up in Papua New Guinea, David has been in Chengdu since 2009, teaching economics. He writes about business as well as Chinese language and culture.

19 Responses to “A Glimpse of Chongqing’s Past, Present, and Future”

  1. Few cities really bring it all together under one seething hat like Chongqing. It’s why the city is so fun … also why i find it difficult to live there.

  2. ‘one seething hat’
    Hee hee, nicely put.
    Man – I reckon that if a man wanted to just ‘disappear’ in China, then Chongqing might be the place to find a bolt hole.

  3. David,

    Many thanks for writing this. I’ve never been to Chongqing, but after reading this I may just hop on that “Harmony Train” and spend a few days in the “one seething hat”. I hope I wouldn’t disappear though and after a few days I’d be ready to come back to the ‘du.

  4. I set foot in the city for the first time this last weekend and once when the monorail went above ground, I feel in love with the city and feel even deeper as I wandered around aimlessly in the chaos of the layout of the streets. It felt like home, a place I would like to live, a feeling I still haven’t had here in Chengdu despite being here for 6 months. Those mountains are calling me; Chengdu is just too flat and easy. Though I admit I haven’t really experienced much of the people since my time there was short and my grasp of the language quite small.

    One thing about the high-speed train, it takes away the journey. I remember taking the train from Shandong to get to Chengdu and the feeling of having arrived was a great feeling of having arrived in a new place. I have never had such feeling on a plane or a quick train-ride (buses and cars neither for some reason even though they allow for a connection to the land and how it changes as you move).

    By the way, what is Chonqing’s opinion of Chengdu? And is there a Chongqing equivalent to this site?

    • *the great feeling of having arrived.

    • If you care to hear from someone who grew up in CQ and had just spent a 6-month long family reunion holiday in CD before heading back to NYC, I am happy to chip in with my observation/reflection. Those two cities are the two ends of your Sichuan culture spectrum. So, you cannot miss any. And given the “ideal” distance from dynastic political/economic centers of Han culture, Sichuan has successfully maintained its very distinctive identity and talents. Its inner voice always offers both the meditative murmuring of tea houses under bamboo leaves and the steamy chorus of barefooted peasants laboring on the Yangtze shore or steep hills. The contrast is quite telling of the highs/lows of one’s Sichuan existence. It’s like the dueling of twins originated at the womb. They are rivalry with the deepest bond that intertwines into eternity.

  5. Why do Chinese rivers always look like sh*t?

    Anyway, at least you can see the sky ;o)

  6. Chris – hope you enjoy a trip to Chongqing soon; you shouldn’t disappear if you stay in sight of the metro. :)
    Paul – thanks for your first impressions. I get your comment about the fast train. In Australia we have Ayers Rock right in the middle of the desert and, if you fly in, you miss a great experience of approaching it slowly, having it loom over the horizon, growing until it towers above you.
    KopyKatKiller – when you come from a country where some rivers don’t flow at all or, worse, flow backwards, you get impressed by massive Chinese rivers. Rivers like the Yangtze look different from day to day – they have their moods. Like the ocean.

  7. @David
    Flying into China, the sea turns a chocolate milky brown kilometers from the coast and then the sea fades away as you encounter Chinese air. If anything in China is shocking to a person from Canada, it’s the unprecedented pollution.

  8. @ Paul
    the two best sites for chongqing are http://www.cqexpat.com and http://www.cqscene.com

    I’ve lived in CQ for 6 years and I’ve adopted the chongqing vs chengdu rivalry that many locals follow. CQ hotpot is much better, the people are friendlier… and chengdu is a city for expats who need to coddled. But chongqing is changing so fast with so many new western food options opening every year, petes tex mex just opened its first branch in cq last month, ikea is opening in 2015 and we have our own irish bar too.

  9. Brendan

    I’ve stayed in Chongqing briefly on a few occasions since living in Chengdu, and maybe I’ve missed something, but I’m always ready to leave and get back to the calm of Chengdu. And I’m no slow boat, I’ve lived in a number of cities around the globe, but for me Chongqing is the most impersonal of them all. It’s a juggernaut of a metropolis that doesn’t feel as though it has an identity to call it’s own. A concrete jungle building only more space for billboards and shopping malls to further distill any sense of self. I don’t doubt it will only strengthen it’s already ambitious economic position in years to come, but isn’t that what we’ve seen threaten the fabric of tradition and culture time and time again elsewhere.

  10. Chongqing looks great. I’ve never been but I would like to go.

    I had a friend in Shanghai who lived there and he said it was great. He was working on The Three Gorges Dam at the time so I imagine the city was very different back then.

    Yeah, must go.

    A few Chinese people have said to me that in Chingqing most of the men are thieves and most of the women are prostitutes. Does anyone know how this saying would come about?

    • “A few Chinese people have said to me that in Chingqing most of the men are thieves and most of the women are prostitutes. Does anyone know how this saying would come about?”

      Pretty much every Chinese person can say that about every Chinese city. Why? TIC, that’s why ;)

  11. Ben Brown

    I love all these comments. And I think even though many of them are in direct disagreement with one another, they are all correct.

    My first trip to China was to Chongqing in 1994. As the brilliant author of this article noted, it then took at least 12 hours to go by bus from CQ to CD. The roads were bad enough that our bus’ battery tumbled out during the first leg of the trip. We didn’t notice until we stopped for gas. Then we had to push start it at every stop.

    I view the relationship much like the poster who wrote that they fight like twins. After years of taxi rides the opinionated drivers from both cities used their slightly different dialects to expound on the reasons why their city is better than the other. But I assure you the further you get from these two cities the more likely CD and CQ peeps will bond and proudly declare themselves brethren from the land of hot pot, face changers and a dialect famous for its frankness and profanity.

    I recently discovered that the clarity of the air and the quality are largely unrelated. I assume this is true as well of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers. The Yangtze is a silt river. It’s waters looked like baby poop in 1994 and probably in 1884. I know they are pretty polluted, but their color is not affected by the pollution, just as a foggy day might be a good day pollution-wise due to low PM 2.5 levels.

    But I’m getting off subject. The Chongqing I knew when I lived there in the mid and late 90s was very different from today. There were no riverside roads on posts hanging out over the water. There were no monorails and few private vehicles. Fewer bridges, no raised highways, and the traffic was atrocious. It was more wild-westy, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it was one of the largest, if not THE largest, city with no McDonald’s. KFC? 1. Dico’s? 1. McDonald’s? 0.

    The city seems cold and impersonal, like an impenetrable wall of cement and stone. But if you dig a little and you meet some of the locals, you quickly find that same open, straightforwardness you see in CD. Maybe even a touch more. One of the best nights I’ve had inCQ was out in CiQiKou. My friends and I walked back through the touristy part to a small bridge. There was a path from the bridge to a patio of rough-hewn stones on a high bank looking over the city. Almost exactly a year ago 15 of U’s sat out there and had dinner. The host, an old friend, hired a Pipa player to play traditional songs. Too much beer and baijiu was consumed. We ate, drank, listened to music and told self-deprecating jokes.

    A few weeks earlier at another dinner on of my friends, Mr. Ding, told me that the late 90s was a great time to be in CQ, because the middle class had just grown large enough to support a wide range of restaurants and people could afford to honest at them. My friends were all starting their businesses and experiencing some success. It was a really happy time.

    Things have gotten worse since the (increased organized crime) and then better again (slightly lower organized crime and better infrastructure). There are more opportunities. I lement the loss of places like the 18 steps district. It’s hundreds of years old. And right downtown. But it’s not my decision to make. While I deplore all the shopping malls, materialism and consumerism, I also went to LA once and don’t believe western, democratic nations have much of a right to complaint about other countries giving capitalism a try.

    CQ is a huge, ever-changing city. It’s the bigger, shorter-tempered older brother to CD’s easier-accessible but slightly less breathtaking early bloomer. I think of CD as Chicago and CQ as Detroit in its hay days. I love both of these cities and hope I never have to live anywhere else in China.

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