When it comes to traveling, and when you have traveled a reasonable amount, there is something to be said for first impressions of places. They are often the ones that stay with you and they do, quite often, get right to it in terms of getting a true sense of somewhere. So, with that excuse for making sweeping generalizations about Chongqing out the way, I will get on with offering my own take on the city.
The first thing that struck me when arriving in Chongqing was how it reminded me of Kolkata in Northern India, a city I passed through on my way to China. I had reached Kolkata by train before taking a rusted ferry across the murky waters of the Hooghly River; I still remember, as we edged across the silty current, beginning to make out the buildings on the opposite bank through the fog. I also recall the air and the vista full of the distress and poverty that Kolkata has become famous for around the world. Here, in Chongqing, we got off a train, got into a taxi and traversed the Jialing River by road bridge, the same kind of murky river waters below us and the incomprehensible growth of tower blocks rising before us. They climbed from the river’s edge all the way up the sub-tropical hillsides that make up this Chongqing basin, and spread along the river as far as we could see.
I had heard about aspects of Chongqing before coming here and it was immediately apparent that those pre-conceived ideas were not far from the mark. Chongqing is an epic city, an atmospheric metropolis, with hints of South-East Asian islands poking out from in between the realities of any other Chinese mega city. But, here it is on a scale that actually feels exciting. It suddenly seemed so suited to Bo Xilai’s governing style that had become so famous in these parts. It was the perfect setting – with Chongqing’s sub-tropical humidity and poisonous pollution hanging in the air – for the subsequent scandal involving him, his wife, his chief of police and an English businessman. It suddenly felt like: “Only in Chongqing.”
It was not, however, just the polluted urban riverscape that took my mind so clearly back to the streets of Kolkata; it was also the luan-ness and the very obvious everyman nature of Chongqing. Luan in Chinese means something close to chaotic and disordered, carrying with it a sense of indiscriminateness and arbitrariness, and that is how this city can feel. Chongqing is a fantastical concoction of 30 (+)-storey buildings standing on once-lush green plots of land that are only just wide enough for a building’s foundations. Hundreds of apartment buildings, offices and hotels rise at every level around you; the footings of one building planted beside the 10th floor of another, the roof of one shabby apartment block just a short jump, if you are that way inclined, from the entrance to another. In between all this construction are steep ancient stairways and ramshackle street-level, tarpaulin-draped hutted communities, which weave old and new lives together. While, bound up in all this – and in the humidity-ridden, rain-soaked and river-induced moldy dampness that grows upon all the walls and street – is the other noticeable aspect of Chongqing that reminded me of Kolkata, and that is the poverty.
It may have its crazy micro-community of super rich around the Jiefang Bei area, but everywhere else it felt like a workingman’s city. Whether we were up in the hills to the east, down on the subway, traversing the old streets of Ciqikou, getting buses across town or walking down-by the two rivers – the people just seemed normal. There was no overriding representation of global street fashions, no over-abundance of modern life’s wealth-driven accoutrements, and the associated brand-driven ostentatiousness, whether original or fake. Here were normal people getting on with a normal life, in a very un-normal city. It was a clear reminder of where this city has come from and just how it has grown: a mass migration of working people from the countryside to a river city east of Sichuan.
There was also something else I took from wandering the streets of Chongqing, and that was a new clarity about how I see this China development context. There has always been a part of me – something probably to do with my middle-class English upbringing – which has been looking for signs within this “developing” country of a future “developed” one. And, what I mean by that is looking for a sense of quality and attention to detail, whether in construction, cultural preservation, the creative arts, education, urban landscaping, food preparation or in some of the other basic jobs being done. I am always looking to see some respect for historical and cultural values, and to see some long-term planning and value in this process of development. Here, I mean something more than just the very practical long-term economic emphasis on getting roads and apartments built. These are priorities that are focused on simply helping to keep the cars flowing, the people commuting and the masses migrating, and thus the economy growing. Which is, almost, all very well while it is still growing.
Unfairly or not, while experiencing the chaotic development of Chongqing I realized that seeing greater value in the process is just a dream. Probably, in the same way that it isn’t realistic at home either, while we live by our current economic priorities. Something that has become depressingly clear as many western societies begin to experience “reverse development” or “anti-development”. In some areas of China I am sure aspects of this “developed” vision of mine will be fulfilled, whether in the Arts, in architecture, in ecological technological development, or in the urban landscaping of some parts of the country and certain districts of selected cities. Chongqing, however, made me realize that this luan-ness is set to continue. Some of today’s shockingly built concrete apartment blocks will be torn down in just a few years and replaced with slightly better versions. But, they will be surrounded by the mass of concrete monstrosities that the cities here have been giving birth to over the last couple of decades – and doing so at rates way-beyond any symbolic sense of a one-child policy in urban development.
During my time in China, I have also had the opportunity – quite a few times now – to visit China’s capital, and my two overriding impressions of Beijing have always been that it is relatively soulless, and that there are too many cars, leading the city to revolve around road networks rather than communities. On top of that, when I visit my wife’s small hometown and I look at the river development that was only completed a year or so ago, and I see cracked concrete, unwired lighting, broken steps, sunken sections of pathway, and dry flowerbeds, I lack hope and feel genuinely sad. But, whether it is Chongqing, Beijing, my wife’s hometown, or here in Xi’an, there is one beautiful contradiction that strikes me. And, it is the fact that it is the Chinese who have created all this, but it also they who are the wonderful lifeblood of all this too. And, therein, lies the reason why – particularly at this moment in Chinese history – I feel very lucky to be living here, the chaos and the joy all wrapped up together. We will just have to wait and see where it all goes from here, in this post-Bo, probably-still-soon-to-be Xi Jinping period of Chinese history.