Saturday, February 2, 2013

48 Hours In Chengdu

(Hotel Room View. Nice park across the street.)

This is how I get to know a place. I exit the hotel and walk one direction or another, picking streets I either don't know or walking a while on familiar paths and then branching off. Headphones in, something recently-added to my music collection playing. I always carry a city map from the hotel so I can orient myself, and it gives me a business card for the hotel in case I need to take a taxi (in the case of Chengdu, the map is bad enough that I downloaded an iPhone app to use instead).  Lately I've been trying to sample the trains in each new city. Now I can add Chengdu to the list, which in the last year included Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Sydney, Cologne. Like so much of China (at least the parts I've seen), Chengdu is in the grip of a building spree. New buildings, miles of new elevated freeway, an expanding subway system.

Walking around like this, there's always such a feeling of fullness, even overstimulation. It's difficult not to note every little thing that you experience, as everything is subtly different from what you know. The smells or the sounds or people's mode of dress or the number of people smoking or the modes of transportation or the smell of cooking food; none of these things is earth-shattering, maybe not even noteworthy--these same things at home are easily overlooked or ignored by me just as they are considered mundane and uninteresting by Chengdu's residents. But in this strange setting these little differences appear everywhere in almost overwhelming proliferation. All these posts and my hundreds of photographs--many of nothing at all--are all a vain attempt by me to capture this fullness to share with others or to experience again later when I no longer get to these places. 

Yesterday, after sleeping, I walked from the hotel a mile or so to the main North / South thoroughfare cutting up through the city (my map here says it's called Renmin Nan Road) and went North toward the downtown. I managed to find a couple electronics markets, several shopping centers, and countless interesting buildings. For as long as you keep walking, you encounter more and more interesting stuff in a seemingly inexhaustible array (Wikipedia says this is a city of some 14 million people).

I was scheduled to meet my coworker for lunch--not my usual choice, but with only two of us here it seemed inconsiderate to leave him stranded alone in a hotel 7,000 miles from home for 48 hours. (For many pilots, these trips constitute prime social time.) By the time I remembered this, I was too far out to walk back in time, and so I ducked into the subway and made my way back South. (There's always a learning curve: I took the train to the stop on my map that was closest to where I wanted to go, just to the South and East of the hotel. Alas, this particular station was separated from the hotel by a rail corridor and huge highway, which are impossible to get across on foot. So after 20 minutes of wandering, I had to re-enter the subway and ride back North one stop--for another 30 cents!--and try again. But in the process I learned how the ticketing machines and fancy turnstiles work.) Chengdu has two subway lines, a North / South line and an East / West line that meet in the center of downtown. I had nearly got that far on foot before turning around, and after picking up the captain back at the hotel we rode the train back North to the center of town (it's quite the construction project at that intersection of the two subway lines; it extends, I'd say, six or seven stories below ground). Lunch at a super-crowded McDonald's--in Asia they're typically narrow and multi-storied, as opposed to the US where they stand alone on a single level. Then we walked around the center of town as the Sunday wound down, absorbing the different-ness of it all. Then a train ride halfway back, where the captain wanted to look at the electronics markets I had found. A couple hours' shopping and the train South and walk the rest of the way back to the hotel. A good day.

Today was more of the same, but all on foot. I've been looking for a good set of over-the-ears headphones, and so I went back to the electronics stores and spent a couple hours searching. (OK, not "good" headphones, which can cost $1000, but "OK" ones for $80. I'm tired of earbuds.)

Many of the Chinese markets I've seen are made up of hundreds of booths each run by 20-somethings. They often try to rope you actively into their booth to look around with varying degrees of aggression. Sometimes they try to attach themselves to you as your de-facto "personal shopping assistant," following you around and advising you as you wander the shopping center. Some of these can be quite persistent. Chengdu differs from the other Chinese cities I've seen in having very little English (an interesting fact in itself). So the sales tactics are more constrained. Apart from my lunch at a recommended Irish bar on my walk home, I saw nary another Westerner on my whole six hour day today. This is quite different from Guangzhou and the polar opposite of Hong Kong. When I actually proceeded to buy some headphones, it was difficult to conduct the transaction without a word of common language. (If their English is not great, I'm aware that my Chinese is absolutely nonexistent. I can't even confidently say "thank you" in Chinese. Even so, I can't help noting that many street and business signs have English on them, even here in the interior of the country where Westerners are scarce-to-nonexistent. In the US the regressives bitch a blue streak because public signs are starting to have Spanish on them in addition to the primary English--and we have a sizeable Spanish-speaking population! I happen to love this multi-culturalism.) Anyway, we managed to get the job done.

Maybe my strongest impression from these two days is a revisit of a thing I've noted in the past. A shopping center like the electronics malls (two of them, side-by-side) are kind of what you'd expect of a market, but everything is exaggerated. To begin with, there are maybe four-five times as many stores / cubicles as we would allow in a similar space in the States--so many of them selling stuff almost identical to the stalls around them. You wonder how any individual stall makes it. The mall building itself is not so large--maybe covering a quarter of a city block--and the mall proper is six or seven stories with an open central court. But the mall is a lower portion of a much larger building that continues above the mall for 20 or 30 stories and it's all offices and warehousing, and even apparently some limited retail space (though I can't imagine customers finding their way up these huge, drab, dimly-lit buildings). The building is chock-full of 20-something Chinese folks, hundreds and hundreds--maybe thousands--of them. And these are just the vendors. They far outnumber the shoppers, and everybody seems to have an online presence. If these kids aren't on a computer in their stalls, then they're tapping furiously on a smartphone. The woman who approached me on level five said "DVD" and when I said OK she took me first to an elevator to go up three floors or so, and then back to a service stairway where we went up another four levels or so. The further we got from the main retail space the dirtier and more unkempt things became, until we got to her "shop"--literally, a little closet with a table consisting of a wooden door sitting on plastic stools and a few boxes of DVDs sitting atop them. 10 Yuan per disc (about $1.50). She is clearly a lower-level entrepreneur, someone who rents this little storage cubby near the mall proper but her "storefront presence" is to roam the mall and solicit shoppers verbally. But here she is out hustling for a piece of the exploding free-market pie.

But that's not even the most interesting thing. You virtually never see any of these zillion people disagreeing with each other. It's almost like a hive mind. People seem almost never to fight, and there is no evidence I can see of cliquishness or office politics or the usual emotional bullshit from people sleeping around or feuding. (Indeed, I see almost no conflict or drama anywhere in China among anybody.) Everybody seems to know everybody else, and they appear to actually like each other in a way that just seems improbable. Nobody talks loudly or draws attention to themselves (except for when they're trying to get you in their shop). From this perspective, walking the streets of New York City or Los Angeles would indeed be a culture shock. When we were schlepping up and down the filthy service stairways, we passed two hundred other people and they're either just doing their own thing in silence or talking quietly among themselves. Normal behavior, but so uniform and widespread. A couple times over these two days the vendor we were shopping at took us from their booth to someone else's booth to show us another person's merchandise. And they just walked in and grabbed stuff off the other vendors' shelves and handed it to us without discussion or negotiation. Are several stores co-owned? Or do competitors just help each other? When I bought my headphones, the woman tried to explain something to me to no avail. She called out a name in the crowded chaos and someone appeared from a several booths away and proceeded to use her computer to bring up a Chinese-to-English translator site on the web to explain to me that my headphones were warranted for six months. Again, what was his relationship to her? Friend? Co-owner? Competitor? They all seem to help each other like one immense family business.

I naturally wonder if I'm just missing all the important details because I understand not a word of what is said. Something like 85% of communication is non-verbal, but maybe that's only true if you have that 15% piece in place to begin with. But I feel as though I could grasp the general vibe if people were clashing in some way (you do see occasional "negotiations" going on with customers). Maybe I'm only seeing what I want to see, but it all seems healthy and well-adjusted to me.

I'm also struck (again, as I've noted before) by the relative lack of sexualization of things here. Obviously, with 1.4 billion folks the Chinese have sex figured out in its essentials. But you see very little sexual assertion here compared to what I've noted elsewhere on my travels or in the US. People are nicely dressed--clean and quietly fashionable. But virtually nobody dresses for sex appeal as near as I can tell, and you never see any sexual behavior beyond the occasional couple holding hands as they walk along the street (and even then it's a rare couple that does). I never see people kissing or petting or making out, and especially in the crowded malls--where hundreds of 20-somethings are working 80-hour workweeks--the public personas seem completely platonic and business-like. This is so unusual to me as to be almost shocking. It's not as though I see people procreating in my Appleton Target, but sex is in the air everywhere in America, at least to my way of thinking. What am I missing in China? Is it because with the one-child policy people are especially concerned not to have a child unwittingly? (I don't believe that--or anything, really--could tamp down this strongest of human impulses.) Is it that people have no privacy to be intimate? Is it that young folks live with their parents and grandparents their whole lives? I don't know, but I'm convinced there's something I'm not getting.

Anyway. This is an intriguing place, one to make the loss of Guangzhou in our regular roster of cities not sting so much. Plus, I hear interesting things about Shenzhen, which is the metropolis adjacent (more or less) to Guangzhou that we've moved our operations to. So an exploration of this quintessential Chinese manufacturing mecca awaits.

(These photos and a bunch others from this visit and the last are on my Flickr page here.)

(You see this everywhere. People selling bulk stuff from their trike / trucks.)

(All the elevated freeways create a lot of space under them, which is used for parks and commerce.)

(Only two subway lines in Chengdu, both quite new. Both packed most of the time.)

(Stumbled upon a semi-outdoor market. Like an open square with netting put up as a makeshift roof.)

(Tai-chi. Or something like it.)

(Massive elevated freeway construction right thru the middle of a busy city.)

(So many shops like this. Just a booth, packed to the gills, spilling out on the street.)

(Restaurant. I did not eat here.)

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