To address a letter to a city of any kind is folly. To send a letter to a metropolis of your immensity — 32 million residents! — shows, as we say here in New York, chutzpah. Also it’s a bit weird. And yet I’m writing anyway, because I don’t quite know how else to get a handle on the six days I spent with you in October — six days in which I felt embraced and ignored, beloved and rejected, entrapped and, in the end, liberated. Please let me explain:
When I stepped off the train from Chengdu, the laid-back capital of Sichuan Province about 320km to the west, I felt (I imagined) just like one of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants who flock from the countryside to your crowded streets every year: At once energized and terrified, awed and optimistic. All over, skyscrapers were rising, with spindly cranes adding new stories by the minute, their windowless walls vanishing in the mist (OK, smog). Beyond them, when the sunlight strengthened, I could see the craggy outlines of mountains and sense the distant dips that heralded the conjunction of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers.
To lighten my load for the first day’s wandering, I left my luggage in storage, then went next door to the bus station, where I muscled past the map vendors — “Don’t want,” I told them in dicey Mandarin — to find the No. 601 bus, which would take me into your heart. From my seat at the rear of the vehicle I gaped at your sheer physicality. Your streets curved and climbed, circling around gleaming, Prada-billboarded shopping malls and racing down through construction sites at whose edges I glimpsed neatly terraced vegetable gardens. As the bus crossed a bridge high above the muddy Jialing and curlicued through cloverleaf overpasses and tunnels toward what I took to be downtown Chongqing, I had to admit: You were not pretty, but I was enthralled.
I was also overwhelmed, just as I’d hoped. It had been a very, very long time since I’d felt so dominated by a city — if I’d ever felt that way at all. Years of living in New York had inured me to the challenges (and wonders) of urban living, but years of travel had taught me that other people were still intimidated by cities: their size and density, their crowds, their dirt and chaos and almost arbitrary rules of conduct. Recently, I’d begun to ask myself: How would it feel to be a migrant abandoning the countryside for the urban unknown, or a small-town tourist facing off against the metropolis?
To find the answer I first had to find the right city — no, the right mega-city, a place whose very city-ness was its attraction, whose size and structure warped reality like a black hole, whose impenetrability would reduce me to that gawking, dreaming yokel I maybe never was.
And then, last August, I read “Chicago on the Yangtze,” an article in Foreign Policy magazine that laid out your brief but impressive history. A century ago, you were but a minor port on the Yangtze, a backwater of south-central China with a slightly different name, Chungking. But by World War II you’d become the Republic of China’s temporary capital and the postwar years saw enough growth that in 1997 you broke away from Sichuan Province to become what’s humbly termed a “direct-controlled municipality” — a heaving, swirling industrial nexus that upends our traditional notions of what constitutes a city. More than 30 million people spread through a mountainous, river-cut, quake-prone area twice the size of Switzerland, and you call yourself a mere municipality? Intrigued, I yearned to lose myself among such multitudes.
And for my first few hours, I did. I got off the 601 ... somewhere, and asked a passing schoolboy where to find lunch. He pointed me down a side street, where I discovered an ad hoc, open-air noodle shop and ordered a bowl, crimson with chili oil, fragrant with numbing, citrusy Sichuan peppercorns, studded with bits of pork and intestine. I added a dash of black vinegar and slurped it down, grateful to have had such a literally warm welcome.
From there I wandered. Up a tower to a defunct revolving restaurant, where I snapped photos of the hazy skyline. Into a shop selling warning signs for construction sites, where I bought a “Danger! High voltage!” placard. Through one of the few neighborhoods of historic and beautiful buildings, where viney-rooted trees scaled brick walls and brass plaques championed the deeds of Chinese Communist Party heroes. As afternoon began shading into evening, I arrived by chance at People’s Square, a broad plaza where I heard the twanging of guitar and erhu, the two-stringed traditional instrument, and the warbling voice of an amateur chanteuse. At first, I worried that I’d stumbled into a tourist trap. Then I looked around: There were no tourists. Nor had I seen any all day. The senior citizens making music beneath a sheltering tree were simply locals enjoying their favorite hangout. I sat down, listened to songs from (I think) the 1960s and was utterly charmed. Here in the heart of the sprawl, I’d found, well, heart.
The mood lasted only until the sun went down, which is when I began to make mistakes — none catastrophic, but together they added up to misery. First, I found a hotel nearby that looked promising — clean, affordable, well situated — so I checked in, barely noticing that every other room on my floor was set up to host mahjong players.
Hungry, I set off for dinner — and filled my belly with regret. Down the street, big groups clustered around caldrons of spicy broth, dipping meats and vegetables in to cook them; this was hot pot, Chongqing’s specialty, a meal that is absolutely no fun to eat alone. Instead, I ate chili-slathered pork dumplings in the fluorescent glare of a noisy restaurant.
What I needed were new friends, so I grabbed a taxi and asked, in Mandarin, for an area with lots of bars. The glitzy nightlife district into which I was deposited was all big, loud clubs (ie. not my scene), and I resented the expensively dressed youngsters who moved so easily through the neon alleys. At the five-star hotels nearby, I asked concierges about quiet bars where I might meet people; they directed me to places I’d already rejected.
Finally, I returned to the hotel, where I discovered my floormates click-clacking away at mahjong. What’s more, I could sense a hovering aura of sleaze: You don’t play at 2am without gambling, and the men who bet big often have “company” for the night. (Ah, that explained the condoms in the bathroom!) Trying to make as little contact with the sheets as possible, I slept.
In the gray dawn, I was ready to check out, but first I needed to retrieve my bags from the train station. There began an interminable series of slow, traffic-snarled bus trips, a waste of hours and hours, during which there was nothing to do but run each successive failure through my head.
Gaudy but boring, rich but indifferent — that was the Chongqing I felt consigned to, an endless concrete-and-steel maze of copycat karaoke halls and fluorescent noodle shops. I could quiz passers-by — in English or Mandarin — and learn nothing. This was not New York, where every straphanger, hot dog vendor and stoop-sitter has extraordinarily specific ideas about what visitors should see and do.
Where in the sprawl could I find the oddballs able to see through the glare and take advantage of the city’s unmatched energy?
I despaired, but I did not give up. Instead, I cheated.
On the bus back from the train station, I used my iPhone to Google up a new place to stay (In Chengdu, I’d bought a local SIM card with a cheap 3G plan.). I felt guilty at violating my own “Getting Lost” commandments, but surviving a city means learning when to break the rules.
And this crime paid handsomely, for I found Tina’s Hostel, a warren of rooms an easy cab ride away, at the edge of the 18 Steps, an old, central neighborhood whose every building (I believe) bore the character chai, which means destined for demolition. My private room was acceptable, if small; there was a roof deck with a pool table, and an enclosed cafe space. Most important, there was the spunky crew of young Chinese men and women who operated the hostel, showed a genuine interest in its guests and invited me to join them that evening for what I’d been wanting to eat ever since I arrived: hot pot.
At 8pm, eight of us left the hostel, crossed busy Zhongxing Road and found a stairway that ascended a hill. Up we went, going ever deeper into a poorly lighted neighborhood, until eventually we arrived at a small, dark, secluded shack. Two circular tables stood outside, each with a gas heating element at its center. An older man, the proprietor, hurried out with a pot of broth so red it was almost black and as it began to bubble we dunked with our chopsticks every ingredient imaginable — slices of pork and bundles of enoki mushrooms, lotus root and tofu skin, duck intestines and cow stomach and pig brains — all of them emerging aflame with chili oil.
We drank cheap Shancheng Beer, we joked around, we took turns singing songs. (I proudly busted out the Chinese nursery rhymes that my daughter, Sasha, loves.) And we did it mostly in Mandarin — a language I speak poorly at best — with occasional forays into English when my comprehension skills failed. For some, I imagine, this would be a disconcerting, frustrating experience, but I quickly got used to this linguistic interzone. Billboards heralded the municipality’s future: “Livable Chongqing” and “Safe Chongqing,” but also “Forest Chongqing” and “Iatrical Chongqing.” Announcements made on the new, multibillion-dollar light rail were delivered in English almost as creaky as my Mandarin. I even spotted a warning sign, next to an elevator, that read: “Nihil obstat elevator.”
Compared with some other parts of China, like Shanghai and Beijing, this was a raw and unrefined experience. And happily so. Those other places spend so much money and energy trying to impress outsiders (see Shanghai’s war on outdoor pajamas) that I wonder what’s left over for locals. But now I was in a Chinese city for Chinese people.
Native urbanites walked their well-groomed collies on the hills, waltzed in parks at dusk and practiced martial arts on rain-swept plazas at midnight. And rural migrants took up bamboo poles and skeins of rope to join the so-called “stick-stick army” of porters, looking to haul bags of groceries or sacks of concrete mix along unnavigable inclines. What could it matter to any of them how the city appears to transient foreigners like me?
As far as I could tell, Westerners were rarities, and for good reason. Apart from being a departure point for Yangtze River cruises, Chong-qing had little to see. One morning I went to the Three Gorges Museum, but the exhibits — about the massive hydroelectric dam, 190km downriver, that has changed the landscape throughout the region — were too boring to bear; I left within 30 minutes. And a World War II air raid shelter, where 4,000 people were asphyxiated during a bombing, was closed until 2015 because of construction of the subway system.
But so what?
I was done trying to make the city give me what I wanted; now I would let the city show me what to do. So one day, just before lunch, I rode the light rail 45 minutes to the end of the line and walked to a bus stop, where, after studying the route map (another breach of my rules, but it was in Chinese, hence unreadable), I boarded a bus that passers-by assured me would not go anywhere I’d been before.
Never have I been so relaxed on a bus. With no destination in mind and no timetable to keep, I simply rode and looked out the window at the gray sky and the towers topped with Italianate domes or mansard roofs (and sometimes, I think, with both). I rode for at least half an hour until, at last, my hunger persuaded me to get off the bus. So I did, at a stop facing five small, open-fronted restaurants. Which to pick? The one whose owner called out to me first. What to order? Whatever the owner thought I should. Could I eat spicy? Of course! Soon I was chopsticking shredded pork with green chilies into my mouth and chasing it with stir-fried white cabbage. Chongqing, you were treating me well.
A postprandial stroll took me through areas I never expected to see: the Paint District, where buckets, tubs and barrels of Chinese, US, German and Dutch colorings were sold from dozens of shops. Then to the Bathroom Fixture District and uphill to the Roll-Out Flooring District.
And then up another hill, in a fine, cold rain, to a residential neighborhood whose vegetable gardens grew on steep slopes trailing down to a newly cleared construction site. One plant caught my attention: a chili bush whose fruits pointed straight up. These were chao tian jiao, a supposedly out-of-season pepper I’d sought without luck in Chengdu.
I chatted with a woman who asked what I was looking for, stunned her by tasting one of the chilies (very, very, very hot), then followed her directions to a nearby park, outside of which an older couple had set up a target, decorated with balloons, and were renting BB rifles. I took them up on the offer and blasted balloons with such concentration that (aided by the lingering, hallucinogenic heat of the chilies) I entered a strange trance state in which nothing else existed but the crosshairs, my trigger finger and the exploding balloons. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Finally, I flagged down a taxi and went to the nearest light-rail station, knowing that, when I returned to the hostel and people there asked what I’d done all day, I’d have no clue how to explain myself. Luckily, one of the hostel’s guests understood. He was David Wu, a Shanghai native who had spent the last decade working in Japan and was now traveling overland to India and Nepal. In some ways, David was as out of place as I was. Chongqing’s fiery food didn’t always please his Shanghainese stomach and the local dialect was a mystery. The Three Gorges Dam — whose construction on the almost 6,440km long Yangtze was responsible for much of Chongqing’s growth — gnawed at him. He claimed that it interrupted the flow of qi energy throughout China.
“It’s the Dragon River,” he said, using the Yangtze’s nickname, “and they cut it in half.”
David also shared my yearning for unpredictable adventure, whether it was a spontaneous excursion to the neighborhood of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, where we admired the artfully graffitied buildings on “Doodle Street,” or an attempt to see how far we could travel in one day yet remain within Chongqing proper.
That second jaunt did not go as planned. After more than three hours in cramped vans and buses, we gave up on our hoped-for destination, a supposedly lovely town called Wanzhou, and debarked, at lunchtime, in Liangping, a gray, homely town we’d never heard of. In the October chill, we evaluated the restaurants near the bus station and picked the busiest, called simply 789, where we warmed ourselves with tomato-egg soup, stewed tofu and “water-cooked sliced meat,” a fantastic dish of bean sprouts and astoundingly sweet, fresh pork in a cauldron of spicy liquid.
Then, because we had hours to kill, we jumped in a taxi and asked the driver what to see. Shuanggui Hall, he said, the biggest Buddhist temple in Sichuan Province! (Never mind that Chongqing left Sichuan in 1997.) He took off and right away we were in the countryside, passing wet, green fields crossed by the prim brick arches of an aging aqueduct. The air smelled clear, life felt unhurried. Strange as it seemed, this too was Chongqing: a multiple-personality municipality.
“Do you believe in Buddha?” the driver asked me (through David).
“No,” I said, tensing up as he removed his hands from the wheel to mime a Buddhist prayer. “But I believe in luck.”
Then, as he dropped us off, he overcharged us for the ride.
At more than 300 years old, the temple was gorgeous, primarily because it hadn’t been overly restored, repainted or otherwise gussied up to attract visitors. Rather, it looked used and well loved. A festival had taken place there that morning; near the entrance, votive candles melted (David lighted one for his father) and inside the temple mighty sticks of incense smoldered in iron urns. Monks’ yellow robes, freshly laundered, hung on railings to dry, and a woman napped at her desk.
At the rear was a fortunetellers’ chamber and though I usually shun such things as silly, only-for-tourist displays, by that point I knew this was no act. Following instructions, I kowtowed to the goddess Guanyin and shook a wooden container filled with long sticks until one of them escaped and fell to the ground. No. 23, it was marked, one of the rarest fortunes — a guarantee, I was told by the rotund official who interpreted such things for a fee —10 yuan (US$1.50) — that all would go well with my family and my career. For a secondary fee, he hinted, he could tell me much more.
But what more could I want to know?
I had come to you, Chong-qing, seeking my fortune like any other of your millions, and you’d embraced me, given me a place in your streets, revealed to me a few of your close-held secrets and showed me your multifarious nature — at times ugly, at others remarkable, uncaring to be sure, but with unimpeachable ulterior motives. You spurred me, as great cities do to those of us who brave them, to rely on nothing but myself, to trust that the improvisational moment will arrive, if only I submit to your will, wait patiently and figure out when and how to break the rules.
For that and for all the chilies, fresh, dried and pickled, I remain,
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