Christopher Beam visits this most appealing of Chinese cities, and meets the people working to connect its future to its past.
Credit: Simon Norfolk / Institute

"This is the real China," said the American photographer, sipping whiskey on the patio of the Niccolo, a new luxury hotel in downtown Chengdu. “This is it, man, this is where it’s really at.” We were schmoozing around the hotel bar at an event sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce, surrounded most immediately by an assortment of meat-and-cheese plates, and beyond that by the skyscrapers of Chengdu’s commercial center. “I don’t think it is,” said a British hotelier, as politely as possible. “Not the real China.” He nodded down at the shops below us. “Not here with Tiffany and Cartier and whatever that one is.” The photographer, seeing his challenger’s point, hedged. “Well if you go out of town twenty miles, you’ll find it there,” he said.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard an expat waxing on about realness or the lack thereof in China. For many foreigners, there’s a geographical hierarchy of authenticity. Shanghai is at the silicone-fake end of the spectrum. (Hong Kong doesn’t even register.) Beijing is slightly better, with its end-of-days traffic, shoddy English, and general chaotic whirl. Chongqing, Wuhan, Changsha: legit. Get down to your third-tier cities like Zhuhai, Shijiazhuang, or Taiyuan, and you may have some hope of experiencing real, lung-blackening, gut-lacerating, Imodium-proof China. If you want something really real—possibly too real—go to the countryside.

Chengdu falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. It’s not quite a Tier 1 city—maybe 1.5, with a population of 14 million—but it has grown rapidly in recent years, and now has many of the markings of a cosmopolitan Chinese metropolis, including multiple ring roads, colossal malls with international brand-name stores, and pollution you can taste. Yet it has also somehow managed to remain distinct: slow where Shanghai is fast, green where Beijing is gray, provincial where Guangzhou is internationalized. As the capital of Sichuan province, it’s beloved by foodies, and traditional arts like Shu brocade and Sichuan opera survive, albeit largely for tourists. It has a sense of place—there is a there there— that may be what the photographer was referring to when he called it “the real China.”

Credit: Simon Norfolk / Institute

Authenticity is a slippery concept anywhere: it’s always hard to put your finger on what’s real or fake, or what those words mean in the first place. China makes it especially difficult, with its fondness for knockoff phones, handbags, eggs, news, Apple Stores, diplomas, and quaint European villages. As a tourist, you’re constantly asking yourself: Is this real?

The question was on my mind as I strolled through the Wide and Narrow Lanes, a traditional-looking shopping area in downtown Chengdu. It felt like walking onto the set of a movie about the late Qing dynasty, with excellent catering. I passed low-slung buildings with high thresholds and imposing archways guarded by stone dragons. Food stalls lined the walkways, selling famous Chengdu snacks like dandan noodles and balls of glutinous rice paste called sandapao, or “three cannonballs.” Here, I thought, here was the real Chengdu. The spell was broken, however, when I stumbled upon a magnificent three-story teahouse-style building with characters hanging above the gray brick entryway: 星巴克咖啡. STARBUCKS COFFEE.

“It’s all counterfeit—it’s fake,” said Zhang Xianjin, a retired professor of architecture, when I met him at a nearby teahouse (a real one, located in an open-air courtyard house built over a hundred years ago). “It has no historical value.” Zhang wore a plain white shirt with a mandarin collar and spoke with quickness and precision. The Wide and Narrow Lanes were a typical example of fanggu, he said, a term that literally means “imitating the old,” but has become synonymous with the fakery of historical buildings. Throughout the country, fanggu has been China’s answer to its own destructive past. With few actual relics or old buildings left to preserve, the government has instead chosen to rebuild them as they might have looked in their prime.

Architects I spoke with, both Chinese and Western, dismissed the fanggu style as tasteless, inauthentic, “Disney-like.” And yet it’s become the prevailing aesthetic of Chinese heritage sites, including Beijing’s Front Gate area, south of Tiananmen Square; the Xintiandi shopping area in Shanghai; and entire sections of the Great Wall. Even though the Wide and Narrow Lanes look old, 85 percent of the buildings there are newly built, Zhang said—including, surprise, the Starbucks. “It’s neither donkey nor horse,” he said dismissively.

Zhang, born in Chengdu in 1943, had witnessed the city’s selfdestruction firsthand. In 1967, when he was still an architecture student, the local government decided to demolish the imperial palace in the city center and erect a statue of Chairman Mao. It was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, a motto of which was, “Destroy the old world and build a new world.” Zhang, now 72, said, “At that time, I was crazy, too. My brain wasn’t normal.... It was a bad period of history.” Later, after the political climate quieted down, he began to study China’s ancient architecture. He visited the Forbidden City in Beijing and the gardens of Suzhou. Only then did he realize that knocking down the imperial palace had been a tragic mistake.

In terms of historical preservation, the worst was yet to come. Like most Chinese cities, Chengdu transformed completely after the country opened up its economy in 1979. Traditionally known for its slow pace of life, tree-lined streets, and penchant for mahjongg, the city has shot up and out, leveling old neighborhoods to build skyscrapers, constructing a series of ring roads and two subway lines (with seven more to come), and creating a new high-tech industrial development zone in the south, which now features the building with the world’s largest floor space, the New Century Global Center. (One Chengdu resident spoke for many when he called it “the world’s biggest mistake.”)

After 2008, when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck the mountainous area northwest of the city, Chengdu sought to rebrand itself as a destination for both tourists and investors. Companies including GE, IBM, and Dell opened offices here, and Apple began producing iPads in a factory nearby. United Airlines launched direct flights from San Francisco, and the city became a hub of the “New Silk Road” freight line connecting China and Europe.

These developments were good for Chengdu’s economy, but not necessarily for its soul. The city razed traditional structures and erected behemoths in their place. “I actually think modernization has been more damaging than the Cultural Revolution was,” Zhang said. But he said it’s not too late to preserve some of Chengdu’s essence. “It’s late, but it’s still possible,” he said. The question is how.

Orange Line

When people talk about Chengdu, the word that comes up most is relaxed. (Well, that and pandas—we’ll get to them.) I heard many explanations for the city’s purported tendency toward leisure, from its geography (it’s surrounded by mountains, so residents never had to worry about invaders) to its soil (“Put a stick in the ground and it will grow flowers,” goes one saying) to its temperature (hot and humid). This relaxation takes many forms: playing the aforementioned mah-jongg, exercising in the park, eating the local hot pot known for its numbing spiciness, or, in the case of a visiting Beijinger like me, strolling around and inhaling deeply whenever I passed a tree, which was often. (Perhaps the most remarkable thing about walking around Chengdu is that one can walk around Chengdu.) At the same time, its residents are spenders, especially when it comes to high-end shopping. According to a 2013 report, 85 percent of top international brands have opened stores in Chengdu, making it one of the country’s largest markets for luxury goods.

Credit: Simon Norfolk / Institute

It was with this local character in mind that Lin Hao and his team of architects first started designing the new Sino-Ocean Tai Koo Li Chengdu shopping area that surrounds the Daci Temple, one of the city’s oldest Buddhist temples, located in the city’s skyscraper-studded downtown. “Our approach was to understand the lifestyle of Chengdu rather than the heritage itself,” Lin Hao said. “We had to look at the so-called ‘software’ side of conservation.” Walking around the complex, colloquially known as Tai Koo Li, on a Thursday afternoon, the place felt as much like a park as a mall. A child holding a balloon pranced in front of a fountain that sprang out of the paving stones. In the massive Fangsuo Commune bookstore, a group of girls crowded around The Book of Answers, asking it questions and then opening it to a random page. (Q: “Will I get back together with my boyfriend?” A: “Don’t bet on it.”) Admiring a piece of art in the plaza outside the temple, I almost forgot I was flanked by gleaming Gucci and Muji stores.

The architects had to think about hardware, too: How to preserve the six “heritage buildings” on site, all from the early 20th century, while also producing a modern commercial space that integrates itself with its surroundings. Their solution was to develop a mix of old and new styles, letting the location and design of the traditional buildings influence the new constructions around them. They kept the original layout—the “fabric of the lanes,” as Hao put it—but added modern touches like public art and pools of water. The new buildings are designed like traditional Sichuan structures, with dark tiled roofs sloping at an angle of 27 degrees, but are clearly recent, rising two to three stories high and incorporating modern building materials and lighting.

In one of the more striking instances of historical integration, the Temple House, a new hotel that occupies the southeast corner of the development, has housed its lobby in one of the heritage structures, an old courtyard called the Bitieshi, which was a government translation office during the Qing dynasty. The Temple House wasn’t designed to replicate Chengdu architecture, so much as to capture its spirit. The gray bricks of the courtyard walls protrude irregularly, evoking the pattern seen on the heritage buildings. The grassy hillocks in its lawn area, an homage to the rolling mountains of Yellow Dragon Park, turn out to be skylights in an underground ballroom. During my stay in one of its suites, I found myself wondering if the softness of the towels was meant to simulate the coat of a baby panda.

Credit: Simon Norfolk / Institute

Adaptive reuse may be a familiar concept in the United States and Europe, but China has relatively few examples, especially ones involving preindustrial architecture. Chengdu does have a former kinescope factory that has been converted into an art-and-music space called Eastern Suburb Memory park, as well as an old alley called Chongdeli that has become an elegant café, restaurant, and hotel, though neither is as ambitious as the Daci Temple project. Katy Ghahremani of Make Architects, which designed the Temple House, argued that repurposing old buildings keeps them alive. “The way to preserve heritage buildings is not to treat them as museum pieces, but to actually bring them back into use,” she said. And unlike Chengdu’s fanggu commercial strips, such as the Wide and Narrow Lanes and the Jinli Ancient Street shopping area, Tai Koo Li’s approach makes clear what’s new and what’s old. “We want it to have integ- rity and authenticity,”she said.

But the more Ghahremani and I talked, the less clear it became where to draw the line between good preservation and bad preservation, between authenticity and fakery. We all agree it’s important to maintain the Daci Temple, but the temple is itself a 20th-century construction, mostly rebuilt in the style of the Qing dynasty—in other words, fanggu. “Everything you see on site is something reconstructed from history,” Hao said. Any quest to preserve Chengdu’s essence, it seemed, would inevitably bump up against the possibility that there is no pure Chengdu-ness to be preserved in the first place.

And even if there were, not everyone agrees that conservation is necessary. One day I met up with Chen Zhipeng, a.k.a. Gas, one half of the Chengdu graffiti artist duo Gas & Seve, who incorporate traditional symbols into their murals, which include a giant blue-and-orange goat’s head staring down from a wall in the Wide and Narrow Lanes. (This is, after all, the Year of the Sheep.) I found Gas inside the New Century “World’s Biggest Mistake” Global Center, where he was doing a commissioned work for a bar, again using his trademark blue and orange—opposites on the color wheel, hence a play on yin and yang. I asked what he thinks of the city’s attempts to preserve itself. “If a building gets to the point where it can’t stand up and is falling apart, then it’s been demolished by time,” he said. “If we insist on restoring it to its original form, that’s denying it the dignity of death.” He rejected the idea that the Tai Koo Li complex is keeping tradition alive by mixing old and new. “Everything passes,” he said. “If you bring it back for the sake of doing business, then you’re not respecting its soul.”

Orange Line

Chengdu is known for being rich in history. But when I asked most locals which historical sites I should visit, they rattled off a predictable list: the popular Wuhou Temple, founded in the year 221 and now dedicated to the great strategist of the Three Kingdoms period, Zhu Ge Liang; Du Fu’s Thatched Cottage, the lush, forested estate where the great poet/drunkard/ patriot may or may not have once lived; the Dujiangyan irrigation system, built in the third century B.C., which helped turn Chengdu into a fertile paradise and is now a unesco World Heritage site. In other words, the places that reinforce the selective, crowd-pleasing story Chengdu tells itself about its own history, one in which poverty or political upheaval do not feature.

But not everything fits into the official narrative. And in Chengdu, far from the nation’s capital, you can get away with telling stories you couldn’t repeat closer to the seat of power. On a Tuesday morning, two Chinese friends and I drove to a small town called Anren, an hour outside the city, to visit the Jianchuan Museum Cluster—a collection of galleries, more than 30 in total, spread across 82 acres. After buying tickets at the front entrance, we hopped into a stretch golf cart, and a chipper tour guide drove us to the first museum on our list: an exhibition of memorabilia from the Cultural Revolution.

In four years living in China, I hadn’t seen anything like it. (The exhibit on 20th-century Chinese history at the National Museum in Beijing skips over the 1960s and 70s almost entirely.) One gallery features mannequins posed in scenes from that period, including a peasant family reading Little Red Books over dinner and a calligrapher painting a propa- ganda poster. Another room collects day-to-day items, including tickets for food, soap, and matches. Later, we saw photos of “counterrevolutionaries” being paraded through the streets on trucks, heads hung in shame, placards dangling from their necks.

Fan Jianchuan, the museum’s founder, said he doesn’t approach history with an agenda. “We do our best not to take a personal stance,” he said. “We let the objects speak.” I met Fan at his office at the museum, which has walls covered with his own calligraphy. Despite having made billions in real estate and other enterprises—he was ranked among China’s 500 richest people in 2007 and 2008—Fan prides himself on his simple lifestyle. “I buy cheap cigarettes, I wear old clothes, I eat with my employees,” he told me.

Fan designed the sensitive exhibits to read like Rorschach tests: Those with fond feelings for the country’s revolutionary past will find their nostalgia confirmed. Those who see it as a dark period will find plenty of supporting evidence. Fan, who served in the army and once taught classes in Marxism, knows how to handle these subjects with delicacy. “We should take history as a mirror, to make sure the tragedy doesn’t ever happen again,” he said. “This is about putting reality on display, and letting the audience, especially young people, decide.”

Aside from a desire to avoid future mistakes, Fan said he has personal reasons for preserving the past. “I’m almost sixty years old. As long as the museum is around, I won’t die,” Fan said. “If it exists, I exist.”

Orange Line
Credit: Simon Norfolk / Institute

I had been putting off the pandas. But in Chengdu, the pandas find you.

After getting off the plane, I counted about 90 seconds before I saw a picture of a “bear cat,” as pandas are known in Chinese, on a poster for the 16th annual International Furniture Fair. A family of rainbow-colored panda statues sat in a circle outside the Raffles City mall; a giant panda sculpture clambered up the side of the International Finance Square building. It was therefore less by choice than by gravitational pull—possibly even local law—that I woke up at dawn and hauled myself into a van, along with a handful of fellow hotel guests, to visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on the outskirts of Chengdu.

I am not a panda fan. When a BBC presenter went on a diatribe against the panda in 2009, calling it an “evolutionary cul-de-sac,” I nodded along. The pandas I had seen at zoos only confirmed my suspicion that they symbolized not humanity’s devotion to wildlife, but our unslakable thirst for cuteness. The ubiquity of panda memorabilia in Chengdu—you can buy anything short of a panda itself— only deepened my panda fatigue.

The first panda we saw, Long Bang, did not alleviate my skepticism. We found him passed out on a platform of bamboo scaffolding. (“His character is calm and quiet,” according to Long Bang’s biographical placard.) This was typical of pandas, I learned: they eat bamboo constantly, but only absorb about 20 percent of its nutrients, so they spend the rest of their time “conserving energy.” We watched Long Bang for a minute, hoping he wasn’t dead. Suddenly he stirred, then, slowly, turned over onto his other side. The crowd squealed. It was his biggest accomplishment of the day so far.

In the distance, a young Beijing man from our group spotted a panda that appeared to be moving. “This one’s alive!” he said, and we rushed over to see. Qiu Bang was not only alive, he was living well. We found him ripping into a stalk of bamboo, a pile of discarded husks strewn across his belly like some gluttonous Roman emperor. His munching was drowned out by the sounds of coos and digital shutters clicking. He flopped onto his back and kept eating in a supine position— an innovation in laziness I had to admire. He finally sat up again, and the crowd cheered. I was surprised to find my voice among them.

We filed into a movie theater, where we watched a documentary in which Chinese scientists explain, over an Enya soundtrack, how they go about perpetuating the species. For pandas, the greatest threat is not predators, or a lack of food, or a depleted habitat, but their own inertia. Most of the time, they can’t even be bothered to procreate. Added to this, mother pandas often “lack mothering skill,” the narrator said, over footage of a mother smacking her pink, squiggling newborn around the cell like a hockey puck.

The mere fact of the pandas’ continued existence was thus framed as a triumph of human preservationism. But to what end? The Beijinger in our group posited a theory that it’s about PR for China, and it would probably be bad publicity for the government to grant the pandas their death wish just now. A cynic might also point to money and diplomacy (China lends pandas to zoos around the world). The insistence on perpetuating the species reminded me of what Gas had said about old buildings: to keep them alive artificially denies them the dignity of death.

Then again, maybe we preserve some things because we just like them. Pandas are cute. Old temples are beautiful. From this perspective, even the act of building a new replica of an old teahouse or meeting hall or the Great Wall doesn’t seem so offensive. (Remember, this is a country that keeps its former leader embalmed in a public square.) If it helps people learn what life was like in the past, what’s the problem? So it’s Disney. People like Disney. And given a choice between life and extinction, between memory and forgetting, who can blame us for choosing the first?