Space-age technology, dramatic architecture, and good old-fashioned human ingenuity are transforming global villages into vanguards of the 21st century
Graham Uden

From Liberation Road we went downhill. We were searching for old Chongqing. There were four of us: myself and three local architects. Cynics may be surprised to hear that Chongqing has more than one architect. In this rapidly modernizing city, there are entire downtown sections that appear to have been designed by a single person armed with a T-square and a lot of concrete. Chongqing architects share a certain bond with Boston drivers, Russian economists, La Mancha knights. The battle is there, so they join in, unmindful of the odds.

There's something decidedly quixotic about Chongqing. It's far from everything, squeezed tight on a wedge of mountainous land between the Jialing and Yangtze rivers, and yet it seems the winds of history have always made their way to this part of China's interior. Chongqing was the nation's capital during World War II, when the Kuomintang government retreated inland and Japanese bombers followed, doing everything they could to break the city's spirit. Chongqing survived.

The Kuomintang and their American advisers were replaced by the Communists, who made this region the focus of their Third Line Project, Mao Tse-tung's response in the 1950's and 60's to what he perceived as the threat of nuclear attack from both the United States and the Soviet Union. Mao's defense plan was simple: Pack up most of Shanghai's military industry, ship it up the Yangtze, and disperse the factories to outlying areas around Chongqing and other parts of the southwest.

After 1980, a newly opened China shifted gears again, attempting to convert the Third Line military plants to profitable civilian industries, and Chongqing had to cope with factories in places where nobody would logically ever put them. The region was wracked by bankruptcies and layoffs. Then, just as the city was recovering from the Third Line, along came the Three Gorges Project—the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world, currently under construction 400 miles downstream from Chongqing.

In 1997, in part to prepare for the dam, the central government designated Chongqing a municipality, granting it special tax breaks and investment privileges. The city is now a focal point of China's "Open the West" campaign, a drive to attract foreign investment to the long-neglected interior. "America also opened up its west," Zhao Gongqing, Chongqing's vice-mayor, told me during a recent trip. "You started with thirteen states and kept getting bigger. China should study this aspect of America's history."

The parallel was a stretch, but I couldn't help admiring the spirit—there's something wonderfully bizarre about expansion talk from the vice-mayor of a city that already has a population of more than 30 million. Chongqing covers as much area as Switzerland and the Netherlands combined; half of the city's official residents are actually peasants who live within the wide boundaries. People say it's the largest village in the world, and the peasant viewpoint defines it. Chongqing residents have a reputation for being tough, hard-working, and straightforward. They rarely complain. The local dialect is earthy—Chongqing soccer fans chant "Erection!" when their team needs a boost. And somehow, Chongqing has always been able to overcome seemingly impossible challenges. When I met Vice-Mayor Zhao, he spoke enthusiastically about the recent $98 million joint-venture agreement between Ford and Chongqing's Changan Automobile Co. Together they will produce economy cars; in former days, Changan was a Third Line plant that made firearms. It's a swords-to-plowshares story, Chongqing-style: People's Liberation Army pistols converted into compact Fords for compact Chinese families.

For centuries, Chongqing residents have been just as resourceful with their construction methods. A search for the city's traditional cliffside dwellings, known as diaojiaolou (falling-leg houses), had propelled me and my three architect friends to turn off Liberation Road. Diaojiaolou rise, sometimes as many as 10 makeshift stories tall, on slender supports of bamboo and wood—the "falling legs." Hoping to see some, we headed into Chuandaoguai, one of the few old neighborhoods to have survived Chongqing's building boom.

Chuandaoguai is nothing more than a sliver of the city—less than a mile long, less than 300 feet wide—but its atmosphere spans centuries. There are no cars. People move slowly. They sit in open-air mah-jongg parlors, and they let their chickens roam freely. One of the architects pointed to a diaojiaolou with supporting poles lashed together by bamboo thongs. "That's the traditional method," he said. "They didn't even use nails in the old days."

We stopped to chat with a 72-year-old woman named Ye Yifang, who was sitting in her kitchen exactly 15 feet from the bedroom where she had been born. I asked her if anything in the neighborhood had changed. She said that during the war they had widened the alley slightly so people could more easily be evacuated during bombing raids. That was it.

We came out on Riverside Road, where the gray streak of the Yangtze ran sullen in the fog. One of the architects pointed to a nondescript building where China's American advisers had lived during the war. He took us into the nearby Jiayuan Restaurant, in a modernized diaojiaolou whose upper floor leads to the cliffside bomb shelter used by the Americans. The shelter extended 200 feet straight into the rock. The restaurant was storing beer there, and pickled cabbage, and there were wicker chairs so the employees could rest in the cool, cavelike air. It is, like the Ford-Changan automobile plant, a sort of conversion. When we left, the manager invited me to return for dinner.

"Our specialty is dove," he said proudly. "And the doves we serve here are an American breed!"

He gestured to a row of cages. I'm no expert, but the birds looked American: fat and content. Maybe the scene said something about war and peace, conversions and joint ventures, and maybe it didn't. But the architects were sharp, in a Chongqing way, and one of them grinned at me as we left.

"You Americans don't like to eat doves, do you?" he said. "They're quite good."