You'll warm to the people but beware the Sichuan hotpot


Chengdu Letter:  It's been 15 years since I last visited Chengdu and the city looks as if someone has taken a vast modern metropolis and overlaid it on the grid of the sleepy provincial capital I gratefully entered after a gritty month in the mountains of Sichuan province. Bits of the old town stick out here and there, but this is a different urban environment to the one I experienced in 1992.

Chengdu is China's fifth largest city with over 11 million inhabitants, and at first glance is hard to tell apart from China's other burgeoning cities - pollution means the sky is a yellow-tinged white and the air quality is poor, the streets are crowded with new cars badly driven, and the boulevards I recall thronged with bicycles, are overlain with flyovers overshadowed by skyscrapers.

It's a powerful reminder of just how much China has come on in just 15 years. In 1992, the air was clean and the streets relatively empty of cars.

But while the hardware of Chengdu may have changed, the software remains the same. Chengdu's people are among the most engaging and friendly in China and breakneck economic expansion has not dulled their wit and their hospitality.

Chengdu was founded in 316 BC and, unusually for a Chinese city, it hasn't moved since, but was built on and expanded over the centuries.

The city is home to thousands of tea houses, and people live life at a different pace here than in other cities, particularly compared to the booming south and eastern seaboard.

The relaxed atmosphere in the tea houses is in stark contrast to their equivalents in Beijing and Shanghai.

In 1992, I was whisked through the "Hibiscus City" by a hotel employee who lent me a bicycle to buy train tickets to get to Guangzhou in the south.

Flights, now hourly, were a lot less frequent then and train travel was the main way of getting to Sichuan.

There were scores, even hundreds, of cyclists gathered at the traffic lights near the train station, but it was less terrifying to use pedal power then than it is to take a taxi nowadays. There are still a lot of bikes in Chengdu, but they are under threat from the rapidly-increasing car population.

This hotel worker, who spoke excellent English, used the din of all the cyclists to tell me of how he and his friends had been chased down the alleyways of this city during the crackdown on the democracy movement in 1989. While Beijing, and especially Tiananmen Square, dominated the headlines and captured the world's imagination because of the presence of foreign journalists in the capital on June 4th of that year, Chengdu also had large demonstrations seeking an end to corruption and democratic reform, and their suppression was equally brutal.

My friend was keen to get his story across and to make sure that people knew what had happened. I hadn't the heart to tell him, 15 years ago, that China had been largely rehabilitated within the global community since the events of 1989, that Western economists were proclaiming their bullishness on China and that trade was winning in the great China debate. A new pragmatism held sway even then.

The Berlin Wall had collapsed, and communism in Eastern Europe had been wiped out. Even in Russia, a brutal form of private enterprise held sway. Deng Xiaoping reportedly said the West would soon forget what happened to the pro-democracy movement, and he was right.

In the communist satellites, and even in the mighty Soviet Union itself, the politburos had not opened fire on their people, whereas the Communist leadership of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng had decided on military intervention and held on to the reins of power.

The official party line is that the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement was necessary to ensure China's continued economic development, and most people in the country these days seem happy with this explanation.

Commerce won out, particularly in Chengdu, which has always had a close link to money. This is the city where the world's first paper currency, the "jiao zi", was issued in 1023 during the Song dynasty. Fittingly, big international banking names are here too, such as Citigroup, HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank.

Prada has pride of place on Renmin Nanlu, where there are a selection of international hotels and shops. It's become one of the shopping destinations of choice in southwest China, and Chunxi Street is a popular destination for people in town looking, if not for bargains, at least for the latest in fashion.

The city is home to over 100 Fortune-500 companies, such as Intel, Alcatel, Sun, Motorola, Philips, Lafarge, Siemens and Toyota, and hosts consulates of the US, France, Germany, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand.

Chengdu is in constant competition with Chongqing, its neighbouring city that was recently removed from Sichuanese control and placed under central government jurisdiction.

It was expanded to include huge rural areas and now has a population of 32 million and is hailed as a regional development engine.

People in Chengdu point out how Chongqing is actually smaller than the Sichuan capital, hugely inflated to include its rural hinterland, and anyway, Chengdu feels like a more liveable city - the pollution is bad, but not as bad as Chongqing and the people are extremely approachable.

Both cities claim Sichuan hotpot as their dish, a bubbling cauldron peppered with a worrying dose of dried red chilli, into which you dip tender morsels of meat.

Be warned, hotpot can leave you feeling numb by the end of the meal.