Unmasking Chengdu: Sichuan’s capital city embraces its ancient roots and modern renaissance
I watch the transformation of a man’s face reflected in a long, horizontal mirror. He dips a thin brush into a blue-and-white dish, then methodically paints the makeup on his eyes. He murmurs to another man in this green room at Shufeng Yayun Teahouse while stippling colour on his lips with a fingertip, drawing the character he’ll embody in tonight’s Sichuan opera performance.
Nearby, a younger man’s metamorphosis is complete. He’s wearing a blue-and-gold costume embroidered with dragon motifs and accessorized by a headpiece that has pink pompoms springing forth from its crown. The actor’s face is a stone mask of Chinese graffiti tagged with swaths of pink as he menaces a sword. His black Nike shoes break character. Seconds later, so does he, letting loose a broad grin.
Here in Chengdu, casually dressed people of all ages start to settle into red rattan wing chairs as a woman places pots of jasmine tea and glassine bags stuffed with spicy-sweet popcorn on the tables. Red lanterns dance overhead. The breezy teahouse is a traditional venue for the Sichuan opera, which was born in Chengdu, and whose folkloric performances have endured since the 16th century.
In this megacity of 16 million people (capital of the Sichuan province in southwest China), markers of Chengdu’s evolution are everywhere. Architects have re-drawn the landscape with structures writ large. Extra large. Like the New Century Global Center, the world’s largest building by volume. It’s a futuristic Xanadu for the masses who cavort in this 140,000 square-metre pleasure dome brimming with 3,000-plus shops, hundreds of hotel rooms and even a beach. Although the idea of spending a day at the “seaside” in a landlocked megalopolis is paradoxically compelling, I continue to explore the cultural side of Chengdu, which has a rep for its chill factor.
“You’re my hero!” a dinner companion gushes when I fish another pork ball out of a volcanic pot of soup spiked with lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. We’re at a restaurant called Huangcheng Laoma, indulging in a leisurely meal of hotpot—one of the some 6,000 dishes that earned Chengdu its status as UNESCO’s premiere City of Gastronomy. Earlier that day, I got delightfully lost in the city’s ancient (and recently refurbished) alleys. Like the silk threads that form the Shu brocade for which Chengdu is famed, Kuan Xiangzi (Wide Alley) and Zhai Xiangzi (Narrow Alley) are intricate strands where knots of artisans hammer silver into jewellery, carve names into stone “chops” and hawk snacks such as glistening fried duck and rabbit, dried yak meat and skewers of sticky doughnut-like sweets.
Naturally, there are scads of panda-themed souvenirs, too. I also visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and watched a handful of the 150 black-and-white bears, along with raccoon-like red pandas, in their natural habitat. Situated in a lush bamboo forest just 10 km outside the city core, the research base is emblematic of Chengdu’s strong ties to its history (the giant panda has lived in the region for 4,000-plus years), connecting its natural wonders to those shaping its future. — Janet Gyenes
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