Chengdu, China

Unmasking Chengdu: Sichuan’s capital city embraces its ancient roots and modern renaissance

Photo by Janet Gyenes

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.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

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.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

“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.

Photo by Janet Gyenes

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

More: Check out gochengdu.cn

Shanghai, China

SOLITUDE IN SHANGHAI: Find flickers of tranquility in China’s largest city

Left to Right: The Bund; East Nanjing Road. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

The low morning sun hides behind the buildings huddled up to East Nanjing Road in Shanghai’s Huangpu district. A few blocks from the Bund, thousands flock to this pedestrian stroll to shop at its 600 trendy boutiques, businesses and Qing Dynasty-era department stores. But for now, it’s still slumbering. The massive façade of an Apple store hasn’t yet transformed into a glass birdcage for a captive audience. Instead, it’s the backdrop for a cadre of women dancing in formation. Like delicate birds, they flap their arms, snapping open and shut broad yellow-and-red fans that seem like plumage extending from their fingertips. This scene is a not-so-rare respite from the cacophony of China’s largest city.

Once flooded with trade in tea, silk and opium,  more than 4,000 years of history has shaped this port  city on the East China Sea. So too has the Huangpu River (a tributary of the Yangtze), carving this metropolis of  24 million people into two distinctive areas on its east and west banks.

Pudong (its name translates to “east bank”) lives up to its Instagram persona, its skyline spiked with high-altitude skyscrapers such as the spaceship-like Oriental Pearl TV Tower (its third sphere is actually called Space Capsule) and the 101-storey Shanghai World Financial Center, a neo-futurist building that looks like a colossal bottle opener. Puxi, or “west bank,” is framed by the Bund, a one-kilometre-long riverside promenade lined with heritage buildings, including the 1929 art deco Fairmont Peace Hotel.

Left to Right: Roof lines of the Jade Temple juxtaposed with modern Shanghai; At the Jade Temple; Prayer beads. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

With its mega-tall towers and throngs, Shanghai often draws comparison to New York City. Or Paris, thanks to the trove of villas and wutong (plane) trees lining the streets in the former French Concession. But this not the US or Europe. Chinese culture and quiet can be found in Shanghai’s spiritual spots such as the Jade Buddha Temple in the Jing’An district. Here, peek inside the halls where worshippers kneeling on colourful cushions murmur prayers to gilded deities. Be sure to seek out the temple’s namesake 1.9-metre buddha; photography is prohibited, adding to the solitude.

Left to Right: Graffiti at M50; Shanghai Teahouse. Photo by Janet Gyenes.

To explore the modern, artful side of Shanghai, take a one-kilometre walk from the temple to the M50 creative park, tracing tea-stained Suzhou Creek. Formerly the Xinhe Cotton Mill, the revamped industrial space with graffitied walls is now a warren of ultra-cool artists’ studios, galleries and cafes. Chat with artisans as you snap up their fashionable handmade leather goods, jewellery and ceramics. After drinking in new Shanghai, head to Old Town, a cataclysm of cutting-edge and ancient where smoggy silhouettes of towers rise behind the winged eaves of wooden structures. Elbow past the crowds and climb the staircase to the Old Shanghai Teahouse, a 1930s throwback with the aura of an antiques shop. Settle in, sip tea (or beer) and devour juicy dumplings in this second-floor enclave while listening to the chirp of live music being performed. — Janet Gyenes

MORE: Check out meet-in-shanghai.net