MENTION Sichuan, and the first thing most people think of is the fiery-hot cuisine. Mention its capital city of Chengdu, and two things immediately come to mind.
The first is that Chengdu is home to the Giant Panda Research Base where visitors throng for a glimpse of these iconic mammals. The second is that its one of the fastest growing cities in China and the world. Chengdu is developing at breakneck speed in commerce, finance and infrastructure.
Cathay Pacific & Dragonair country manager Mandy Wu says these are indeed two facets of Chengdu that are most remarked upon.
"Most Malaysians fly with us to Chengdu to see the cuddly-looking pandas, and then move on to scenic areas like Anren, Luodai and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jiuzhaigou.
"However, we are also getting more business travellers and incentive-groups who come because of the ultra-modern facilities for conventions and exhibitions. It is definitely going to be one of the supercities of the future," she adds.
At an international conference I attended recently in Chengdu, delegates from all over the world marvelled at the immense stretches of wide, tree-lined highways, towering skyscrapers and immaculately clean city streets. Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport has state-of-the-art technology and architecture, and the highway that links it to the city is replete with gleaming luxury marques like Bentleys, Cadillacs, Lamborghinis and Ferraris.
Chengdu is a city of power and prosperity, and it is happy to set the pace. But the progress does comes at a price. Most of Chengdu's traditional areas have been relocated or destroyed in the name of development.
The historical areas within the city that attract tourists are actually relatively modern recreations aimed at the kitsch tourism market. Fully aware of Chengdu's great heritage and pivotal role in the history of China, I was determined to seek its hidden heart.
After lengthy discussions with my guide on an original place where local people go to buy handicraft, my persistence finally paid off when I said, I want to find the place with the true history and heart of Chengdu. Both my guide and our driver immediately sat up happily and exclaimed in unison, Song Xian Qiao!
My guide, however, quickly added very apprehensively that this was a place only local people visited, and it was unknown to the tourist traffic. Her relief was evident when I gleefully said that this was exactly what I was looking for!
My instincts were richly rewarded.
Well-known by locals and a handful of savvy expatriates, Song Xian Qiao has no formal entrance I could make out just breaks in the decorative kerbside walls that often line Chengdus inner-city roads. It covers over 20,000sqm of outdoor stalls, while some more established vendors are housed in a shabby, three-story building between the confluence of the Modi and Huan Hua rivers.
Lined up along the willow-fringed riverbanks are charming little cafés, where the arty discuss art and the artful wheel and deal. And there is indeed a great deal going on all the time.
Like any great cultural icon, this grubby-looking market means different things to different people. To some, Song Xian Qiao is a great and ancient centre of art and culture encompassing over 1,500 years of Chengdu history, dating back to the Tang and Song dynasties. It is where the knowledgeable intelligentsia head to for exquisite craft and authentic antiques that recall the grandeur of Chinese civilisation.
Yet others avoid this place as they regard it as a shady haunt of dubious dealers, scam artists and conmen lying in wait for gullible prey. To carpet connoisseurs, Song Xian Qiao is a paradise of the finest rugs, mats and carpets, mainly from southwest China; gem experts come here for the mysticism, mystery and magical attraction of Tibetan jewellery and other mountain products.
Learned people and literati from many parts of China flock to this unprepossessing spot off Huan Hua North Road to rub shoulders with budget-constrained local book lovers as they collectively browse among the many old tomes, cheap paperbacks, faded scrolls and ancient manuscripts of the wonderful musty bookshops here.
Ardent old Communists and trendy young Yuppies vie for the best bargains in Mao-era memorabilia, from the once-ubiquitous Little Red Books and lapel-badges to garishly- coloured posters and enormous statues of The Great Helmsman.
Intricate small filigree snuff-boxes are sold in the same shop that sells larger-than-life vases twice the height of a person. Classic calligraphy by old masters can be found beside garish posters of strident propaganda. Gigantic brass gongs nestle beside delicate bamboo wind-chimes ... the clashes and conviviality continue ceaselessly.
The official statistics show that Chengdu's hidden treasure trove is actually the second-biggest antique market in all of China, but I was delighted to find that it is also a fine-art gallery, flea market, funfair and fusty museum all rolled into one. And did I mention the veritable food fest at those funky little cafés on the scenic riverbanks?
People come here for different reasons, but to me the most important feature of Song Xian Qiao is that is it the final bastion of a bygone era the last evocative reminder of Chengdu's history, and a living celebration of a fast-disappearing way of life.
With its intriguing people and their charming old-fashioned business practices, the place is, truly, the hidden heart of Chengdu.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
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