Chengdu is the industrious if curiously lackadaisical capital of Sichuan province, China’s most populous before Chongqing succeeded in the 1990s to form its own administrative district. Integrated into the Empire in the period of the Warring States some two thousand years ago, this Southwestern frontier is at both the heart and periphery of modern China. There is a saying, Vermont Dan tells me, that one mustn’t let young men of otherwise respectable character discover this urban oasis, lest they fall prey to its enchantingly lazy and almost ahistorical demeanor. Rather than sit for your civil servant exams, you’ll waste your afternoons away along the soporific banks of the Fu Nan River, sipping tea and playing Mahjong, a Chinese variant of Rummikub. With whom I concur it’s increasingly hard to say.
I arrived at Chengdu International Airport in something of a state – but good it was to be on the kaleidoscopic fringe of the Middle Kingdom. If manically booming Chongqing is the Chicago of China, then Chengdu is Denver: rough on the edges but understatedly prosperous – the site of great wealth, development and innovation without pretension to boot (if we’re to believe David Brooks – forgive me). Whilst failing to recall certain minor details, the overweening confidence of its airport advertisements was enough to convince even the laziest and most unobservant of gaze: the escalator-moonwalk to baggage was lined with nothing but bobble-eyed honkies in watches, sweaters and residential kingdoms designed by someone’s alcoholic nephew in Milan. A good day to be alive, my grandfather once said; an even better one to be white and mediocre with an ounce of ambition, one might add.
Chengdu has a beautiful, thunderously low center of gravity, rather like a sweet, slumberous, if strangely attractive ogre too scared to stand erect and relive itself upon the architectural horizon. I head to Dan’s environs and wait for him and Paddy to show. Behind me sits a semi-functional post office, its doors stubbornly ajar on a Sunday morning. A trickle of crumpled mopeds simmer by: just because we’ve nowhere to go needn’t mean we won’t arrive.
We hop a cab and head to Dan’s, a humbly charming set of old-folk/grad-school towers bound on one end by the city’s wonderfully languid river, on the other by the province’s flagship university, where he and co. were taking a semester-long semi-intensive Chinese language course. In the courtyard below his flat a squadron of septuagenarians Qigong the morning smog away, a complementary snuff to the Cultural Revolution and all our misconceptions thereof. We pop off at the community’s sole commercial outlet on the way upstairs, a giant vegetable stand proffering dried noodles, water and ample stocks of lukewarm beer: it’s barely 10am and my companions have decided to set the day upon an even keel. Though effortlessly tempted, one must decline. Shenzhen was still flogging about the bowels, and we’d need some modicum of chemical equilibrium before setting off to conquer campus, Yankee brunch and the town’s most illustrious teahouses.
Dan’s twelfth-floor apartment overlooks a sad but glorious sprawl of dilapidated communal housing shrouded in Chinese willows. Just beyond them, within the same walled principality, lies the catatonically perfect campus of Sichuan University, a kingdom of 1970s post-Revolutionary sensibility more succinctly agreeable than all of Bauhaus’ Scandinavian offspring put together. As the educational kingdom recedes into the distance, the city’s faux-financial center emerges in ecru sweeps of understatement, the perfect capstone to a gradually mounting urban horizon (residential, educational, professional: each endemic to ideologically sparing decades). We lap it up, burn a boag, drop our bags and descend.
Once past the ever-amicably toothless guard, we traverse the University Gate, a cement opening just beyond the dancing courtyard elders. We’ve entered the kingdom, and I’m in love. We waltz down a battered path, a stonewall to one side, aforementioned PJs to the other. A shirtless pot-bellied man cycles past us in slow motion, a schizophrenic hen waxes lyrical. The weeds give man a lazy, if casually unrelenting, run for his money; the old folk saunter forth. I cannot remember being happier.
We chance upon an opening and all my dreams come true. Its Sunday noon and the young and thoughtful – bespectacled and calmly contented – mosey down the sidewalk hand in hand. Lining the periphery of a dusty, disused soccer pitch are retro-tinged Ping-Pong tables. They’re only half full. Lining both sides of the road is an almost deliriously magical (academic) flea market hawking everything from pre-Newtonian textbooks to Maoist badminton paddles. Next to a mangled faux-leather cardigan rests a bright green fly-swatter denouncing Krushchevian revisionism. The studious couple aside me considers the neon lampshade before sauntering off.