Reminiscing in Chengdu

January 29, 2017 – Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Memories fade, that’s for sure.

It’s been two years since I first came to Chengdu (成都) in Sichuan Province (四川省). Some things I remember – the temple vegetarian buffet, the hostel where I’m writing this post, the ear cleaners in People’s Park, Chairman Mao’s open arm, the ever-present clack of Mahjong tiles. Many other things have fuzzed into a haze like the one that’s blanketed the city for the last three days.

I wrote a brief post about Chengdu more than a year and a half ago, struggling to capture the city in words. Though my memory has fogged, after rereading that first post, my impressions this time around are the same and different. I hold to much of what I said then: “the best parts are like the humid fog that rises out of the Sichuan mountain forests and mixes with the humid smog that rises out of its drab concrete forests. It’s languid, hazy, smelly, and not at all what you expected. … By all means, Chengdu should be a miserable place. Actually, it’s pretty lovely. It’s just hard to see why.”

Scratch those last two sentences.

I don’t know if it’s the winter chill, the city closed up for Spring Festival, or the temples and pedestrian streets jammed with holiday travelers, but Chengdu itself is a pretty miserable place. Well, maybe not miserable but definitely not much fun.

For starters, they don’t even do Chinese New Year’s fireworks.

Across all of China at 12 a.m. on New Year’s Day, families tuck into the last of their homemade dumplings; leave behind their children’s’ hongbao (红包) money envelopes; tune out of the annual and hours-long television extravaganza of dancers, singers, comedians, old folk introductions, and communist propaganda; and they spill into the streets, lighters and armories worth of fireworks in hand.

And off the miniature rockets go. Into the sky. Off apartment and car windows. Into powerlines. Under buses. Into doorways.

The sky lights up with burning flowers. The alleys echo with machine gun fire and bomb concussions. Noses burn with acrid smoke. For hours and hours and days and days.

Chengdu, when the plane landed at 8 p.m., was dark, silent, and fresh.

Chengdu alleys.

Chengdu’s streets were quiet on New Year’s Eve.

 

That was odd, enough. As my fellow traveler, the Swede, and I walked the last kilometer from the metro to our hostel on the north side of downtown, the oddness deepened with the night.

Our walk took us past the Wenshu Monastery (文殊院) with its swooping eaves, incense clouds, and vegetarian restaurant. Those things I remembered, but the scene outside of the ornate entrance gate I hadn’t seen before.

Wenshu Monastery on New Year's Eve

Crowds swarm police cordons outside of Wenshu Monastery trying to get in their new year prayers.

A line of people hundreds of meters long snaked out of the gateway, onto the sidewalk, and up the road. Dozens of police officers guided the pulsing crowd into place, while a police bus served as a central command. That scene – police swarming every corner, heads aswivel – repeated itself to a lesser scale at each intersection up to our hostel, with armed soldiers adding an exclamation point to the to the seriousness of the situation.

I’d picked our hostel in part because of its location near Wenshu Monastery, which I’d read was a prime place for fireworks-watching at the midnight chime.

The Swede and I walked the police-clogged lanes around the temple before settling into an adjacent beer garden to test our Chinese against the New Year’s gala show on a big screen. The show flitted from province to province, showing off not only the country’s impeccable abilities at mass coordination but also some of its oldest citizens, bits of its unique sense of humor, and of course its military.

A crowd gathers around a public showing of the annual New Year's gala.

A crowd gathers around a public showing of the annual New Year’s gala.

As the song and dance and nation-worship came to an end, we watched the big clock on stage in Beijing tick down from 10.

3…2…1…

A few people in the crowd raised their glasses. Nobody yelled. And nothing exploded.

The minutes went by. No explosions. No lights in the sky. No burning nostrils. Nothing.

10 minutes gone, we got up and strolled down the emptying streets to the south, passing police cars and vans of all sizes, some of them attempting to hide on lesser-used streets and behind apartment community gates. Police and even military presence at any potential mass event like this has become routine in recent years, especially after a stampede on December 31, 2014 in Shanghai in which dozens of revelers in the 300,000-person crowd died. These sort of things combine the worst of the central government’s fears: ,mass protest, terrorist target, and embarrassing accident.

Maybe that’s why the kibosh had been put on celebrations?

We reached the gate of a military compound and yelled across at one of the soldiers standing guard.

“Why no fireworks? Isn’t it the new year?”

He sauntered over, bulky camo uniform and low-slung rifle adding years to his unlined face. It took me a moment before I realized he couldn’t be older than 19.

“No fireworks in the city this year,” he said. “Too dangerous.”

And the people had actually listened.

China is changing. Chengdu, well, it’s more or less the same.

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