Here people don’t speak as loudly as they do elsewhere. They’re more sophisticated.” Kurt Macher, general manager of Chengdu’s Temple House hotel, is musing on the subject of why the capital of China’s Sichuan province is so different to the rest of the country, and he has a theory.
“People here don’t take life too seriously,” he explains. “They enjoy life from one day to the next. Also, Chengdu people are the most fashionable in China. You’ll see that when you walk around.”
If Macher, in his sharp-cut suit, is anything to go by, then he may well be onto something. And the hotel we’re sitting in – a gloriously swish place that has won so many design, spa and service awards it’ll probably have to get its mantelpiece reinforced soon – backs up the point that Chengdu is quite unlike vast swathes of China.
In fact, that’s the reason I’m here. Before arriving, I’d read a library’s worth of news articles about the ceiling-high happiness levels of the city’s residents. Most of the stories were accompanied by photos of pandas. Then, in December last year, the city topped Chinese magazine Oriental Outlook’s annual “happiest city” survey. Indeed, it’s been at the sharp end of this poll for a good deal of the time since it launched in 2007.
Is this because of those much-fêted pandas and Chengdu’s spicy cuisine? Or is it down to Asia’s most effective tourist board? So many questions…
The signs that a full-beam mentality truly permeates much of Chengdu’s 14.5 million citizens are present from the off. My Chinese taxi journeys are not normally memorable, the drivers usually being somewhat taciturn, but my ride from the airport is soundtracked by mildly delirious giggling from the front of the vehicle, which is a first. And a rather pleasant one.
On paper, Chengdu has a lot going for it. Its rivers make it rich in mineral resources, with fertile land – something that has aided its expansion to a huge metropolis from its origins as a settlement around 4,000 years ago. It has been a strong commercial hub since the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) and is surrounded by lush forest, which like the city centre, offers an increasing number of great places to stay.
It is also one of China’s most progressive cities, whose economic modernisation has included the rise of a fashion industry. This has bred a sense of individual style in the city that can best be seen around Taikoo Li, a shopping district adjacent to Temple House and centred around the Daci Temple, thought to date back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD). It’s a far cry from many brand-heavy Chinese high streets.
One way some Chengdu residents fund dressing like they’ve stepped out of Fashion Week is by running successful tech start-ups. Chengdu’s local government is pushing to create China’s version of Silicon Valley here, with hubs such as Tianfu Software Park offering subsidised rent, which attracts many workers disillusioned with the rat race in other cities.
At Tianfu I watch a friendly stampede of twentysomethings pouring from the metro into atriums between the gleaming skyscrapers. Throw a stone here and you have a good chance of hitting someone who has launched a smartphone app, or workers from tech company Chengdu Lianyi or media agency Xi’an Mati. The walls here are daubed with graffiti images of Steve Jobs, Angry Birds and Nintendo characters. Idea Café, where I have organised a meet-up with a bunch of tech workers, is so modern it doesn’t accept cash.
“I used to work in Shanghai – I literally ran to the office every morning,” says Zhou Liping, a business developer with an internet advertising agency, when I ask her about the difference in work culture between Chengdu and other cities. “There’s no hurry here. Chengdu people work hard but play hard.”
With office space in Tianfu far cheaper than in Shanghai and Beijing, start-up firms here have far more time to develop products without the financial sword of Damocles hanging over them. Wages are around two-thirds of those for equivalent roles in the big coastal cities, offering further space for young companies to develop. And with Chengdu’s cost of living far lower than Beijing and Shanghai’s, employees don’t have to scrimp on entertainment.
“Work-life balance” is a phrase that keeps cropping up. Tech-heads here rarely work overtime – they’d rather be with friends, eating Chengdu’s famously spicy hotpot (or pig brains, which, I discover on a food tour of the rustic Chenghua district, tastes like pâté). Xiao Hai Feng, a product director, calls Tianfu a “family home for us entrepreneurs”. I ask each worker to shout out their general happiness level score, out of ten. I get two eights, four nines, two tens and a six.
The “six out of ten” guy, PR manager Liu Zongqi, might be underplaying things. “I came here from Beijing because I can balance my life better here,” he says. “I was finally able to start a relationship – we don’t have to be a weekend couple. It took me three hours to commute in Beijing – no time for romance.”
The morning after my Tianfu trip I sacrifice a lie-in under Temple House’s soft quilts and arrive at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding when it opens at 7.45am. Even after weeks of staring at images of black and white panda faces – inevitable when researching Chengdu – the joy of seeing these fuzz-balls in the fur, nonchalantly shovelling bamboo into their mouths, is unbridled.
In contrast to some zoos in China, the centre feels like a blissful park, pocketed with cherry blossom and more bamboo than you could reasonably envisage. There is something quite glorious, too, about an entire captive species having its family tree documented in more detail than the British Royal Family’s. Information boards explain the animals’ blood lineage and personalities. After a few hours watching them it’s difficult to believe they have many definable traits beyond “permanently hungry”. However, the info panels tell me that Mei Bang has a “gentle temper”. Si Jun Jun is “outgoing”. Jing Yun is “quiet and loves to sleep”. Cheng Ji is “fastidious about her hygiene, grooming often and taking care to urinate in a fixed place”. I love them all.
“Walking among troupes of grannies dancing to songs about Chairman Mao, I wonder if it’s the presence of the pandas that keeps everyone here in a good mood”
Later, in the atmospheric People’s Park, walking among troupes of grannies dancing to songs about Chairman Mao, I wonder if it’s the presence of the pandas that keeps everyone here in a good mood. But as evening arrives, local rapper Ty assures me that the city’s music scene is just as exciting as its black-and-white mammal scene. I meet him ahead of a jam-packed headline show at Little Bar: the venue at the heart of Chengdu’s music scene for 20 years.
Ty eschews the stereotype of the angry MC – he’s as chilled as the pandas. “Chengdu is a good place for hip hop,” he says. “It’s slow and relaxed, which means people are more open to new genres. Some cities can be really fast; people focus more on work. People in Chengdu want to enjoy life.”
About 400 of these people go enjoyably ballistic at Ty’s gig. The venue location may be more shopping mall than Eight Mile, being situated in a retail complex, but the atmosphere is charged. The tunes are a kinetic blend of US-style hip hop and a smattering of boyband melodies. Ty is a charisma-soaked performer who, as well as announcing that his new album is on sale, tells the crowd that he’s brought out his own line of branded underpants. It’s good to hear that the genre’s commercially aspirational bent remains intact in China.
Lu Wei, a fan in the crowd, gives me some insight into why hip hop works so well here. In Beijing live shows regularly get shut down by the authorities, who are concerned about “corrupting” lyrics. But here, far from the capital where the arts are under constant and heavy Communist scrutiny, it doesn’t happen.
“Another reason is the Chengdu dialect,” says Lu from beneath her oversized baseball cap. “The intonation is completely different to Mandarin. That makes the lyrics rhyme, like in English. The fluctuations of the language are not as obvious as Mandarin and it’s easier to connect words together with a smoother intonation.”
Lu is studying medicine in Chengdu. “People used to go to bigger cities to have better opportunities,” she says. “But within my generation, with
more support and cheaper house prices, there aren’t many reasons to leave. The difference between Chengdu and Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou is not big any more.” Yup: she’s pretty happy too.
With Ty’s quickfire rhymes still fizzing in my ears the next morning, I squeeze in a few hours walking around Qingcheng Mountain, just north-west of the city. Enveloped in forest and dotted with peaceful Taoist temples, a trip there notches the pace from Chengdu’s default setting of “super chilled” to “dreamily ambient”.
After backpacking in south-east Asia as a teenager I developed an “If you’ve seen one temple you’ve seen them all” attitude that largely remains with me. Despite this, I find the place deeply dramatic with the Qingcheng temples jutting from woodland, feeling almost at one with the vegetation.
Back at the hotel I reflect on my three days in Chengdu spent searching for the root cause of its famed happiness. From pandas to being China’s new Silicon Valley, to fantastically spicy hotpot and smooth pig brain, to stunning mountains and hip hop, there is a lot to be happy about. There’s an indefinable feeling among people here that feels like more than the sum of its parts.
“All my friends are laid back,” says Rosa Ning, a Chengdu-born bookshop owner who joins me for tea in the suntrap tea room Mi Xun, owned by Temple House and the hot spot of Taikoo Li. “We can go shopping in Taikoo Li, spend huge amounts of money, then sit down in a cheap restaurant and have a good time, spending 20 yuan. We value atmosphere, not just fancy stuff.”
Forward-thinking, multi-brand boutiques are reshaping the Chinese stylescape
China’s high streets are changing: the allure of conspicuous, big-luxe mono-brand temples from the likes of Gucci et al is fading in favour of less showy, lower-key multi-brand boutiques. “Why? Well, when the market became over-saturated with these luxury superstores, when it got to the point where you could find them in just about any city in China, people got bored,” reckons Meimei Ding, CEO of DFO, China’s largest fashion distribution company. Instead, young buyers are now drawn to edgier boutiques that mix rarefied western brands with up-and-coming Chinese labels. In Chengdu, Dressing for Fun (dressingforfun.com) stocks home-grown designers like Momo Wang and Min Wu alongside London brand Marques Almeida and Sweden’s Ann-Sofie Back, while Ooak (theooak.com) offers off-key international brands like Alexander Wang, Jonathan Saunders and Sophie Hulme. “It’s not about big brands anymore,” says Grace Lam, former Vogue China fashion editor and one of Asia’s leading stylists. “These days, Chinese consumers want more exclusive, understated items rather than very loud labels.” International travel, she says, has cultivated tastes at home. “They still want luxury, of course – but in a more subtle way.”
Jamie Fullerton was a guest of Temple House hotel – thetemplehousehotel.com, email@example.com, +86 28 6636 9999 and Lost Plate food tours – lostplate.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, +86 1814 944 6747
Etihad offers a daily direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Chengdu. Etihad.com
Link to list: Chengdu’s must-visit restaurants