I’ve been traveling in Sichuan all this week (after a two-week long trip to Europe — apologies for the relative scarcity of my blog postings lately, I’ve barely had time to sit in front of a computer). Sichuan is part of the region I called, in my “Nine Nations of China” framework, “The Refuge“. A couple of quick impressions to share, from my journey:
* This is my first time back to Chengdu since five years ago, when I worked for a private equity fund here. It has changed a lot less than I was led to believe, from what others had told me. Sure, there are a couple of new, taller buildings that weren’t around last time I remember, but overall, the city’s character hasn’t changed: the leisurely pace, the professional ear-cleaners in the park, the damp cloudy drizzle, the scooters and bicycles with umbrellas fixed over them, the quirky Chinglish signs … it’s nice to know that somewhere in China, at least, isn’t in too huge of rush to reinvent itself.
* In Chengdu’s People’s Park, I came across several groups of older people singing and performing “red” songs — the revolutionary and Cultural Revolution songs (often in praise of Mao) that recently have been promoted as part of a populist campaign by Bo Xilai, the party boss of neighboring Chongqing. I found it intriguing that the phenomenon had spread to Sichuan. The people participating did, I noticed, seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves.
* On a visit to a local snack food factory, which makes a nationally distributed brand of beef snacks, the owner told me that wages for his relatively unskilled employees have more than doubled over the past year, from an average of RMB 800 per month to RMB 2000.
* I noticed a few “sold-but-empty” luxury condo developments in the city, but quite a few more on the far outskirts, in the brand new industrial zones that have sprung up, often an hour or more from the city center. The urban sprawl is a lot more extensive than I remember — it seems you now have to drive forever to leave Chengdu, and yet you’re still in it.
* Popeye’s Chicken and Kenny Rogers Roasters have both left Chengdu. There are still a handful of KFCs, but a local chain called Liao’s Bon-Bon Chicken has sprung up and is virtually on every corner. McDonald’s in Chengdu’s city center are few and far between, but once I hit the outskirts — near the new industrial parks — I noticed several with drive-thru windows, a very rare sight indeed in China. I’d be curious to learn whether it’s catching on.
* Passed by several bloody car accidents, including one motorcycle driver who was still lying — dead — in the middle of the road with his head cracked open, with a crowd of onlookers just standing around gawking. The roads of China are not for the faint of heart.
* On a more cheerful note, I came across a new brand of baijiu (China’s traditional white liquor that tastes much like lighter fluid) with a wonderfully appropriate name: