Chengdu is famed for its easy-going culture. Teahouses are everywhere, all the more convenient for taking a break whenever. Residents walk at a leisurely pace. It’s the capital of Sichuan province, whose most famous exports are the languorous giant pandas.
But this culture was tested in 2008, a year remembered in China for the Beijing Olympics – and a huge earthquake that rocked Sichuan, killing nearly 70,000.
‘I was 12 when the earthquake hit, and it really hit home for me that everyone is helpless in the face of natural disasters,’ says university graduate Lu Jia, reflecting a common local sentiment. The incident gave Chengdu’s laid-back lifestyle a different angle, compelling the city to add into the mix an ethos of living in the moment. It’s an attitude that can be felt in Chengdu’s rise as a creative centre, where art, culture and fashion have all become part of the easy life.
An architecture boom rose in the wake of the earthquake, headlined by the sleek New Century Global Center, which opened in 2013 as the world’s biggest building by floor space. It houses shops, hotels, an ice-skating rink and an artificial beach. Directly across from this behemoth will be the forthcoming New Century City Art Centre. Designed by the late Zaha Hadid, the sinuous complex will house performance and exhibition venues. And then there’s the Museum of Contemporary Art Chengdu, where local and emerging artists get a fair share of representation, while international big names like Picasso have also been featured.
‘The city is culturally open and rarely rejects creative ideas,’ says Lan Qingwei, former executive director and curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. ‘Chengdu artists can therefore stay true to themselves in their creative pursuits.’
The city’s art scene had a big year in 2018. There was the inaugural Anren Biennale, named after a town just outside Chengdu where it was set. There was also the first edition of Art Chengdu, a modestly sized international art fair. In November, a large exhibition called ‘Cosmopolis #1.5: Enlarged Intelligence’ took over a former electronics factory, with installations exploring ecology and technology. It was produced in partnership with Paris’ Centre Pompidou, giving the show added cachet.
And even if you weren’t paying attention to the growing collection of art events, you would have noticed the giant panda sculpture in Chengdu’s downtown. Created in 2014 by the late, British-born artist Lawrence Argent, the panda is positioned climbing up the mall of International Finance Square, its head just peeking over the roof.
Galleries have taken note, with Italy’s Galleria Continua, New York’s Pace Gallery and Berlin-based Peres Projects all setting up branches in the city. ‘I’ve been very happy to see that the audience is extremely receptive to new ideas and very friendly,’ says Nick Koenigsknecht, Peres Project’s director.
Fashion is on the rise, too, with the likes of Chanel and Chloé staging shows at Chengdu International Fashion Week, which also held its first edition in 2018. But you don’t have to attend a runway show to appreciate the city’s fashion-forwardness; eclectic style is highly visible on the streets. Zheng Yue, a fashion student, compares Chengdu’s street fashion to London’s, where she studies. ‘People in both places know how to admire individual style,’ she says. ‘It encourages my own creative expression through fashion.’
Ge Wei, a prominent Chengdu-based painter, says the living environment is a factor when it comes to the thriving creative scene. ‘Chengdu isn’t as frenetic as the coastal cities; its slowness allows plenty of time for creativity,’ he says. According to Ge, the scene is less developed than, say, Beijing and Shanghai, with fewer large-scale, influential galleries, but there are plenty of independent groups and enthusiastic local audiences. ‘The passion for arts here is as strong as any city’s. It shows Chengdu people’s penchant for leisure and a social atmosphere.’
That sociability can be felt in Sichuan’s famed food traditions. UNESCO named Chengdu a City of Gastronomy for its tongue-numbing hotpot and street food like dandan noodles and dumplings. Go out at 10pm, and you’ll find the night in Chengdu is still young: friends are gathered in hotpot restaurants; queues into bars extend along the streets.
The social, easy local lifestyle of Chengdu is best demonstrated by White Night in Zhai Alley, a street of old structures housing trendy shops and restaurants. White Night is a teahouse, bar and culture salon all rolled into one, where hipsters gather for book talks, film screenings and more. Everyone remembers the day in 1986 when esteemed poet Bei Dao came to visit. White Night programme director Tan Jing recalls the poet silently listening to recitations of his verses. ‘Afterwards, he said it was the first time he had a real sense of how much Chengdu people loved literature,’ says Tan. ‘And they remain so after three decades. It’s an inclusive and laid-back city suitable for deep reflective thinking and living.’
Some say the laid-back lifestyle in Chengdu can lower ambitions. Or does it do the opposite, motivating us to seek fuller experiences? But fretting would be so not Chengdu. ‘I don’t have to regret the past or worry about the future,’ says Lu. ‘After all, there is no harm in living in the moment.’
This story was originally published in April 2019 and updated in September 2020