Thursday, February 09, 2006

My Kind of Town...

Lately I've been seriously thinking about living in China. Maybe not right away, but in a couple of years. There are a lot of places in China that for me would be hard to live in. I like Beijing a lot. I have friends there. But the weather is tough for a Southern California native; Beijing is also big, noisy, chaotic and polluted. I have kind of enough of big city where I am, thanks.

So I've been giving some thought to where in China I might like to live. One place on my list is the capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu.

I recently went back to Chengdu for the first time in more than 20 years. My memories of the place were pretty hazy, but I remembered that I'd liked it. Chengdu was low-key and warm compared to the north; I remembered the brilliant green of the rice and trees. I remember no sooner had Paul and I showed up in one of the temple parks than a middle-aged man in a sweater vest rode up on his bicycle, a professor who wanted to practice his English who spent the rest of the day with us, showing us the sights. I remember he took us to this incredible restaurant, a traditional wood construction that sat on a hillside. We had one of the best meals of our entire stay in China, at a time when very few restaurants had picked themselves up after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

Chengdu of course was nearly unrecognizable more than 20 years later, but something about the vibe struck me as the same. It's a relaxed city, built around a river, where the favorite activity of the locals seems to be hanging out at one of the many teahouses. And, after hanging out at the teahouse for a while, going on to the next teahouse, and hanging out there. Chengdu is cleaner than most Chinese cities (a Chinese government website used to describe it as, "the cleanest medium-sized city in China"). People actually obey traffic laws, more or less, in Chengdu. Chengdu is an easy drive from a number of wonderful scenic spots, including Qing Cheng Shan, one of the Five sacred mountains of China and a birthplace of Daoism. Plus, Chengdu has pandas! Lots of 'em. Big pandas, panda cubs, packs of pandas, just outside of town in a state of the art facility, the Wolong Giant Panda Reserve and Research Center. Here's a link to their Panda Cam. I'm sorry, I love pandas. I just do.

In fact, just about the biggest disadvantage to Chengdu for me is the dialect - if you speak standard Mandarin, Sichuanise is pretty much incomprehensible. That and the distance from Beijing and international flights.

But after reading this article in the LA Times, well, I'm thinking those might be minor obstacles after all. The piece confirms what I suspected from my brief visit - Chengdu is China's party town. A place to kick back, eat good food, hang out with your friends and drink beer:
With about 3,000 pubs and karaoke bars and roughly 4,000 teahouses that are often packed with people playing or betting on mah-jongg and cards, this southwestern city in Sichuan province knows how to live it up. Chengdu, the provincial capital, has more bars than Shanghai, though its population of 10.5 million is half that of the eastern metropolis.

Unlike people in other cities, where the frantic pace of China's booming growth is evident, "in Chengdu, their attitude is to get to the teahouses as soon as possible," says Bill Gormley, an American who moved to this city in 1995 as the operations manager for engine company Pratt & Whitney. The 62-year-old retired two years ago but never left.

"Life is good here," Gormley says, swirling a glass of Johnnie Walker at Shamrock Pub, a popular expatriate hangout near Chengdu's consulate row.

Beijing is trying to spur economic development in the western region. Its "Go West" campaign is in its sixth year, and companies such as Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc. have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Chengdu, lured by cheap labor, free land and tax breaks.

But Chengdu moves to its own beat.

For foreign companies accustomed to operating 24/7, Chengdu's laid-back culture presents challenges. Many people here are used to working 9 to 5, often with long lunches. Many avoid working overtime or on weekends, extra pay or not.

Bryan Stadelmann, who came to Chengdu a year ago as Crown Logistics' account manager, remembers the shock on a young employee's face when Stadelmann said she might have to work a Saturday morning to finish a project.

"What? Oh my God!" Stadelmann, a 27-year-old from Rhode Island, recalled the employee exclaiming.

Stadelmann's response: "Welcome to the real world."

But for most residents here, that is not their world. On sunny days, people will skip work to sunbathe or play mah-jongg or cards outside or in teahouses. On weekends, Chengdu families flock to villages and mountain resorts an hour or two away, scouring places to kick back and satisfy their desire for exotic tastes.

These days Miao Duo and her husband have been driving to a nearby town known for rabbit brains, prepared in typical fiery Sichuan style. "Wherever there's good new food, we'll visit there," she says.

Miao, 26, works for a private tax-services firm downtown. The Sichuan College graduate starts at 9 and uses her two-hour lunch break at 11:30 to surf the Internet, play mah-jongg online or shop. Miao usually clocks out at 4 or 4:30 p.m. She never takes work home. Nor does she check e-mail after work.

"It's not really important," Miao says about money. She earns about $250 a month, enough to help pay the bills, save a little and enjoy life. "If you want a higher salary, you have to sacrifice a lot. You have to work overtime, weekends and holidays," she says.

A survey of residents in 10 large Chinese cities found that Chengdu ranked last in income — about $190 a month — almost half of Shanghai's figure. But Chengdu rated higher than Shanghai and every other city except Hangzhou in "happiness."

The most important factor in people's overall happiness wasn't moneymaking opportunities, says Christopher Hsee, a professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. In fact, that played no role. It was their feeling about the pace of the city. "Chengdu people are very content and the pace is pretty slow," Hsee says.
You know, I'm from San Diego. San Diego, unlike Los Angeles, actually is a laid-back place. We tend to spend a lot of time outside, at the beach, in the park. The weather is great, and even the biochemists at Salk take surfing breaks. We eat a lot of spicy food. Plus, San Diego was the first place outside of China to successfully bred pandas - three cubs have been born at the San Diego Zoo (you can watch San Diego Zoo's Panda Cam here). So even though Chengdu lacks a beach, a lot of similarities there...

I plan on taking a trip to China in the latter part of May. I probably won't get to Chengdu this time around, but I think I will investigate other potential places to live. Hangzhou, Chengdu's eastern rival for leisure capital is definitely on my list...

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