City of spice

By Anthony Dennis

Bright lights, big city: Chongqing by night.Bright lights, big city: Chongqing by night. Photo: Jonipoon

There’s more to Chongqing than its notoriously hot cuisine. This rising city’s a bustling sample of Chinese life, writes Anthony Dennis.

In China, there are the Three Gorges and then there are the Three Furnaces. Until I’d been to the under-visited Chongqing, a rising urban star of the People’s Republic right on the banks of the Yangtze River, I’d heard of the former but not the latter. It’s a reference to the wickedly hot and humid summers endured annually by a trio of Chinese cities – Wuhan, Nanjing and Chongqing itself.

Yet, even though I’m here in the cool of early spring, “furnace” is a description that could easily be bestowed on Chongqing’s notorious chilli and pepper-laden hot-pot dishes. It’s dinner (make that banquet) time at a Chongqing restaurant overlooking the Yangtze, and, after my first taste of the local hot-pot speciality, my lips are feeling as though I’ve smeared them with a certain brand of muscular relief cream.

Local diners enjoy hot-pot.Local diners enjoy hot-pot. Photo: Alamy

The cuisine in this part of south-western China owes its origins to neighbouring Sichuan, the province from which Chongqing split when the latter outgrew it and was declared a municipality (some municipality, since it is 470 kilometres wide with roughly the population of Canada). While Chongqing is inescapably China, this is a place wholly distinct from the more familiar Beijing and Shanghai. And I, for one, am glad to be discovering a less trammelled part of the country.

My journey began aboard a Silk Air flight between Singapore and Chongqing. As evidence of Chongqing’s relative lack of celebrity as a visit-worthy city, at least in the West, I’m the sole Caucasian on the flight, save for “Craig”, the Australian pilot, whose unmistakable cadence crackles over the aircraft PA prior to takeoff. And, after arrival at my destination, having negotiated the quiet airport, it’s not until I reach my hotel that I finally spot a foreigner.

Chongqing – in a country that by 2025 is predicted to have more than 220 cities with populations of more than one million – has emerged as one of China’s most increasingly important yet curiously overlooked cities. During the Sino-Japanese War in the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese sought to bomb Chongqing off the map (at least on the occasions when they could actually find it through the perpetual dense cloud that palls the city).

Ancient trade: workers carry baskets of produce up steps leading from the river dock in Chongqing.Ancient trade: workers carry baskets of produce up steps leading from the river dock in Chongqing. Photo: Alamy

Decades later, the local Communist Party supremo, Bo Xilai, did his best to put Chongqing on the map as China’s fastest-growing and newly dynamic city. Now in Chongqing the names of Bo Xilai and wife Gu Kailai are uttered only in, well, Chinese whispers. The city had hardly come to my own attention until a few years ago. Before, that is, the scandal that gripped China and the rest of the world. Thanks to the disgraced couple, once dubbed China’s answer to the Kennedys, the city has acquired a reputation for spiciness not just in its fiery cuisine but also for its politics.

Charismatic Bo’s efforts to eradicate the city’s notorious underworld and make Chongqing the next great city of the People’s Republic were well publicised following the death of a British businessman at the instigation of wife Gu, who has subsequently been tried and found guilty of his murder. Unlike others, the late Briton had seen the potential of a city on a roll, originally thanks to the development of the Three Gorges Dam down river and Bo’s entrepreneurial leadership in spending $7 billion on transforming the city, including construction of a lavish Chongqing Grand Theatre, opened in 2009, above the Yangtze.

As a would-be tourist destination, Chongqing has battled unfair perceptions that it is some kind of grim, smog-bound hell-hole. Most passengers on Yangtze River cruises board here barely getting a glimpse of the city. I too am booked on a river cruise between Chongqing and Shanghai but, rather than fleeing the city as soon as possible, I’ve allowed a few days to explore it. How on earth can you ignore a city that claims a population of 32 million, at least in its extended municipal area?

One of the city's pampered pandas.One of the city’s pampered pandas. Photo: AFP

Chongqing is known as the “Mountain City”, with its untold number of hills tumbling all the way down to the banks of both the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers. The confluence of these waterways is a collision of brown and jade waters at a bend where river ships and barges moor below huddled, neon-drenched skyscrapers. By night this scene, reminiscent of Shanghai’s pulsating Pudong district, is best viewed from the other bank of the river via a ride in an old public cable-car strung high above the waterway.

The rivers and the commerce they carry still dominate and define Chongqing. Away from the wharves themselves, you can spot the city’s traditional dockside porters on street corners in the centre of town, hard-bitten, sun-beaten, stooped figures playing mah-jong and waiting for their next job. They’re easily identified since they all carry with them their tools of trade: bamboo poles and a strand of rope that they use to cart fearfully heavy loads up and down the hillsides.

Although the porters aren’t the prettiest of specimens, inescapable are the constant reminders by the Chinese – men and women alike – that the females of Chongqing are admired throughout China as the most beautiful in all of the People’s Republic. It’s something, they explain, to do with all those steep hills and the effect it has on muscles of female legs. But the vertiginous nature of the city takes its own toll on those who make a living from its rivers.

Residents play mah-jong.Residents play mah-jong. Photo: Getty Images

Beside the Jialing is Ciqikou Ancient Town, a series of narrow riverside lanes tarted up for tourists. I watch as an elderly porter – probably younger than he looks – struggles with a pair of heavy boxes, suspended by rope from a straining bamboo pole. He’s squeezing through an impossibly tight passageway, finally emerging into one Ciqikou’s lively crowded pedestrian streets, where you can buy chilli and peppers in bulk and sought-after handmade noodles.

Despite the toll it still clearly takes on its underclass, the citizens of Chongqing are fiercely proud of their distinctive if not difficult topography.

“Beijing is not only flat physically, it’s also flat socially,” says a local Ciqikou artist, whose studio is located up a side street.

Porters unload goods.Porters unload goods. Photo: Alamy

“Chongqing is more three-dimensional. Chongqing’s personality is like our hot-pot; a spicy mix with so many different ingredients.”

But in order to glimpse Chongqing’s true, more unvarnished past it’s necessary to leave Ciqikou and head back to the city centre. Slap-bang in the middle of the CBD is one of Asia’s most remarkable communities, known as the 18 Steps. It’s a reference to the number of stairs that the locals in the past needed to negotiate in order to fetch fresh water. The start of this tumbledown area, ripe for redevelopment and which could double as a film set were it not too real for its own good, is marked by one of Chongqing’s surviving stilt houses, an early, makeshift version of high-rise living consisting of fearfully flimsy houses made of bamboo and scraps and built against hillsides for support.

Such is the legendary status of the Chongqing stilt-house that a fancy, and sturdy, replica shopping and dining complex for tourists has been constructed well away from the 18 Steps beside the Yangzte.

Women on novelty stools in a park.Women on novelty stools in a park. Photo: Reuters

Of course, the 18 Steps, with its stalls of meat for sale hanging from hooks in the open air and fresh vegetables spread out over footpaths, cannot survive since it’s situated on the most prime of real estate in the heart of the CBD, the equivalent, more or less, of a slum off Bourke Street Mall or Martin Place.

The residents of the 18 Steps are being gradually relocated by the authorities to more salubrious but blander flats and houses in the suburbs or countryside. Some houses, with red crosses painted on them, are already vacant and awaiting demolition. It’s a pattern being repeated in other Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Beijing. But, across town, Chongqing’s precious resident pandas at the municipal zoo, located in a beautiful botanic garden setting, seem to enjoy more space than the folk at the 18 Steps. No one is waiting to tear down the houses of these pandas since they’re an essential stop on any tour of the city.

Many tourists visit Chengdu in Sichuan to visit the pandas there, but Chongqing’s own collection represents one of the world’s most successful breeding programs.

A resident of the 18 steps.A resident of the 18 steps. Photo: Anthony Dennis

As I stand and watch a panda, surrounded by youngsters with panda-themed backpacks, devouring her brunch of bamboo with her remarkably dexterous, human-like hands, I realise that it’s time to tackle another chilli-hot Chongqing meal with my Chinese hosts at a nearby hotel. It’s only when I’m close to leaving Chongqing that I finally realise the error of my prandial ways. Although the local cuisine would be considered fiendishly hot even at your average diner in Hades, it needn’t be quite the minor ordeal it has become for me.

As it turns out my mistake since my arrival in Chongqing was to eat the powerfully hot Sichuan pepper, called hua jiao, which is a staple in the city’s hot-pots in order to add that extra heat. Locals, my Chinese travelling companions finally get around to informing me, simply put the pepper to one side, should it find its way from hot-pot to food bowl. It’s much too hot to eat, even for them.

By the time I reach Shanghai a week or so later, having journeyed down the Yangtze by riverboat, the city, compared with Chongqing, feels somehow flat, physically and socially, by comparison, just as the artist remarked back in Ciqikou. What glamour-puss Shanghai needs, with all the hype that surrounds it, I conclude, is a few more hills and a bit more of the spiciness of the city of the burning lips, now a seeming world away back down the Yangtze.

The writer was a guest of Wendy Wu Tour, the Chongqing Tourism Bureau and Singapore Airlines.

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