Disappearing Chengdu 1

Detail of stone doorway, Shuijingfang District, Chengdu

Shuijing Street, main artery of the historic neighborhood

The Shuijingfang 水井坊 District

I wandered into the Shuijingfang district of Chengdu by accident, on a wet day last December. In the midst of a busy section of the central city, just off the First Ring Road and near the confluence of the Fu and Nan Rivers, I suddenly found myself in the middle of an ancient street. Humming with activity, its old wood-frame houses under sagging tile roofs housed restaurants and shops, and hid secret courtyards and residences behind.

Shuijing Street, as the thoroughfare is called, branched off into narrow alleys on either side. I wandered down a couple of them, stepping back centuries into another way of life. This was the largest (relatively) intact historic area that I had seen in Chengdu.

This Google Earth view shows the ancient neighborhood, cradled in the bend of two rivers. the major thoroughfare on the right is the First Ring Road.

A closer view, showing the dark brown tile roofs of the area, bisected by Shuijing Street. The small camera icon in the destroyed area is the site of the present Shangri-La Hotel.

Chengdu’s urban landscape is changing so rapidly that much of its old and interesting architecture is now lost forever. I had stumbled on one of the enclaves of traditional buildings that, for better or worse, have survived in the central city. When I returned to the area recently with my camera, though, more of its historic fabric had disappeared, and several of its meandering alleys now reach dead ends as commercial developments nibble away at its edges. The Hong Kong Jiali Group has constructed a high-rise Shangri-La Hotel facing the river, and continued tourist and recreational developments such as the Shuijingfang Tourist Culture Block now threaten what remains of the neighborhood.

Wall and windows in a narrow alley.

The characters in the district’s name 水井坊 shuǐ jǐng fāng translate as “water,” “well,” and “workshop.” In addition, there are “…some historical and human cultural scenic spots such as Shuijingfang Relics which is named ‘the first workshop of Chinese distillate spirits.'” (http://invest.chengdu.gov.cn/english/detail.asp?id=155) 1,700 square meters of liquor workshop relics at Shuijing Street were excavated in March and April 1999, upon approval by the Ministry of Culture, adding historical importance to the area.

It’s difficult for me to learn much of the area’s history, my language skills being what they are, but I did find this tidbit on the website of the External Economic Cooperation Bureau of Chengdu City Jinjiang District [see link in previous paragraph], which is promoting the area “to develop a pleasure industry and tourist product market:”

… the block has a unique traditional pleasure culture background with rich historical and cultural connotations of wine culture, tea culture and foods culture, which is very rare within Chengdu City. Shuijingfang Street has formed in Tang and Song Dynasty and prospered in Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty; the architectures in the block has some features and have some traditional architectures such as shops, official residence, Sihe courtyard, etc., which is helpful for creating a pleasure block with features of West Sichuan civil houses and a tourist product market.

A high entrance pavilion to one of the houses.

Another view of the same entrance

Detail of the sign above the door

The area’s past may be rich in associations and stories, but its future is fairly certain: to be destroyed in the name of “progress,” and replaced by slick, modern versions of traditional buildings, catering to the tourist and shopping trade. The area is still a vibrant residential community, although the buildings are dilapidated and in some cases look to be extremely uncomfortable to live in. A case could be made that their residents are better served by being moved to new apartments in the city’s periphery. In doing so, however, Chengdu loses another of the few remaining vestiges of its 3,000-year history.

I plan to learn more about exactly how Chengdu’s “development” machinery operates. For instance, the government owns the land on which houses stand, but can give over the building rights to huge development corporations, with little or no input from local residents. Often owners or renters are too poor to make much-needed repairs, and I don’t see much evidence of sympathetic restoration of historic buildings, by organizations with the money or wherewithal to do so. Development companies have near-total power to wipe out entire historic areas, as the value of their land skyrockets. However, the internal machinations of government, influential money, and executives with connections in high places are still a mystery to me.

Even on a sunny day, parts of the narrow lanes are in shadow. Open doors provide glimpses of domestic activity and people at work. Stone, brickwork, and wood roughened and chiseled away by time and the intimate scale of the lanes give the area an aura that is at once personal and immediate – lives are lived close together here. I feel like an intruder with my camera. A cat reposes in the sun next to an ancient door, then yawns as I pass. Unseen spaces hint at mystery and secrets.

I am struck by the contrast between Chengdu’s old residential areas, built very close to the the ground from which their buildings materials come, and the anonymous concrete blocks of high-rises marching in groups across much of the city. Some of these old structures have survived 200, even 300 years, constantly modified, accruing layer upon layer of history and meaning, sometimes remodeled almost beyoned recognition, except for their tile roofs.

I am fortunate. I have been allowed to observe this tangible history for a short while, before it disappears forever.

To be continued….

Carved wood detail in an eave decoration

Old residential courtyard

Carved stone doorway in a narrow passage

Wall textures

Solitary ancient gateway, standing in an area of cleared ground

Rooflines and walls

Surfaces: stone and wood

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