Monday, May 12, 2008

Chongqing: "City on Steroids"

(Added: I was just off the phone with my parents in Chongqing and am relieved that they are okay. The center of the earthquake was near Chengdu. I am still in big shock that so many people died. My heart is with the thousands of victims...)

Over two decades ago, one morning in July 1987, I was awakened by loud shouts from four floors below calling my name, “A foreigner is looking for you!" I had recently returned to my parents' apartment in Chongqing for summer vacation from my graduate school in Chengdu.

I grabbed a hairbrush and ran downstairs. Outside our building, on the sidewalk of River Overlook Road, formed a thick circle of onlookers under the already hot Chongqing sun. In the center of the circle stood a six-foot-tall American man in a red McGill University T-shirt. Those onlookers, the townsmen of mine, silently gazed at the foreigner’s sweaty face and his heavily loaded touring bicycle, as if he were from Mars. The American looked at this person and that in amusement, making inquiries in both English and crude Chinese: “What? Shenmo?” He tried to move in one direction then another; the crowd retreated and advanced with him like a unbreakable giant rubber band.

The young American, who later became my husband, was likely the first foreign tourist who rode a bike across China from Harbin to Chongqing, at a time when foreigners were still exotic animals in my hometown.

Not any more, and this is one of the biggest changes shown (albeit indirectly) in the video "City on Steroids" by Now the Chongqing people barely throw the foreign reporters a glance. They don't even bother to stop playing cards. The exotic animals have switched hands. Does this mean significant progress has taken place?

The video tries to find answers to that question and it captures several characteristics of today's Chongqing, one of them the "bang-bang army."

"Bang-bang" in this case means wooden shoulder-pole. Because of Chongqing's mountainous geography, there are too many nooks and crannies that can't be reached by truck or tractor. You don't even see bicycles in the city. Men and their shoulder-poles have always been a necessary means for transporting goods at ports. However the expression "bang-bang army" is new; this name has been bestowed on the throng of migrant workers who have nothing else but a shoulder-pole. When I visited my parents in recent years, I saw those men huddled in groups, standing or squatting outside newly constructed residential enclaves, waiting for the house-owners' call for help to move furniture or other goods. I had never seen such a big "army" carrying "bang-bang" everywhere during my childhood and youth in the city. Those men come from the countryside, because the Three Gorges dam forced their migration, or their farmland was squeezed, or life on the farm was much worse.

"How hard are the roads in Shu / as hard as climbing the sky" – when Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai wrote those oft-quoted lines, was he near Chengdu or Chongqing? I suspect it was the latter. "Shu" () is the abbreviated name for Sichuan, whose jurisdiction for a long time included Chongqing, until Chongqing became one of China's four provincial-level municipalities (直辖市) in spring 1997, nearly a decade after I moved to the United States. This ascendance – the price of it the Three Gorges migration burden – made Chongqing the world's largest municipality with a population over 30 million. (When I lived there as a child, the population was 8 million.) Now the city no longer needs to fight neighbor Chengdu over funding from the central government. Its construction goes on at an unprecedented speed.

Not only does speeding construction squeeze surrounding farmland, as the video shows, it has also squeezed the two rivers surrounding it. My townsmen have filled in along the rivers to make the "riverside avenues." When I visited home last year, I was brought to a famous scenic spot, a man-made one, on a new segment of road along the Yangtze River, to watch the "beautiful night scene" – colorful neon lights lining high-rises on the other side of the river. The river looked thin and the mountain city no longer looked like it is poised on mountains. I wasn't happy and did not linger, disappointing my jubilant Chinese family and friends in a big way. But my disappointment was even bigger: I could no longer see the beautiful natural mountains and rivers that I have loved since my childhood.

I suppose not all mountains surrounding Chongqing will or can be dynamited and flatted. Otherwise the "bang-bang men" will lose their rice bowl again.

The overheated construction also makes Chongqing's already badly polluted air worse. There is a Chinese idiom, "the Shu dog barks at the sun," describing how rarely the sun is seen in Sichuan, but once upon a time that had not been because of the pollution. In my childhood, fog and rain were what made the city's sky gray. The morning fog hanging on the rivers had been beautiful. Today, as you can see from the video, it is a totally different kind of fog. The Shu dog won't be barking at the sun because its throat hurts.

There is another essence of today's Chongqing captured by the video: the ever increasing gap between wealthy and poor. The contrast of this aspect is well shown. The poor include not only the rural migrants but also laid-off factory workers from the city. In the video, one of the men interviewed says in Chongqing dialect – indicating that he's local instead of a migrant – "Opportunity is never ours."

Aside from policy issues, too high a population density has been a dominating factor in creating the problems. I hope by now those Western human-rights fighters fussing over China's one-child policy has realized their own one-sidedness.

One thing I wish's reporters had asked is what the struggling "bang-bang men" think of the Beijing Olympics. Do they care about it or do they not? Wouldn't it make better sense for China to spend the huge money instead on raising the living quality of its rural population, hence stabilizing the turbulent migration flow into cities? The city of Beijing itself has already been over-constructed and over-populated. And water shortage has become a huge concern there. The new Olympic construction has made the situation more severe than ever.

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