Photo taken at a local market in Chongqing in November 2013.
Sichuan province is known in China as a land of abundance (tianfuzhiguo－天府之国), particularly the fertile plain of Chengdu. This has probably contributed to its fame as a place for leisure. Chongqing lost this label when it was separated from the province to become a municipality in 1997. However, the promotion does not seem to have changed the identity of Chongqingers. It is indeed a place that prizes recreation. The city teems with mahjong parlors (see previous photo of a mahjong parlor in Chongqing) and teahouses. In the evenings, family and friends gather in restaurants, creating a cheerful atmosphere that is hardly matched in megacities like Shanghai. The historical isolation of the region due to its geographic barriers ended at the stroke of a pen with its urbanisation. The city has been completely re-engineered, particularly since it joined Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai as the only cities not under the thumb of a regional government: bridges, tunnels, a light train system with a planned total network of 18 lines, a high speed train reaching Chengdu in two hours, and the expansion of its international airport, have all succeeded in “flattening” the mountain city. Although the GDP per capita has almost quadrupled in the last ten years, it still lags behind the other big urban agglomerations of the East. In 2012, the GDP per capita was roughly RMB 40,000, less than half that of Beijing (one of the reasons for this disparity lies in the fact that the municipality of Chongqing is still eminently rural, as we will discuss next week). Nevertheless, residents do not seem to be excited about moving to these cities. Having asked the same question many times, whether they would move to a richer city or not, I have often encountered a lack of interest. People do not seem willing to sacrifice family or friends for better work opportunities.
Happiness is something that could be measured by the number of free smiles that residents offer to the passer-by. If some are reluctant to visit the city after learning about nicknames such as “city of rain” or “fog city” (the city gets more than 100 days of fog per year), all these preconceptions suddenly vanish when they are met with a smile like the one in the photo. As the Spanish saying goes, “al mal tiempo buena cara” (put on a brave face for bad weather).