Living off and on again in China for a number of years this is my first
experience of living ‘out West’. Moving to Chengdu from Jiangsu Province, where I lived in both
Nanjing and Changzhou, has opened my eyes to a different sort of China compared to the one which I
had grown accustomed. It is true, in many ways, that the quickly developing West is similar to the
mega centers of business like Shanghai and even Shenzhen; there are countless foreign companies
doing business here, and the streets are lined with massive billboards announcing the presence of
Sony, Nikon, Giant, HP, Prada; there is even a Hermes boutique in the city center. Of a weekend you
can find the numerous Chengdu residents filing four and five deep through the streets and sidewalks
engaged in that favorite of urban hobbies, shopping. Chengdu is located between Tibet and Yunnan
Province, two of the most heavily toursited areas within China, hence there is always a steady
stream of national and international travelers alike flowing through the city and its environs.
Accordingly, there is no shortage of extravagant hotels and restaurants here, and I have seen many
pricey luxury cars purring through the streets.
So, you may say, how is Chengdu any different, not only from Shanghai, but perhaps even New York City? In China, Chengdu is famous for being a laidback city, one which is filled to the brim with tea houses and 麻将(mahjong) parlors, so many so in fact it is a wonder they can all stay safely in business. But they do. Chengdu people are famous for working less and relaxing more. This is a personality trait I have seldom come across in my experience of Chinese culture. Overall people in China are incredibly hard working; many Chinese companies and businesses require their employees to work six day weeks instead of the standard five. Granted, each day of a six-day work week is slightly shorter, but with only one day of rest people rarely have the chance to travel, even to visit with their family members in another city.
In Chengdu the same remains true for some business people: they work long hours and have little free time. However, the same is not true for an astonishing number of residents. In the parks you can see retired men playing cards or chess while sitting under a tree that holds their swinging bird cages. In their cages the birds look out over the river, occasionally singing a rather sad, short song. Going out at almost anytime of day, on any given day of the week, you will see the tea houses that line the 副南 river dotted with brightly attired patrons, most of whom are between the ages of 30 and 50. On the weekends, or in the evenings, this smattering of people swells into a bustling crowd of tea drinkers and gamblers. The streets, tea houses and bars stay full well into the night, and many is the time when I have been rolling home in the back of a bicycle rickshaw early in the morning that I have seen myriad Chengdu residents still battling it out over 麻将 tables.
I find myself spending more and more time outside of home and work as well. On any night of the week there is sure to be some special event taking place: a film showing, a concert at the Sichuan University Conservatory of Music, or even just a group of friends circled around an outdoor table at our local bar. Many of the bars and cafes that we frequent in Chengdu are steadfastly devoted to music. Live music is often played; sometimes by the bar owners themselves, and sometimes by invited musician friends. The atmosphere in each of these places is relaxed enough so that anyone can grab a hand drum, maracas, or spoons and help themselves to the beat.
One of our favorite places to frequent is the 家 Bar. When I questioned 栗栗, the owner, about the name he explained to me that he chose the name “family” because he wanted to lend a friendly, comfortable atmosphere to his bar. In Chinese the word 家 is synonymous for both family and home; his name encompasses a feeling of belonging and warmth. Whenever someone new wanders into the small, Yunnan style bar 栗栗 himself makes it a point to greet them, take their first drink order and introduce himself. On slower nights in the middle of the week you can often find栗栗floating between tables, spending time with each group of patrons.
One evening this past week, after leaving work I stopped in at 家把 to meet a couple of friends. As the evening was a particularly sultry one, everyone was already sitting outside in the wicker furniture when I arrived. Our original group of three had already increased to six, and as the evening unfurled it only grew larger. Soon we were so many, that we moved all of the outdoor seating together to form one large, single group. It was in this moment that 栗栗 and a few others raided the hand drums and various other percussion instruments from inside.
With three people playing assorted drums, one person on the maracas, another on the claves and, final one on the scraper, it quickly turned into a veritable drum circle. A few of us got up to dance, while others of us simply sat in the sweltering heat tapping our feet, humming a tune and generally enjoying summer life in downtown Chengdu.
As the night went on, and the original musicians wearied, drums and instruments changed hands, but rarely went silent. Within our group there were people from disparate parts of both China and the globe; and our musical talents were also as varied. Perhaps there was no great musical prowess uncovered that night, but the drum circle was more about learning to get together through music than creating a single lasting composition.
As part of a drum circle players must improvise within a group, something which is not easily done. However, when a rare moment of consonance, or even concordant dissonance, is achieved the feeling is exhilarating. Within a drum circle individuals can learn to anticipate each other’s next move, perhaps even their next thought. Such ability to anticipate another’s actions and feelings establishes a type of communication that can transcend lingual barriers and cultural barriers. It seems the common language shared by each member of our group was music. And it was more than enjoyable to find a beat together.
鼓咚 The Boom of a drum.
麻将 ma jiang, or mahjong as it is often called in English is a tradition Chinese
game that is played with dice and 144 differently marked domino-like tiles which must be collected
to form set of winning combinations. The popularity of the game may, in part, be due to the fact
that it is played as a gambling game, such as poker.