Ask Mei

A country of contrasts

A Kungfu Panda statue beside a 3rd-century temple

During a recent trip to Chengdu, which is one of my favourite cities in China, I stayed at a brand new five-star hotel that combines the best of traditional Chinese architecture with the most sophisticated modern comfort. One early morning, I walked around the hotel’s neighbourhood and explored a new Xintiandi-type of commercial area next door. I first saw a Tesla showroom next to the popular Taiwanese restaurant Ding Tai Fung. Turning the corner, I ran into glitzy luxury stores for the likes of Gucci, Cartier and Hermès.

A few more yards down the street, I came across a beautifully restored temple. Daci Temple (or Big Benevolence Temple) was first built in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Xuanzang, the famous Tang Dynasty monk who made a historic journey to India, took his vows in this temple in 622. The building is grand and elegant, with beautiful calligraphies, statues, traditional courtyards and gardens. However, stepping outside the temple, I time-travelled straight back to the 21st century, seeing a Starbucks and a statue of Kungfu Panda.

But what was more surprising was what I saw moments later from my hotel window. Gazing at the surrounding area from an elevated level, I could see two newly finished high rise apartment blocks close-by. But less expected, I also saw an area resembling a shanty town. There were dozens of dilapidated houses crammed together, most of their roofs covered with dirty plastic sheets. The contrast of the old and new, the luxurious and shabby was so great that I couldn’t quite adjust my eyes. And all of this within a single block!

Later I asked a local friend: “How can such shabby houses stay next to some of the most expensive developments in the city centre?”

He shrugged: “It’s because we Chinese finally learned about respecting property rights and stopped bulldozing these rickety buildings down to make way for new development. I bet the owners of these houses are too smart and greedy to accept the price currently being offered by the developer. That’s why they are still there.”

Upon hearing this, I made a mental adjustment. Over the years I have regretted and sometimes even resented the disappearance of old Chinese architecture, and the relentless rise of modern skyscrapers.

But in this situation, I felt the opposite. I have to confess that I’d rather see the shanty town replaced. Not all things old are worth keeping. And not all new property development is bland, boring or out-of-place.

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]


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