Chongqing Revisited (Part One)
As I wrote in two earlier posts on this blog (Business Travel Before the Open Door[6.01.2009] and Cruising on the Yangzi River[6.29.2009]), I made a memorable trip from Chongqing to Wuhan by ferry in 1978. I returned once more in the early 1980s, but had not been back since, until very recently.
In the interim, parts of what had been Sichuan Province were reconfigured into a greatly enlarged municipality of Chongqing, with a population of some 32 million people. This makes Chongqing the most populous city in the world, although its boundaries includes large swathes of rural land and communities.
That first visit was in August, 1978, and Chongqing lived up to its reputation as one of China’s three furnace cities. The heat was sweltering. Between the heat and the cuisine, which involves both fiery hot peppers and Sichuan peppercorns, Chongqing in summer was a celebration of perspiration — especially in those pre-air-conditioning days.
We stayed in the Chongqing Hotel, the best in town at the time, with its traditional Chinese style. architecture. There was fairly significant construction work going on around the hotel, all of which was done with human labor — not a backhoe or other piece of machinery in sight. Work was largely done at night to avoid the terrible heat. Scores of bare-chested, sinewy men with hoes and shovels chanted and sang in sing-song unison as they dug ditches deep, silhouetted by the glow of lanterns.
There were no telephones in the guest rooms. I asked at the front desk if it was possible to make an international call, and was directed to a room in the hotel basement, down a long corridor and around several corners, where the hotel operator sat in the telephone room.
She seemed happy to see me. I don’t think there had been many, if any, requests to make international telephone calls that day, or maybe that whole week. I explained that I wanted to make a long distance call, if possible, and gave her the numbers.
She then turned to the telephone exchange, a large wooden box with one of those rotary metal cranks like you see in very old movies. Clackata, clackata, clackata, she cranked — no dialing of numbers manually in those days — and then verbally gave the outbound number to the next operator on the line, who in turn passed it verbally to another operator further down the line, and on it went, until — bingo — my call got through.
The connection sounded a bit like talking inside a metal drum, but still…it worked. I don’t remember the cost for the brief conversation, but it was probably roughly equivalent to the cost of one night’s stay at the hotel. Long distance telephony was a much more labor intensive business then, a luxury rather than an everyday consumer staple, and rates were sky-high in China and elsewhere.
Chongqing straddles the upper reaches of the great Yangzi River, which was (and is) teeming with all manner of ships and boats, including large sailing vessels used for carrying cargo. As we headed downriver, I was amazed to see crews of 30-40 men pulling large non-motorized wooden vessels back upstream, using thick ropes, leaning and walking slowly forward on narrow ledges carved out of the rock faces which lined the river.
On my second visit, in the mid-80s, transport links to and from Chongqing had improved in variety and frequency, and the city showed signs of greater affluence, with better connections to the outside world. Hotel rooms had telephones, air-conditioning, etc. The market economy was taking root.
As I began my recent trip to Chongqing I was really curious to see the new face of this big, old, historic city. Chongqing has been very much in the news in recent months for its high-profile crackdown on official corruption. So my curiosity was piqued as my Dragonair flight from Hong Kong touched down at Jiangbei Airport.
As I exited the airport terminal, a tout walked up to me and said in English: “Tackus?“
No doubt he meant “taxi.”
I declined and walked over to the designated taxi line.
The drive in from Chongqing’s airport to the Yuzhong District presented views unrecognizable from what I remembered of the city. Behind the lush corridor of trees and bushes lining the new highways around the city lies a forest of new 20-story apartment buildings as far as the eye can see. Many empty, some not.
I also passed a Lexus dealership which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Southern California, and later saw a large outlet mall complex, which is so new and foreign a concept that “outlet” was rendered phonetically into Chinese [奥特莱特(au-te-le-te)]. This is ironic, considering that in the homeland of outlet malls, the U.S., so many of the discounted products on offer in these places are made in China.
The taxi driver who drove me into town was unusually cold and gruff. Often taxi drivers in China, like other countries, are fairly talkative folks, especially if you speak their language.
Later, a locally-based friend told me that Chongqing drivers will often try to ask for a fare 50% to 100% higher than the fare shown on the meter for a trip from the airport into town. Based on that, my driver would probably have been happier and seen better income potential from me if I’d been a non-speaker of Chinese.
My second experience with a Chongqing taxi was also notable. This driver was friendly and there was no haggling over the fare. He was too busy weaving in and out of traffic to haggle. His driving style. involved honking the horn at approximately 5-second intervals as he skittled through traffic, passing other vehicles at every possible opportunity on the relatively narrow and congested streets. The honk-a-thon-ic, Formula One style. of driving seems to be a Chongqing macho thing.
You can’t help but be impressed by the scale and scope of highway construction around Chongqing. Perhaps the emergence of so many new roads in such a short time helps explain the growth of an innovative new service sector, which seems to be unique to Chongqing. For lack of a better term, I would call the players in this sector “human GPS units.”
These are men — lots of them — who stand by the side of the highway holding a white sign with red Chinese characters on it: “Dai Lu 带路”, which means “Show the way.”
For a small fee, you pick them up and they help you navigate to your destination. Quite a clever idea, and judging by the numbers of them by the roadside, it looks like a growth business. Further evidence that technology doesn’t always replace people.
(To be continued…)