Chongqing Revisited (Part Three)
Some other things struck me during my recent short visit to Chongqing, providing great contrast between this visit and the previous ones I had made 20-30 years ago.
My Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Chongqing was on an Airbus A 320 aircraft, which was fairly full. The seating configuration was a small 8-seat business class section, and 150-seat economy section.
I would guess that about 100 or so of the other passengers were members of Sichuan tour groups returning home from a visit to Hong Kong. They were mostly older folks, and many wore bright yellow baseball caps emblazoned with the logo and Chinese character name of their tour operator, the Chongqing Branch of China International Travel Service.
They were obviously excited as they filed onto the plane clutching their boarding passes. Frequent fliers these were not, and no doubt they were a bit homesick for good Sichuan home cooking.
As they boarded, it sounded a bit like a bingo game or roulette table. “Where are you seated?” (23! 17! 45!) “And you?” (38!) (31!) And so on (19! 22!), in their lilting Sichuan accents, like a group of kids visiting Toys R Us for the first time.
A group like this would have been unimaginable 20 years ago, and even much more recently than that.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Chinese mainlanders travelling abroad on anything other than official business were about as common as astronauts are in the U.S. In recent years there has been an enormous surge in outbound tourist travel, especially group travel. According to travel industry estimates, outbound Chinese travelers will soon surpass any other national group in numbers by place of origin.
That of course reflects a massive shift in wealth, and in mobility, not only of people but of ideas.
What particularly struck me about my fellow passengers on that flight was that they were older folks, not affluent looking, coming from a western region of China, an area slower to embrace and benefit from the Open Door Policy than the wealthier eastern coastal cities. They could still manage to afford a trip to Hong Kong. Perhaps with some financial support from their children, or perhaps not; it doesn’t really matter.
This in itself is a sea change within the span of roughly one generation.
Speaking of the mobility of ideas, Chongqing has gone from a place, 20 years or so ago, where finding a telephone was a challenge to a place where everyone seems to have a mobile phone, even out in the rural areas. Satellite dishes are common sights on homes in the small farming communities which dot the terraced hills of Chongqing, as are solar powered water heaters. Broadband internet penetration rates continue to soar.
In my early visits to rural parts of Sichuan, and other parts of China, I was struck by the near absence of wild birds (other than a few species like sparrows and magpies) and animal life. Over-hunting for food and indiscriminate ag chemical use were the usually cited culprits.
This time on very a short visit to rural parts of Zhongxian I saw kingfishers, egrets, a pheasant, and 4-5 other species of birds I could not identify. Despite Chongqing’s environmental challenges, I found that an encouraging sign. Locals also told me the fishing for various species in the newly flooded sections of the Yangzi River and its tributaries is very good, although stocks of the prized delicacy Yangzi Catfish (jiang tuan yu) are now so depleted that a fresh steak sells for up to RMB 500 per cattie (in the range of US$70 per pound) in the market, if you can find it.
One of the new local acquaintances I made on this visit has lived and worked in a rural area outside of Chongqing for more than ten years. We had an interesting conversation. Among other interests, he is an avid fan of American movies, and any movies on WWII, as well as being a self-taught speaker of English.
Thinking of myself as a kind of big city sophisticated global traveler type dude from Hong Kong, I suggested he be on the lookout for the new HBO miniseries on WWII in the Pacific region, called “Pacific”, produced by Tom Hanks, which I thought he’d enjoy. I added that three episodes are already out.
“No, there are six in the series of ten which are already out, and I’ve seen them all,” Ringo gently corrected me. “It’s a great series.”
So much for my big city international sophistication! Ringo was better informed than me, despite the relatively remote part of China in which he lives and works. How times change, and with them, the flow of ideas and people.