Among other things on our itinerary today: “A city tour to the downtown, 14:30-17:30.” We were two buses full of students from all 5 universities participating in the 2009 CTBU Study and Culture Tour.
The bus ride was fast and bumpy. Up and down hills and through intersections, along boulevards built between rows of tall, shiny, skinny buildings interspersed with Soviet-era concrete apartment complexes. Everything is built on slopes and vibrant green foliage pops out everywhere against the grays and whites of buildings. Around every bend, a river. I couldn’t help but draw associations with Hong Kong, for the lush hills, and Shanghai, for the rivers. And Chongqing is looking so modern now that the associations with these icons of modernity are easily conjured up for me.
After driving over bridges and through many remarkable city districts, our first stop was the Great Hall of the People, Chongqing style. The bus stopped outside this grand building which houses the provincial assembly as well as concerts and other cultural performances. We were told by our hosts that we could mill around the area for half and hour before meeting back at the bus. The dean’s husband, Charles, and I paid the price of admission for the People’s Hall itself (not covered in the city tour), and then were embarrassed to see that our student guide from the bus, Kathy, followed us in and bought a ticket as well for a precious 10 yuan (the equivalent of 2-3 lunches or dinners). She had never been inside this site, but wanted to look out for us as our guide.
The building is indeed great, with a large dome dominating the skyline and a huge, cavernous central hall. Our ticket stubs and guide both told us it was modeled after the Temple of Heaven, celebrating both Ming and Qing architectural styles. The similarity with its Beijing cousins was not exaggerated. Yet I kept puzzling over a plaque in the entry hall. This building was built in 1954: post-revolution, when China had broken with its imperial past and Mao was industrializing, the Soviets were advising, and the countryside was mobilizing for an agricultural revolution that would culminate in a cultural revolution. How (and why?) was this nostalgic tribute to China’s imperial past constructed then, when the central leadership, was planning, five years at a time, into an ambitious future? And why was this built here, in Deng Xiaoping’s home province, as a place were the provincial assembly might meet and conduct its regional business? Despite the heavenly exterior with all its imperial grandeur, it is a fundamentally modern looking building which could have easily been created in this era of globalization. Standing in the interior of the Great Hall itself, or sitting in its plush blue velvet seats, one looks up to a huge cathedral-like dome at the center created of nesting and interlaced bars of steel which reminded me of the bird’s nest that housed the Olympics in Beijing. I tried to place this structure back in time, at its origins, imagining high level cadres gathering here in their dusty blue Mao suits to discuss collectivization and rural revolution, but I couldn’t make these ghosts from the past fit. My guide seemed utterly confident that the grandness of the structure itself might dispel any awkwardness I was experiencing wrestling this building into standard periodizations of modern Chinese history. When I asked her again, “Are you sure this was built in 1954?” and then tried, “Why was this built in 1954?”, she offered this by way of explanation: “It is a beautiful building, and a very great achievement. China back then, in those days, was very poor. Many people had to work to build this building. They had no modern equipment, and could only use bamboo for scaffolding, and everything was done by hand by many workers. It is a true achievement.” She could have been talking about the construction of the Great Wall or the Temple of Heaven itself. Perhaps 1954 is now part of China’s remote past, the stuff of legend: remote enough to fold, like this building, into imperial history.
The Great Hall sits on a hill, and the entrance faces a street and then a large square below. On the other side of the square is the Chongqing Museum, which houses a permanent exhibit on the Three Gorges Damn Project. The museum was also not on today’s itinerary. I made a note to myself: return to see the Three Gorges Exhibit.
The next stop on our tour was another square, the Chaotianmen Guangchang, this time remarkable to our guide as the site that marks the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers. Kathy told us, excitedly, that we will see a distinct line where these two rivers meet: one stream of water, the Jialing, would be a dark blue; the other, the Yangtze River, would be a murky brown, laden with mud. When we pulled up to the square I recognized this place immediately. This is where Jason and I came on a sweltering June 8th, 2002, at a similar hour, the day before we adopted Fei Fei. We were brought here on another tour bus, accompanied by eight other couples from the San Francisco Bay area and by our friends, Ken and Connie, who had driven us to Chongqing from our then-home in Chengdu. I have no recollection of two streams of water meeting and joining, still distinguishable for their color and clarity. I only remember the small world I inhabited that day, shaded under the sun umbrella I carried, counting the hours and anticipating our baby. My Mommy-Eve; our family’s own confluence of rivers.
Today was much cooler and my spirits much calmer then that momentous day nearly eight years ago. Today ours was the only tour group, but there were many Chinese seemingly at home in this square. Several were flying kites, including two women. I realized the site of women flying kites was strange and new to me. Fei Fei and I used to frequently visit kite parks in a park near Peking University after I would pick her up from preschool. There we most frequently saw men, and retired men at that, toting several kites each which they would fondly fold and unfold, choosing one and discarding another depending on the winds or their whims. Here there were middle-aged women flying kites along side men; young women who looked like nannies with small children milling around; and older women strolling slowly, arm-in-arm. There were also young men in groups, sitting on the rails over looking the water. No one looked liked tourists and no one seemed rushed, though most everyone was curious about our group of students. It was a good spot for strolling and relaxing, for watching barges floating purposely along the river, for admiring the relatively new opera house on the opposite banks, flat and gray in the murky air. I took several photos; talked with an elderly Chongqing man wearing black-framed glasses about the many virtues of Chongqing; helped one of our students bargain for a kite; and finally re-boarded the bus.