On my list of “Things to Do Before We Leave Chengdu!” was to visit Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi one more time. Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi translates to “Wide and Narrow Alleys” and it is basically a set of two walking streets, closed to traffic and filled with shops, restaurants and tea houses, all done up in the style of an “ancient town.”
This country is infamous at this point, I think, for its thousands of “Ancient Towns.” China lost many of its oldest and most picturesque architectural sites decades ago and the process continues today as cities across the country flatten whole neighborhoods to make room for massive high rises and luxury good stores.
People here may love the new shopping malls, they may be proud of the new high-rises, but I think they also don’t want to lose the best of the old towns and the old ways. They still want places they can go to buy traditional mulberry-leaf cigars and have their toes nibbled on by tiny fishes. They still want to see old-style architecture and watch artisans make everything from ornate honey candy to astonishingly intricate paper cuttings.
So local governments across the country build “Ancient Towns” from scratch with all new materials, costumed artisans, and food products packaged in bulk at a nearby factory. The buildings all have the old style traditional doors with the high stoops to keep out the bad spirits, they have the old style roofs and the streets are paved in cobblestones; but everything still smells of new paint, wood, and concrete. The goods for sale often range from local dried meat products to imported fruit to all manners of panda paraphernalia.
To Westerners used to visiting historical sites in other parts of the world, the effect can be jarring, hokey, and a bit sad. I imagine many Chinese feel the same way about it. But since these “ancient towns” are often the only tourist game in town, they are always crowded with locals, people from the countryside and a smattering of foreigners.
The reason why I wanted to visit the Wide and Narrow streets one more time though is that, for the most part, Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi is a really well-done version version of the concept. It’s not a full “ancient town” and it’s a little more upscale than most similar tourist destinations, but it still makes for a pleasant place to stroll on a Saturday afternoon.
I think part of the it’s success is the fact that the space was carved out of a real neighborhood. Private residences line the perimeter and, while most of the interior construction is brand new, it matches the older buildings around the edges so seamlessly that the effect is one of a peaceful little neighborhood that time (and city planners) forgot.
For some reason, Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi also always has several photo galleries on display. Most of the time the photos are just stunning. When they are good, they are really good, and they offer a whole different perspective on what China must look like when you leave the big cities far behind. I love looking at the photos and I love watching other people enjoy them as well.
I think it is very hard for a foreigner to tap into the true cultural soul of the Chinese people. After two years I still feel like I hardly know this place. Even so, when I see crowds of people looking at these photographs I remember similar exhibits in the U.S. and I think I understand a little better why people flock to “ancient towns.”
Things change so fast here in China, its hard to know what you can hold onto. Maybe people in China like “ancient towns” for the same reason my mother used to like bringing me to a popular petting zoo/demonstration farm up in Door County when I was little.
That place has nothing in common with a modern working farm today. It’s fields are too small to compete with real farms and half of the space is given over to show kids things like old-fashioned ploughs and how to milk a cow by hand. It isn’t a real farm in the strictest sense of the word, but it is a place my mother could take me to show me what her life was like and what her grandparents’ lives were like growing up on a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin.
Maybe ancient towns preform a similar function for people here. It’s a place where kids who’ve only ever lived in high-rise apartments their whole lives can see how homes used to be built, where their grandparents can buy them traditional sweets and snacks instead of KFC.
Of course, then again, there is a gigantic two-story Starbucks smack in the middle of Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi and its always overflowing with people, so maybe my theory is just a nice idea.
Additionally, while Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi is a really nice place to wander through, it isn’t cheap. The restaurants and stores that line the streets are expensive. I had hoped to pick up a few things at a store I really like there but prices have gone up so much, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Even a small ice cream cone at Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi is more expensive than in the States. I’m not exactly sure who can afford to shop at Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi but, in any case, nobody wandering the area seems to mind.
This was the first time we’ve visited Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi since Will was born. He tends to stand out, especially for people who aren’t from Chengdu and don’t often see little babies that look like him. I’m planning a whole post about the ubiquity of the giant DSLR camera and amateur photographer phenomenon in China but for now, let’s just say I think there were more pictures taken of Will than I could manage to take of anything around us.