It’s a Monday night in Chengdu’s Taikoo Li district and the outdoor shopping complex is heaving with keen shoppers. Millennials dressed in frayed denim jeans and breezy cotton shirts stream out of Muji and Marimekko, bulging shopping bags in hand.
Polished young women snap selfies outside a cult Korean toy store while others enjoy afternoon tea on the outdoor terrace of Mi Xun Teahouse, a trendy vegetarian lunch spot and teahouse. To an outsider, it appears as though everyone’s on vacation. But for the people of Chengdu, this is simply the way of life.
“People here don’t take life too seriously,” says Kurt Macher, general manager of the Temple House, a hotel that is arguably the slickest in the city. “They are very open-minded and cool,” he continues. Looking at the young adults sashaying around the Taikoo Li district in bold outfits and oversized mirror sunglasses, ‘cool’ is certainly a good way to describe the people of Chengdu. When it comes to fashion, few rules apply.
“People here want new things. Unlike places like New York, they haven’t seen it all,” says Macher.
Mi Xun Teahouse.
Chengdu has perennially been one of China’s more progressive cities – a place where, historically, many cultures gathered. It has always fused tradition with modernization and had a humanistic outlook. But it was after the 2008 earthquake, when many experienced devastating losses, that locals really began to realize that life can be short and started living for the ‘now’.
People began rapidly accommodating indulgences and spending money more freely (something that is evident when you see the mega luxe stores like Hermès and Louis Vuitton). “In the past five to ten years, there have been so many changes in infrastructure,” says Fansack, the millennial Chengdu-born, Paris-based street artist. Fansack is part of what he considers the first generation of street artists born in Chengdu. “The changes have been crazy quick! ” he says. Although Fansack is now based in Paris, he has strong creative ties to Chengdu and is responsible for the large astronaut mural that occupies a giant wall in the Taikoo Li district, which attracts Instagrammers by the busload.
Chengdu’s Taikoo Li district.
The 2015 opening of the lifestyle district and its neighboring Temple House hotel (from the Swire Hotel group) has been a total game changer. The development has generated an influx of luxe stores, hip restaurants, a gallery (a recent exhibition was organized by the V&A in London), and communal squares for locals to sit and sun themselves; all centered around the ancient Daci temple, which was once the largest monastery in Sichuan. “The shopping experience has revived the temple,” says Macher. The knock-on effect of this development has been the opening of more superbly cool spots like the Budapest Cafe, a whimsical green and white Wes-Anderson–inspired daytime restaurant, and the Bridge, a Sichuan restaurant from the iconic chef Andre Chiang.
If you didn’t know of Chengdu’s creative side or distinctive style of cuisine, then you’ll know of its pandas. It’s home to the largest panda sanctuary in the world, animal lovers stream in from all over the globe to see the adorable black and white bears chomp through endless bamboo sticks. Considering that the panda population is extremely vulnerable and that there are only 1,684 remaining in the wild, the sanctuary has always been Chengdu’s brightest drawcard.
The city doesn’t pretend otherwise, and panda paraphernalia is everywhere – from the moment you enter the arrivals hall at Chengdu airport, which is littered with panda faces, to when you step into the markets, which have every kind of panda trinket. Even if you’re not too interested in pandas (or stuffed toys), it’s likely you will leave the city with at least one panda souvenir.
A Chengdu panda.
Whether it’s the pandas, the shopping, the city’s creative outlook, or a combination of them all, Chengdu has experienced a surge in visitors in the past few years. So much so that Chinese airline Hainan launched a direct flight between Chengdu and New York’s JFK airport late last year. It is the only direct flight between the two cities and makes the journey significantly less arduous.