Member Postcards

Just Back: Chengdu, China

Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to discuss the destinations open for travel now, and to learn more about coronavirus travel safety, new COVID-19 hotel policies and future trip-planning advice, inspiration and other ideas.Until recently, what I knew about Chengdu, the capital Sichuan Province at China’s southwestern flank, could be summed up as pandas and peppercorns. A chance encounter last summer with a trio of Chinese Millennials in a swimming pool at the foot of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains inspired me to dive into this futuristic metropolis. The young ladies live in Shanghai and Beijing but raved about this city of 16 million inhabitants: “It’s the style-setter for central China,” they explained, and has the country’s highest per capita spending on luxury goods. One click on WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp, connected me with their friend Vengo, a 20-something fashion producer, DJ and Chengduite (by choice), who calls his adoptive city “China’s truest melting pot—where you can just be yourself.” The thousand-plus miles separating Chengdu from China’s central government in Beijing helps to explain that freedom, apparent in the decidedly non-Communist looks by Miu Miu and Balenciaga parading past on my first morning. I wait for Vengo in front of Astromantic, a Crayola-bold street art project from Chengdu-born, Sorbonne-educated artist Fansack, who explores the astronaut hurling towards the unknown as a metaphor for China’s breakneck speed of change. It was commissioned last spring by The Temple House, the Make Architects-designed boutique hotel perched in central Chengdu’s Sino-Ocean Taikoo Li shopping district alongside Daci Temple, a crimson-hued Buddhist relic with a classical Chinese wingtipped roofline, which dates back one thousand years. These neutral textiles-meet-darkened-wood digs were already Chengdu’s standout sleep spot when a recently introduced vegan hot pot menu turned the hotel’s heritage era Mi Xun Teahouse into the eatery of choice for Chengdu fashionistas. Also worth tasting is the Sichuan Negroni at the hotel’s Jing Bar, made with Osmanthus-infused gin and Sichuan peppercorn–infused Campari. 

Vengo’s welcome tour starts with us nipping into a nondescript office tower, where Hug China (6 Dongda Street, 1F Unit 6, Time One Building) surprises me with well-cut picks from emerging Chinese designers such as Moto Guo, Uma Wang, Samuel Gui Yang and Central Saint Martin’s alum Angel Chen over two sunlit, white-washed levels. I should not be so surprised. Renowned along the Silk Road for its high-quality textiles and elegant brocades, Chengdu has long been known for luxury, fashion, design and commerce. Evidence suggests that it was Chengdu merchants who first introduced paper money during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Fast-forward to 2019 when some of China’s most valuable retail real estate could be found nearby over nine floors at the Chengdu IFS shopping mall. Skip the inner melée to instead admire that late American artist Laurence Argent’s 50-foot, 13-ton panda appearing to climb the mall’s shiny exterior.
Vengo and I continue walking as the road narrows to snaking, tree-shaded lanes, where young Chengdu lingers over artisanal lattés at cafés like Let’s Grind and Mondoli, its ebony-hued walls a taxidermist’s dream of stuffed fox, deer and bear heads. Accustomed to the broad avenues of Beijing and Shanghai’s sky-high density, Chengdu’s scale feels refreshingly humane. I’m even more charmed when Vengo leads me into a worldly curation of independent magazines, books and artisanal homewares at Nomorning, named he tells me, because “Chengdu is so laid-back, it's like a city of no mornings.” This city-wide lie-in stands in stark contrast to China’s notorious “9-9-6” lifestyle of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and six days a week. Chengdu proves its savoir faire the following morning as I explore its nearly empty streets on one of the hotel’s custom bamboo bicycles, made by Natooke, a local startup, along with the Tibetan-owned Simple Bikes, that’s adapting the panda’s favorite snack into these beautiful and sustainable riding machines. For getting around Chengdu further and faster, download the app ReachNow. BMW is testing its high-end ride-sharing service with a pilot project launched here in December 2018 with 200 BMW 5 Series, half of which are plug-in-hybrid vehicles. Drivers receive high-performance instruction and hospitality training designed to deliver a premium mobility experience. Locals like to point out that the first city in Asia named a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy was not Hong Kong or Tokyo but Chengdu, for its potent pepper-laced cuisine. Yet I found its nascent contemporary art scene even more stimulating. At ALLAB, a factory in Qinyang District that has been converted into an architecture studio and cultural event space, I admire (and even participate in) an artificial reality-influenced contemporary take by artist Yinan Song on traditional Chinese shadow puppetry. Trained at Yale and Royal College London, Song applies her professional background in computer coding and virtual reality to examine the relationship between folk craft and high art.Equally captivating, the experimental art of Zhang Jin, who returned from the United States with a Ph.D. in chemistry from NYU to create art and video installations designed to make scientific theories comprehensible and even beautiful for the public. A photographer who eschews camera and lens, Jin experiments on large-scale X-ray films in his darkroom and calls the consciously repetitive process of making his art “very similar to a chemistry experiment.” He’s also a co-founder of One Hundred Kilometers, a well-respected arts collective of around two dozen Sichuan artists that operates as a “gallery without walls.” Walled but no less innovative, Yima Gallery hides off the lobby of the glass-clad skyscraper, within one of Chengdu’s ever-expanding sprawl of satellites towns. The Chengdu-born, London-based owner scours local artist communities and studios for promising native talent, like civil servant-turned-street photographer Feng Li, whose quirky take on Chengdu’s transformation from farmland to fashion capital has led to gallery shows in Paris and Berlin. For those who can live without mass-produced panda paraphernalia, Feng’s irreverent images make a far more enduring Chengdu souvenir.Contact Indagare or your Trip Designer to discuss the destinations open for travel now and to learn more about coronavirus travel safety, new COVID-19 hotel policies and future trip-planning advice, inspiration and other ideas.

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