The Disappearing Streets of Old Chongqing

The Disappearing Streets of Old Chongqing
By Elaine Pang ,


Today’s Chongqing is by all appearances like any other modern metropolis, with gleaming skyscrapers and shiny automobiles. The Chinese government seems intent on giving its newest municipality a freshly minted façade through generous financial support. Consequently, traces of Chongqing’s humble beginnings are being erased at an ever-increasing speed. Old streets and buildings go down overnight in the name of development. For the nostalgic who adore the Chongqing of yesteryears, it’s time to get you there and enjoy the old streets of Chongqing before they disappear forever.

On the Side of a Mountain Clinging to the Past

In many ways, Chongqing is a juxtaposition of the old and new, so old streets are located just a stone’s throw from the city centres. They might be straggly and grimy but they are buzzing with life and are hidden time capsules of Chongqing’s past. Owing to Chongqing’s mountainous terrain, the old streets of Chongqing are often winding and undulating. Rising or dipping without warning into seemingly endless flights of stairs, a walk on the “wild-side” requires alertness and surefootedness. Despite years of ingesting the chili-oil drenched local cuisine, the locals maintain their figures by pounding the pavements on their daily “commute”. The silver-haired elderly picking their way on uneven ground with a fleet-footedness that belies their years is a sight that never ceases to amaze. Consequently, paving stones that line the way are worn smooth by the passage of time and footsteps.

These old streets have spawned substantial communities over the generations. Residents live together at close quarters in terrace-style low-rise pigeonholes. Constructed out of wood and without any form of heating, these are the epitome of bare-bones dwelling. The idea of enduring the winter in any one of them seems unthinkable but locals have been doing so till this day. On feeling the bite of the damp cold, residents congregate around wood fires contained in metal buckets.

Summer is a different story. Shielded from the blazing sun by mountainsides or neighbouring buildings, these narrow streets are a cool summer haven. Some old streets feature old buildings constructed on mountain slopes diaojiaolou (吊脚楼) style, an architectural style peculiar to Chongqing and ever popular with photographers.

Things for Sale Everywhere

Old streets in Chongqing are not just walkways. In a city known as the Hong Kong of China, wherever human traffic is, retail space will surely appear. Shops usually line one or both sides of the walkways. Besides the “official” shops, makeshift stalls with merchandise on wagons or tarpaulin lining the ground also abound, sometimes positioning themselves smack in front of the proper stores. Most of the street bazaars are outdoor markets serving the neighbourhood. Apart from a plethora of vegetables, live poultry, seafood and even rabbit or turtle are de rigueur to the local palate. In the bigger street markets, also offered are apparel, sundry items and “medicinal products” of the snake-oil variety.

If fresh produce is not your thing, the old streets are also great places to sample the fast disappearing local street snacks. Perhaps the fastest disappearing one is shaobing – flat pieces of wood-fired bread baked in ovens fashioned out of oil drums.

Besides merchandise, these hidden “commercial zones” of Chongqing house a comprehensive array of every conceivable service. Among the more exotic services include ear-cleaning, shoe-shining and traditional Chinese medicine style treatments such as cupping, all performed in open-air. Youngsters can be seen bending over green tables in al fresco billiard “parlours”. Other than that, every area has at least a few mahjong parlours to satisfy the local population’s appetite for the favourite Chinese game of chance.

Marked for Destruction

Sadly, most of the old buildings along these streets are currently earmarked for demolition, in typical Chinese style – chai(拆) emblazoned in red spray paint all over. Constructed out of wood with modern amenities like electricity haphazardly installed only very recently as an afterthought, such buildings are construed as a fire hazard that have to be sacrificed in the name of public safety. Some areas will be restored in the style of traditional architecture, while the rest will give way to modern high-rises. Cases in point include conservation areas such as Ciqikou and Hongyadong. While beautifully restored or preserved, the resultant effect is that these areas reek of commercialisation with every possible space exploited for touristy retail. The original atmosphere of the place is often demolished when the physical building is pulled down.

Chongqing’s metamorphosis into a modern city in such a short span of time is certainly notable. However, letting its past fade into oblivion would be a pity.

On the Trail of the Old Streets of Chongqing:

Old streets can be found in the Qixinggang (Yuzhong District), Danzishi (Nan’an District) and Huangjueyuan (Nanshan District). However, the most notable (and soon to be demolished) would be the Shibati in Yuzhong District.

Shibati 十八梯 View In Map
Add: Shibati, Yuzhong District (off Zhongxin Lu)
地址: 重庆市渝中区十八梯
Getting there: bus or light-rail to Jiaochangkou Station 较场口

The most notable old street in Chongqing is the Shibati. Literally “eighteen stairs”, its enigmatic name harks back to the Ming dynasty when the area housed a well just 18 steps from the nearby residential area. Today, Shibati is a long flight of stairs linking the rustic, lower-lying area near the Yangtze with the flourishing Jiefangbei CBD area. At the foot of Shibati is a sprawling outdoor market.

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Keywords: old streets Chongqing traditional living Chongqing shibati neighborhood Chongqing finding old Chongqing


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