Once part of China’s south-western Sichuan province, Chongqing is now an immense, direct-controlled municipality home to 25 million people and centred on a modern megalopolis that offers few glimpses of its past. But its urban sprawl belies a rich history, waiting to be discovered along its many waterways.In fact, Chongqing is known as the city of rivers, sloping down as it does from the mountains and towering buildings to the water’s edge, where several rivers converge and carry on as the Yangtze towards the East China Sea.
These rivers have seen the rise and fall of several ancient settlements that can easily be explored by road from downtown Chongqing. Curious, I rent a car and head out into the vast countryside to some of the trading and fortress towns integral to this region’s storied history.
The guild halls of Anju
Anju, a town on the banks of the Qiongjiang River around 100km north-east of Chongqing, has been inhabited for more than 4,000 years. Its glory days – as a hub for the trade of silk, tung oil, paper and salt, and then later as the training grounds for the Huangpu Military Academy during World War II – are now long gone, but many of its buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties remain.
The ancient town crawls up the side of the riverbank and spreads across several streets, home to guild halls, temples, modern hawkers selling spicy noodles and, on the sweltering summer day I visit, a too-hot-to-care vibe.
Along Anju’s main drag, I meet Zeng Fanjiu, a businessman turned preservationist. Before 1997, Zeng was just another entrepreneur in the silk industry. But when the soft-spoken 50-something acquired a silk spinning factory in Anju, the Huguang guild hall came as part of the package deal.
In the past, Anju was notable for its five guild halls – a rarity in China. Each hall acted as a clubhouse, hotel, restaurant, political centre and meeting space for a particular province. In the years following World War II, the town’s leaders decided to repurpose these buildings, which they saw as remnants of the country’s feudal past.
When the Huguang guild hall fell into Zeng’s hands, it was in a dreadful state – everything was water-damaged. But its faded grandeur spoke to him. “I couldn’t just tear it down,” he explains.
Over the next 11 years, he spent CNY4 million (S$800,000) of his own money on period furniture – now antiques – and repairs to restore a sense of the original hall. Today, the hall is perhaps the best-preserved building detailing Anju’s recent history.
Zeng’s instinct for conservation has since grown. He now also owns the neighbouring Fujian Guild Hall, once a shrine for the god Matzu, a protector of the Fujianese boat people. Indeed, he has gone from a businessman to one of the foremost architectural preservationists in the region – entirely by accident.
Today, due to preservation efforts such as Zeng’s, Anju is emblematic of how river trade shaped urban development – as seen in its various merchant shops, the trade associations housed in its guild halls, and the ancient temples that sprung up for traders to pray for safe passage home.
The fortress of Laitan
Around 70km upstream from Anju lies the former garrison town of Laitan. When I visit, the pavements are packed with people, but unlike many of the old towns around Chongqing, these streets are not for tourists. Instead, it is market day for the town’s residents, and everyone is rushing to buy vegetables and poultry before the sun grows too overbearing.
Walking past them into the old town, I approach the former defences of the city, built in 1862 to repel the bandits that roamed the Chinese countryside during the decline of the Qing dynasty.
Once through the gate, the atmosphere changes immediately. The ancient town exudes a sense of peace and security. During the Song dynasty (960-1279), a nearby town was bogged down in a 36-year war with Mongol forces; the echoes of that war still reverberated hundreds of years later, when the rulers gave the orders for the barbican to be built.
Today, trees grow from the garrison walls and an informal barber has set up shop. The old town splits into two streets; heading right, I pass restaurants hanging out sides of pork as an advertisement for their cooking. Here, I meet 44-year-old Huang Rong, a smiling storeowner and part-time local guide.
Walking the streets, Huang and I come upon Chen Kaixue sunning himself on a chair in front of his Ming-era house. The octogenarian guides us silently through his ancient abode, which is several hundred years old. Inside, it’s crowded with personal belongings arranged around an old wood-fired stove. The mud walls are peeling off their bamboo lattice frame, but the bones of the house are still rock solid.
Walking down to the bank of the river, I see that a beached boat has been turned into a restaurant cum mahjong parlour. Taking a ferry across the muddy water, I catch a glimpse of Laitan’s original settlement: a clutch of roofs set among green foliage.
Known as Lower Laitan, the settlement was once plagued with bandits entering via the river. After generations of trying to defend itself, the town uprooted and relocated 80 metres up the cliffs to its present location. It turns out that the barbican was just one in a series of defences for a town that was once under threat of attack from all sides. Today, the only thing to be wary of is the unforgiving summer heat, and the best defence is the humble umbrella.
The boats of Hong’an
Five and a half hours away from downtown Chongqing, Hong’an is an emblem of the past. A former trading hub, the sleepy town is still dominated by the muddy Quingshui River, which marks the border between Chongqing, Hunan and Guizhou provinces. The riverside remains the centre of activity; within minutes of arriving, I hire 67-year-old Li Youtian to take me out on his pleasure boat. As he paddles out on the slow-moving water, he sings the various names for the river that he is churning with his oar.
“In the old times, it was called The Mother River. For Hong’an people, it’s always been the Hong’an River,” explains the elderly oarsman, sporting a traditional conical hat. “In Hunan, they call it the Chadong, and in Guizhou, over there, the Songtao. Finally, from Border Town [a 1934 novel that tells the coming-of-age story of a young woman in the Chongqing countryside], the river is also called the Youtian and the Qinshui.”
Beside us are boats full of young men, jumping into the river for a swim; fishermen paddle by in wooden craft, slowly pulling up the fine filaments of their nets by hand. From the banks, parents watch as their naked kids frolic in the shallow water.
Li and I slowly pass under the arches of a bridge that marked the region’s shift to road transport, and the decline of Hong’an as a critical stop for traders. After an hour, we dock back at a 1960s-era memorial tower to a young Chairman Mao, a fading red reminder of the Cultural Revolution. It now stands as the anchor for a cable that spans the river, and is the driving force for what’s known as the la-la (“pull-pull”) boat.
The la-la boat doesn’t have a motor; instead, it has Qiao Zongming, a 70-year-old former farmer who uses a notched wooden club to pull the boat across the river – hence its name. I climb aboard and chat with Qiao as he drags the boat across the water, enjoying the slow-burning sunset over Hunan province – a visual reminder of the city’s former glories.
The hanging houses of Zhongshan
Located just over a hundred kilometres south of downtown Chongqing, Zhongshan is one of the few remaining places where you can glimpse the hanging houses that the region is famous for, but which are long gone in so many other towns.
These distinctive abodes jut out over the river and are precariously supported by bamboo scaffolding. Once a common way to gain a few extra square metres for an additional storey, the architectural feature fell out of favour with the introduction of concrete as a building material. Consequently, the dwellings, like cubes stacked askew, are becoming increasingly rare.
If there had been any tourists around, they were all gone by the time I arrive, late in the day. Instead, the one-street town is quietly going about its business. Residents sit on the ground floor of their wooden shophouses, grilling dried tofu over low embers and watching television. The place is characterised by a sense of calm rare in a tourist town in China, where bigger, newer and louder always seems to be better.
Strolling the single street, I pass restaurants that forego menus in place of elaborate displays of greens, preserved meat, and live seafood at their entrances. Stopping at one, I pick out a fish, and the husband-and-wife owners braise it for me in soy sauce, ginger and other spices. I ask where it came from; the answer, it turns out, is like much of what I have seen on my journey. The fish, they tell me, is from the river.
In the early 2000s, as the Three Gorges Dam was being built downstream, the town of Gongtan faced a future where the rising waters of the Yangtze would submerge it whole. The town’s response was to relocate, and the result is a Disneyfied replica of the one-time shoal town.
The buildings are new; the business is tourism; and the sense of history long gone. Unfortunately, this is true for many of the so-called ancient towns, whose histories make them too important to pull down entirely, but whose governments lack the experience to develop them into viable tourist attractions. These halfway sites blot the landscape all over Chongqing.
This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine