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Megalopolis a village at heart

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A shopkeeper enjoys a puff as he prepares fruit for sale in a storefront shop in Chengdu.

GERALD FLOOD / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

A shopkeeper enjoys a puff as he prepares fruit for sale in a storefront shop in Chengdu. Photo Store

CHENGDU, China -- Chengdu is a city of open storefront shops. There are tens of thousands of them. And without them, it is difficult to imagine the city of 14 million could function.

To be sure, Chengdu has gargantuan superstores, like the world's largest building by floor space, the Global Centre, which measures 100 metres by 500 metres by 400 metres.

In all, it will have 18 million square feet of floor space when it is completed, 4.3 million of which are dedicated to shopping. (By comparison, Polo Park has 1.2 million square feet.)

A massive furniture store in the downtown caught my eye. It takes up three corners of a major intersection. Furniture is big business in Chengdu, where 3,000 furniture manufactures employ 500,000 people. But even so, in China's furniture sector Chengdu ranks fifth largest.

There's an IKEA, of course. But it looks to be identical to the one in Winnipeg, with the obvious exception it sells smoked duck and Yuxiang pork in addition to Swedish meatballs in its cafeteria restaurant.

There are department stores everywhere -- and from everywhere, Spain, Japan, France, South Korea, Thailand -- most The Bay-sized, but thriving.

Whole streets, blocks and districts are dedicated to single products -- a mobile phone street, a lighting street, a plumbing street, the Computer City district -- and markets of every kind and description, from art and antiques to seafood and flowers, they hustle and bustle with commerce.

But if Chengduans were required to shop only in retail superstores, it would create a commuter nightmare despite an enviable, integrated subway-BRT-local-bus system that operates on and under a massive system of ring roads, 10 freeways and broad, tree-lined avenues crowded with cars, taxis, trucks, carts, scooters and bicycles.

But, of course, Chengduans are not required to commute for their basic needs -- they are all available at their doorsteps.

The street level of most every building in Chengdu is comprised of little shops that supply pretty much anything people living and working in the overhead towers might need.

The ground-floor shops at high-end hotels, banks, leading and multinational corporations -- any prestigious address -- tend to reflect the wealth and lifestyles of their occupants. You find jewelry stores, fine-clothing stores, gift shops and so on selling Gucci, Armani, Prada, Burberry, Bulgari, Dunhill, Max Mara, Cartier, all goods beyond the means of average Chengduans, who earn about $5,000 a year (five times what it was 10 years ago).

But most ground floor shops offer more affordable goods and services.

I walked up the street behind the hotel at which I stayed in downtown Chengdu.

It's really a lane more than a street. While there was room for two-way traffic, parts of the street were constantly blocked by trucks and carts and bicycles, from which hung racks of clothing.

Electric scooters whizzed around, horns beeping. Families ate at sidewalk tables, men clustered around checkerboards where players would slap pieces down with shouts and yelps.

Women embroidered in bees, or swept the sidewalks and street with long-strawed brooms, the kind we imagine witches fly.

Children played and couples -- men and women, women and women -- walked hand in hand -- past mute gamblers betting on cards, the markings of which were foreign to me.

In all, I counted 82 shops along the horseshoe-shaped lane.

They included 24 restaurants, noodle and BBQ houses; six convenience stores, five beauty and barber shops, five butchers, five fresh produce stands, four smoke shops, two tailors, two shoe repairs, two electronics stores, and two intravenous centres where people go for transfusions of fluids when they are feeling unwell (don't ask, that's all I know).

In addition there was a peanut vendor, a massage clinic, a small hospital, a florist, a bike wash, auto repair, scooter repair, live fish market, tea store, carpentry shop, picture framer, copy centre and a hole-in-the-wall lumber store that stocked everything you might need for home repair, including sheets of plywood.

It felt good on the street, safe and alive. People smiled when I took their photos and laughed when they demurred, shaking their hands at me as if they were shooing flies.

People would stop and talk but I couldn't understand a word. One man wrote in my notebook but Chinese writing is all hieroglyphics to me.

I later discovered that he had written, "Where are you from? The U.K.? The U.S.?"

So as much as Chengdu has become a modern economic powerhouse, it retains a street commerce that has been proven successful over thousands of years, and without which Chengdu simply could not function.

Turns out it takes a million villages to raise a modern Chengdu.

gerald.flood@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2013 A9

History

Updated on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 7:59 AM CST: replaces photo

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