This is what time travel must be like. I’m standing on a narrow street in Chengdu, capital of the Chinese province of Sichuan. I first came here in 1985 and memories of that visit are so vivid they compete with reality.
It’s a fresh day in the early spring of 1985. The street is lined by two-storey houses made of timber and roofed with curved, grey tiles; their walls are painted a sober brown. The shop signs mostly date from the anti-capitalist 1970s: black characters on a white background. A few brighter, hand-painted ones show glimmerings of entrepreneurship, now that the Government is encouraging market forces.
Most older people are dressed in blue or grey Mao suits, and the young in faintly awkward approximations of 1970s Western styles. Bicycles pass constantly, bells ringing. There is little other traffic. Up trees and on roofs loudspeakers rehearse cheerful tunes and good news accompanied by piercing crackles. Children play on the pavement, tightly wrapped bundles of colour: yellow woollens, red nylon trimmings, embroidered purple bootees. The one-child policy is comparatively new, and these little emperors look as if they’ve had all their parents’ hopes packed into them. I smile at a baby and a proud mother appears from nowhere and thrusts him into my arms. Before I know it I am surrounded by people: discussing me, discussing the baby, discussing the discussion. An old man holds forth on Foreigners and What They Are Like, turning to me now and again to shout questions in broken English. The baby starts crying for his mother.
New laws allow farmers to sell excess produce and keep the profits; and there’s a small street market on one side of the road. It’s hard to imagine this one making much money for anyone – all it sells is garlic. Old ladies in padded jackets sit in a line, each accompanying a sharply lit pyramid of dry, white bulbs.
Sichuan has been a permanent part of China since the tenth century: before that, it was twice an independent kingdom. It is a border region – Tibet lies immediately to the west – but one with an important place in Chinese history. In 1985 the area is a test-bed for the ‘opening’ of China to market forces and the outside world. The reforms are being spearheaded nationally by Chairman Deng Xiaoping, who is Sichuanese, and tested locally – in advance of the rest of the country – by his protégé, the provincial Party Secretary, Zhao Ziyang.
In 2001 a new dual carriageway cuts across the street. Further along are two new office blocks, one half-finished, the other with a fake baroque doorway and a liveried goon. It’s early summer, hot and humid. The market extends either side of the new road and down several side streets: stacks of vegetables, piles of eggs, trays of fresh tofu. Fish swim in big plastic tubs of water, aerated by hosepipes. The shopfronts advertise their wares in big gold plastic characters, with hand-painted copies of well-known logos.
Shoppers have to cross the new road if they want to visit the whole market. People stand at the roadside or between lanes, waiting for the next break in the traffic. Elderly men in Mao suits. Young couples in khaki shorts and T-shirts. Girls up from the country with plucked eyebrows and bright lipstick. Two young punks, their flame-red PVC trousers matching their dyed hair, stand looking vacant on the kerbside. I want to take their picture and go up to them to ask if they mind. As I reach them, I realise just how out of it they are. I ask in three different ways, but they stare blankly into space. I give up. Afterwards, I’m not sure if they knew I was there or not. Drug problems are not unusual among the young. Opium is grown and trafficked from the borders of Yunnan, the next province to the south. People blame the problem, and rising youth suicide rates, on a combination of the one-child family policy and modernisation. They say this generation were overprotected by their parents; that they are not emotionally equipped for the new insecurities: rising unemployment, an expanding underclass and an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor.
Deng Xiaoping is dead, but China more or less sticks to the reform programme he initiated. Zhao Ziyang is missing, probably under house arrest: a senior Politburo member and Deng’s presumed successor, he tried to negotiate with the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 days before Deng sent the tanks in.
I’m going to retrace my route of 1985, but with the benefit of a little preparatory reading. I’ve got the highlights with me: photocopies of historic maps, passages from books and journal articles. I head first for a district which, in 1985, contained many attractive old houses. People catch my eye as I pass on my rented bicycle, mildly surprised to see a foreigner in this part of town.