Is Chengdu China’s Chicago?

Chengdu's modern airport is the fourth busiest in China (Photo: Christian Ortiz / Flickr)

Chengdu’s modern airport, 10 miles from downtown, is the fourth busiest in China (Photo: Christian Ortiz / Flickr)

Chicago’s “Second City” nickname reflects an age-old inferiority complex– it was the second largest city in the U.S. until overtaken by Los Angeles. So, when I began a trip from San Francisco to Chengdu, in southwest China and the capital of the Sichuan province, I wondered if what I’d heard about Chengdu was true.

What I had heard is that Chengdu could be considered “The Chicago of China” due to its central location and big industrial/manufacturing/transportation base as well as its “second tier” status (compared to Beijing and Shanghai) and laid back feel.

Would I find Chengdu to be at all like Chicago?

United Airlines is betting on Chengdu to be more than that. On June 9 the airline began nonstop service between San Francisco (SFO) and Chengdu (CTU) on Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, and I traveled on the inaugural flight (as a guest of United). The 14-hour flight is the first of any U.S. airline beyond Beijing or Shanghai and into China’s interior. United’s hope is to grow service from three times a week to daily.

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province (PATA.org)

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province (PATA.org)

My pre-trip question reflected my naïveté about China. And perhaps the biggest lesson is that there are few parallels between the U.S. and China.

True, Chengdu is considered a “second tier” city in China (an official government designation), and, to the casual observer, Chicago could be said to sit on the same tier. But the numbers show there’s no comparison: Chengdu’s population is 14 million, while Chicago’s is 9.5 million. (Updated) It’s important to note that those numbers are for “metro areas” (for Chengdu, the sub-provincial city population, and for Chicago the U.S. Census Bureau’s Consolidated MSA that includes counties in Indiana and Wisconsin). However, Chengdu’s metro area of 4,684 square miles is less than half of Chicago’s 10,874 square miles. So you can only imagine how dense Chengdu feels.

Like Chicago, Chengdu sits in the interior of a huge country and is often overlooked by travelers. An Asia-based United Airlines sales executive I spoke with said he finds the Chinese who have traveled to New York and Los Angeles, for example, feel they have “done” the U.S. The same could probably be said of Americans who’ve been to Beijing and Shanghai.

However, like Chicago, Chengdu offers a different kind of experience and an interesting jumping-off point for other travel. And according to my seatmate on one flight, a Brit who has lived five years in Chengdu, the city is an excellent starting base from which to explore the rest of Asia: Bhutan, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand.

Living the "panda life." Chengdu's relaxed lifestyle centers on its teahouse culture. (Photo: Nancy Branka)

Living the “panda life.” Chengdu’s relaxed lifestyle centers on its teahouse culture. (Photo: Nancy Branka)

It could also be said these two cities share a relaxed lifestyle, relative to larger cities. Chicagoans are known for their friendly, aw-shucks nature, with pace a little slower than in New York. I found the same in Chengdu. Riffing on the popularity of the region’s largest tourist draw—the giant panda–Chengdu’s residents pride themselves on living “the panda life.” Pandas do little else but eat and sleep, and the lifestyle in Chengdu–with its dominant teahouse and mahjong cultures–is considered much slower-paced than Beijing or Shanghai’s.

But parallels stop there, I found.

What Chicago lacks in population, it makes up with charm. Chengdu does not. While I was pleasantly surprised by some tree-lined streets in Chengdu, the Gingkos do little to mitigate the concrete and steel as far as the eye can see. Compare this to Chicago’s anchor at Millennium Park and its long sweep of Lake Michigan shore, which make the city feel so livable. And once you’re out of the Loop and Magnificent Mile, brownstones and bungalows comprise friendly neighborhoods. By contrast, Chengdu is an intense city of high rises and more high rises. The only “charm” is the Chinese affection for lighting these skyscrapers: At night the Chengdu skyline is as jaw-dropping as Hong Kong’s.

Shopping is an obsession for the Chinese, but in Chengdu the luxury brands are everywhere, making Chicago’s Magnificent Mile feel focused and limiting. One of my favorite scenes in Chengdu is Tianfu Square, the city’s center plaza, where the almost-100-foot-tall statue of Mao Zedong stands squarely across from French jeweler Cartier. Such contrast–the story of a nation.

Chengdu will need to prove itself as a transport hub for Chinese travelers to the U.S. and vice versa. But as I said, it’s a pretty safe bet for United. San Francisco is a particularly favorable half of the city pair, with the route connecting the high-tech business of Silicon Valley with one of Asia’s major tech cities. (Seventy percent of the world’s iPads, for example, are manufactured in Chengdu.) But it’s also an untapped market for interior China’s new travelers to launch into the U.S. In fact, I met a number of people in Chengdu who had already booked the flight, thrilled to eliminate the need to connect elsewhere in Asia.

The 353-room Ritz-Carlton Chengdu opened October 2013 (Photo: Chris Cypert)

The 353-room Ritz-Carlton Chengdu (pictured here) opened October 2013 (Photo: Chris Cypert)

For American travelers like myself, the opportunity to visit a second-tier city was particularly interesting. One expert on China who was traveling with our group said the Chinese government is promoting the growth of “medium-sized” cities now, to take the heat off first-tier cities. American businesses investing in China are also seeing the growth opportunities in second-tier cities. For example, in October Ritz-Carlton opened properties in Chengdu (where I stayed) and Tianjin. The luxury market is robust in these cities.

If I had money to put on the table, I’d place United’s bet, too. The Chengdu/Chicago comparison may lose its parallels quickly, but both cities have matured to earn their place at the world economic table.

Have you been to Chengdu? If so, how do your impressions compare? Let us know in the comments.

–Nancy Branka

Disclosure: Nancy was a guest of United Airlines and Ritz-Carlton for this 3-day business trip. 

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