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 (

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province (

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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  • Steve

    Having visited Chengdu recently, and having flown through there twice en route to other locations in China, two comments: First, as a city to visit Chengdu has a lot to offer. Aside from the pandas, there is a lot of culture, shopping, entertainment, and just wandering.
    Second, as a transfer point one has to be careful. The comparison with Chicago is apt in that it is a major hub and frequently suffers from weather related delays. Both of my flights (a month apart) were delayed several hours. Airline staff told me that this is frequent in Chengdu due to weather.

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  • Chris McGinnis

    Hey Vo! It’s worth quite a lot considering the time and effort and jetlag put in to writing that post! We always appreciate both positive and negative feedback. But positive sure feels better! –Chris

  • VoR61

    For what it’s worth, I like the new format and enjoyed this article.

  • Nancy Branka

    Hi Raymond. I ate only in restaurants with excellent reputations–and the food was incredible. (Sichuan is known for its cuisine.) However, I can’t vouch for food safety in small establishments and I suspect you would need to be careful, as you would anywhere.

  • Nancy Branka

    We were lucky–it happened that traffic wasn’t too bad on the days I was there. We were told our 25 minutes or so from the airport to city center in the evening was unusually good. An interesting traffic trivia note: Congestion is managed by prohibiting cars with license plates ending in certain numbers on certain days. The numbers on Wednesday happen to be Chinese lucky numbers so a higher percentage of cars have those–thus making Wednesday a lighter traffic day. Conversely, on Thursday, the number 4 is prohibited and that number is considered unlucky so there’s more congestion. I did not take the train.

  • Global1st

    How was the traffic in and out of the city? and if you took the train how was the ride? – Thanks!

  • Chris McGinnis

    Hi Brent: Thanks for your feedback. We’ve moved to a higher frequency, more nationally focused blog to increase our readership. While the regionally focused blog was fun to write, the model was not working financially, and as a business person I hope you would understand why that had to change. The new model has greatly improved our numbers and “clicks” and is quickly showing a profit as a result. As I stated before, if you want just SFO based info, you can click the SFO tab at the top. If you want less frequency, you can sign up for TravelSkills Weekly instead of the Daily and you’ll get a weekly compilation of our posts. Happy to set that up for you if you’ve not done so already. Thanks– Chris

  • Chris McGinnis

    Hey Folks: Thanks for your comments and sorry some of you don’t feel this post hit the mark. We were hoping that the comparison to Chicago was a good way to introduce readers to a city (Chengdu) that they’d never heard about. This was my idea and I assigned it to the writer who took the trip. I’m happy to hear your comments, but personal attacks are unnecessary and will be deleted. — Chris

  • Brent

    I agree with other posters, this article is awful and the comparisons between Chicago and Chengdu is laughable and unnecessary.

    Personally speaking, I liked this blog WAY better when it had the other name and was much more SFO specific. It used to be must-open and must-read for me every time I saw it in my inbox. Now, with the more national focus and additional authors, it seems like much more like fluff pieces that don’t deserve the time taken to read them. I still open the emails and click the links from time to time, but as time goes on it is become more junk mail and less must read. Disappointing!

  • Parque_Hundido

    This article is cringe-worthy. The only place Chicagoans have an “aw shucks” mentality is in the over active imagination of this author who didn’t know when to quit with the awful ‘second city’ analogy. Having spent considerable time in Chengdu and Chicago, I can personally attest to the apparent insanity of the claim that the proliferation of luxury brands in second tier Chinese cities somehow makes them better places for shopping. And while the author might have found the skyline impressive, it is certainly no match for that of Hong Kong. Or Chicago, a living museum of architecture.

    I ordinarily enjoy reading the articles here, but this one was just beyond the pale. Please, exercise a little editorial skill and reject junk like this in the future.

  • Raymond

    Is the food there generally safe to eat? sorry heard too many horror stories related to china food safety problems.

  • Chris McGinnis

    Hey Bill! Yes, Chengdu is one of Air China’s three main hubs. While I’m not sure you can get to all those cities on Air China, I bet you can get to some of them.

  • Bill Rubin

    Does Air China/Star have connecting flights to India, Bhutan, Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka or even Male from Chengdu? It intrigues me to fly SFO-Chendu and then onto some of these destinations, while still getting to visit the Panda research center outside the Chengdu center.

  • Nancy Branka

    Hi Gary. The 14 million population number that was thrown around a lot during my trip to Chengdu includes the full metropolitan area: urban districts plus suburbs and rural. So it’s a fair point that comparing to Chicagoland’s population is closer, but there are all sorts of ways to measure both population and area (including all sorts of definitions of Chicago’s metro area, most of which also reach into WI and IN). I think the overall point (and I have a lot of love for Chicago, as someone who grew up in Chicago and now visits frequently) is that Chengdu’s size–particularly the population density–is very, very striking, particularly for a city many Americans have never heard of.

  • Nick Aster

    Chengdu’s population of 14 million makes Chicago—with its 2.7 million—seem like a quaint village.

    You need to make sure you’re comparing the Metro area. Chicago has more like 8-10 million in the metro. Smaller yes, but still.

  • Chris McGinnis

    Hi Jake: Please get past the intro and read the post and you’ll see that this is not a knock against Chicago at all. In fact, it’s pro-Chicago, even tho the post is about Chengdu :) — chris

  • Bill Gorman

    While I’m sure that version of the Second City nickname genesis makes Chicago natives feel better, both origins are valid.

  • JakePB

    Inferiority complex? No, Chicago is called the 2nd city as a result of the “2nd city” that grew from the ashes of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. I am compelled to write a great many things here, but I think your wildly incorrect premise speaks well enough for me.

  • garydpdx

    On population, is Chengdu defined as the city proper or the metropolitan area, or is there even a distinction between the two as in the case of Chicago, city versus metro (Chicagoland). Chicagoland is nearly 10 Million … still not the size of Chengdu but to fit nearly 13 Million, Chengdu would need an area as big as or larger than Chicagoland.