Written by: Dillon Phang (19-I4)
Designed by: Lee En Tong (19-U2)
Photographs taken by: Dillon Phang (19-I4)
The Belt and Road Initiative (source)
The Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路), China’s ambitious project to link up with countries all the way from Erope to Southeast Asia. “Belt” refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt that links from Europe to East China, while “Road” refers to the Maritime Silk Road, which passes Southeast Asia, Australia and Europe. This project is an iconic representation of China’s rapid development in recent decades. Chongqing and Chengdu are 2 cities that are key in China’s development and themselves have seen much growth. The country’s growing influence and strength is why the China Studies in Chinese Syllabus (CSC) was introduced. Of course this trip is heavily related to the CSC syllabus, and the Bicultural Studies Programme (BSP). I went on this BSP trip as a non-BSP student, and yet, what an eye opener it was, to have a chance to visit China and have first-hand experience in learning about its history and current developments. And so, here are some moments from this trip I’d like to share.
Upon arriving in Chongqing, one of the first things I recall the tour guide told us to take a look at the highway construction. Peering out of the bus window, we saw a complicated network of several layers of roads stacked on top of each other and at least a dozen exits. The tour guide even joked that if you took a wrong turn here, you might as well prepare to spend the night somewhere else. Looking at this, I wouldn’t doubt that.
Chongqing’s road network
That was the first thing that really got me intrigued about the city of Chongqing. For the government to have to construct such a convoluted network of roads, there must be something really special about the landform here. Chongqing is nicknamed “山城“, or Mountain City. Despite the mountainous terrain, the urban planners have done a remarkable job designing the city. The way they made use of high-rise buildings and how they designed their roads and rail network to accommodate to this terrain certainly reflects the urban planners’ ingenuity. One instance of this that I find really interesting is with Hongya Cave (洪崖洞).
We alighted the bus and entered Hongya Cave on level 1. We then exited the cave on like the 11th storey only to see we are next to another main road. Learning about how the government developed this city was one of the main objectives of this trip, and that is also backed up by our visit to Raffles City Chongqing and the Three Gorges Museum (三峡博物馆) on Day 3.
Hongya Cave, Chongqing
While Chongqing is filled with mountains, Chengdu is known for its plains. Chengdu is blessed with favourable weather conditions and fertile soil, and is also well-protected by surrounding mountainous regions. These favourable conditions saw the city thrive and earn the reputation of 天府之国 or Land Of Abundance. Chengdu was also hence established as the capital for several Chinese dynasties. In comparison to Chongqing, Chengdu would seem more liveable, and the pace of living is much more relaxed here. Its slow pace and good natural conditions even led to it being called 一个来了就不想回去的城市, translated as a city one does not want to return from. And yeah, I feel like going back there now that I recall those days.
I think the one place we visited that best exhibits this relaxed pace here will be People’s Park (人民公园).
Street food stalls lined the park and there was a teahouse where we saw people getting their ear wax cleaned. Groups of elderly people dancing just like how the elderly in Singapore have morning exercises. There’s even a corner where elders in their families would put up blind date notices to help their children look for their significant other. The whole atmosphere was just very carefree and lively. The closest comparison I can think of would be Chinatown, where we see dozens of old folks coming together to watch some of them play chess.
The first couple days of this trip were focused on the culture and history of this place, as we got to visit cultural sites like Hongya Cave itself. Hongya Cave is interesting as it showcases some of the developers’ creativity in making a shopping street and tourist attraction out of an otherwise inhabitable cliff.
Dazu Rock carvings, Chongqing
Another site was the Dazu Rock Carvings (大足石刻). Dazu is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Chongqing, and was first constructed in the Tang Dynasty (681 – 907 CE). The carvings come from 3 different religions; Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Despite the fact Dazu was constructed in the Tang Dynasty, the intricacy coupled with sheer size is still something that modern stone carvers may not be able to replicate. Taking into account the lack of technology back then, we get a sense of the wisdom, passion and dedication that these ancient people had towards this ancient art form. These carvings bring ancient religious teachings to life, in a way that is fascinating even for us tourists hundreds of years later. The carvings that we saw told stories about Buddha’s deeds, each of these carrying lessons on filial piety, and discerning between good and evil. This place showcases how religion has been used by the rulers of Ancient China to pass on and preserve the teachings and values they want their people to inculcate.
Sanxingdui Museum, Chengdu
Apart from learning about Chinese history, having a chance to look at ancient artifacts really exposes us to the wisdom of ancient people. As mentioned earlier, the countless rock carvings of Dazu gives us a first taste on how dedicated ancient carvers were, to be able to construct artworks that are 10m high, intricate and durable enough to last all the way to the present, all without modern technology. I was in awe once again when we visited the Sanxingdui Museum (三星堆博物馆) here in Chengdu. These artefacts date even further back than Dazu, all the way back to 1200BC. The displayed artefacts included statues and masks made of bronze, and ornaments made of jade and gold. Some of these statues were up to 3m tall and stupendously heavy, and some ornaments only a few millimeters thick. All these, without technology. Some of these, unreplicable even with modern technology. We would think that we are way more capable than our ancestors, to be able to do more with less, due to technology. And yet, these artifacts showcase to us just how remarkable ancient people were.
Chongqing No. 8 Secondary School
Next, we have the one event from this trip that I enjoyed the most, our visit to Chongqing No. 8 Secondary School on the 4th day. We visited 2 out of 5 of its campuses, one being its largest and newer one, and the other being the original and oldest site. The best part about interactions between schools from different countries will always be us getting the chance to interact with students from vastly different countries and backgrounds. I got to learn about the lifestyles and attitudes of the students there. They face the same exam stress that we face, if not more, preparing for their National Exams (高考), just as we prepare for our A-Levels. However, their school life is possibly even more dreadful than ours. Their school hours last longer, and even after school, they have to self-study until 10pm. On top of all that, they are not allowed to use their phones or laptops at all. And yet, they have no complaints, and I respect them for that. Our JC life doesn’t seem that bad now, does it? Another thing I noticed was that the students here are friendlier with their teachers. In a music lesson that we sat in, I got to see how the teacher and students are basically friends with each other, cracking jokes and having fun together.
My biggest takeaway from this trip would be the opportunity to be able to witness China’s development, especially since we visited 2 cities which are integral to China’s plan to develop its Western cities. It was not so long ago where China was lagging behind all Western superpowers. It was not so long ago where we had made fun of “Made in China” goods. Yet in a blink of an eye, the country has become the one we see today. A good representation of this is perhaps how quickly technology has evolved here. Cashless payment, something that Singapore is yet able to establish nationwide, is ubiquitous in China, even in the smallest of shops. The high speed rail that we took from Chongqing to Chengdu, covers 308 kilometres in less than 2 hours, and is smoother than our own MRT rides. What’s more impressive is China’s ability to retain its rich culture and heritage despite its rapid development. We see that in how Chongqing is developed without forsaking most of its identity as a Mountain City, and how Dazu Rock Carvings and artifacts from Sanxingdui Museum have been preserved to keep alive their ancient heritage. Hongya cave has also demonstrated how modernisation can take place hand-in-hand with preservation of heritage.
The rise of China is why Singapore aims to establish these bilateral ties with them. We got to learn about that on this trip, from our visits to Raffles City Chongqing and the Consulate General of the Republic of Singapore in Chengdu. The architect for Raffles City, Moshe Safdie, is also the architect for Marina Bay Sands, and you may see some obvious areas of resemblance between the 2 buildings. With 3 Government-to-Government Projects established, we see how Singapore has been able to seek out these opportunities where our strengths in may come in useful for this superpower. But this responsibility does not just lie on our policy-makers, we as people of this country need to better understand China as well. The best way to build these ties between the 2 countries would be for us, the next generation, to expose ourselves to their culture and better understand its people and its beliefs.
Here’s a panda to end it off!