CHENGDU, November ‌2021

This is the first city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
To receive the newsletter please click ‌here
Ten years ago, a couple of years after the devastating Sichuan earthquake, we asked a Chengdu government official why the city was not ‘going global’ as part of its post-earthquake regeneration. ‘It is not our turn yet’ he replied.

Well, over the last seven or eight years, at least until Covid, there were real signs that Chengdu’s turn had come. Evidence wasn’t hard to find – the arrival of the Chengdu Fortune Global Forum in 2013, the launch in 2016 of the Chengdu Open as part of the ATP tour (displacing the Malaysian Open); the founding two years later of Art Chengdu, an art fair which attracted international galleries and, at the end of 2018, the appointment of Zaha Hadid Architects to masterplan Unicorn Island, a 67 hectare site (the size of about 125 soccer fields) south of the city – a working and living area with the ambition (as its name suggests) to boost Chengdu’s digital economy.

Then along came Covid as well as talk of China and the west’s decoupling – and some action in that direction. Post Covid, President Xi is also trying to engineer the economy from over-reliance on land and property development, but that doesn’t stop many cultural stories still being tied to land development.

Public and private
The Chengdu Biennale launches this month, in Chengdu Contemporary Art Museum and in Chengdu Tianfu Art Museum – in a fast developing area, south of the city, some kilometres from the centre. It’s the first major art event in Chengdu since Covid. Together with the opening of several museums, the Biennale is a sign that there is a push to make Chengdu, one of China’s art cities, even if Art Chengdu folded after the second edition in 2019. Why art fairs fail is often hard to discover, not least because owners tend to keep their own counsel, whether in China or elsewhere. But about the wealth in Chengdu there can be no doubt. The city is fourth in luxury goods sales in China after Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen; and an insider told us that Gucci in Chengdu sold more on one day than any other Gucci store – anywhere.
The Biennale – entitled ‘Super Fusion – wants to mix the local and global (no decoupling here), the traditional and avant-garde and will include biennale staples Anish Kapoor and Katharina Grosse, among foreign artists and Xu Bing, Song Dong and Cao Fei among the Chinese ones. In all, the Biennale will feature the work of hundreds of artists and is orchestrated by Fan Di’an, President of Central Academy of Fine Arts and chairman of Chinese Artists Association. All the partners are public realm players – as they usually are with major stand-alone art events. Yet for all the talk of the prominence of the public sector more generally, in the art field it is still the private sector making the running – even if the Art Newspaper made much of the fact that two Shanghai private museums were closed down temporarily for reasons that remain unclear – hardly a rare occurrence.

Unicorn Island by Zaha Hadid Architects.
Render by Cosmocube
The Biennale’s heart is in Tianfu New Area, where new cultural enterprises are planned to be embedded in commercial developments. As Art Newspaper reported Beijing’s UCCA Museum will open a fourth iteration in Chengdu in 2024, with the HK developer Sunwah, enfolded in a shopping mall on International Art Island (more evidence that decoupling in the cultural field may not be rife).
In another part of Tianfu, the Chengdu government and a private developer has commissioned Zaha Hadid Architects to masterplan Unicorn Island which aims to accommodate around 70000 people, researchers, office staff, residents and visitors in businesses from intelligent manufacturing (the fourth industrial revolution which the central government certainly wants to lead on) to digital entertainment.
There are large foreign companies in Chengdu (from Samsung to Intel) but it remains an open question how far Unicorn Island can attract foreign as well as domestic start ups. It is worth remembering that according to Jörg Wuttke, the President of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, there are still less foreigners in Shanghai and Beijing combined than there are residents in Luxembourg (640,000). But maybe that will not matter. Orthodoxy, post Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class, assumes that thriving cities need diverse and multicultural populations. But Tokyo in the 1960s was hardly that and it did not dent its cultural and cultural entrepreneurial achievements.
Unicorn Island Start-up by Zaha Hadid Architects. Render by MIR

What is clear is that the ‘creative class’ (a phrase which conjures up Leninism without the politics) is drawn to districts or cities that have a strong cultural ecology. Can Unicorn Island deliver this? Architecturally, Zaha Hadid Architects is reimagining what counts as public space in many of its China buildings. The model, though, is not the European piazza, which Richard Rogers used for the space outside Paris’ Pompidou. The Zaha Hadid Tianfu buildings have public spaces inside the buildings – as well as on roof terraces.

In the end architects, however imaginative and determined, can do only so much. There needs to be the human software as well as hardware. Zaha Hadid Architects built an impressive museum/performing space in Changsha (a city south of Wuhan). But there seem to be issues. The museum, but not the adjacent performing spaces, remains closed until June 2022. The given explanation is Covid – but if so, why are the theatres still open? Museums are expensive businesses – and it may be that the municipality has not been able to afford to give the museum the necessary funds to develop a programme in keeping with the architectural ambitions. A not unusual story. As Nick Serota, the former Director of Tate once said, it is much easier to build a museum than to run it. The strength of the Chengdu museum projects is that the drivers are businesses and won’t expect subsidy (but they may expect the museums to break even). It’s a paradox that business developments in China may enjoy a better chance presently of developing a thriving cultural ecology than an avowedly self-standing cultural space.

New stadium: to house the World Summer University Games
If Chengdu is spreading culturally south, the east of the city over the last three or four years has been developed as a health and sport hub (the UK has a ‘Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’ so there is no reason sport should not occasionally feature here). There are 40+ high tech sporting venues and facilities, one of the aims of which is to host international sports events. Next year, the World Summer University Games and in 2023 Chengdu will be one of the hosts of the AFC Asian Cup, where Asian Football teams compete. A few years ago, as Scott Draper, a TV presenter in China told us, Chengdu was given the moniker ‘The Park City under the Snow Mountains’ (雪山下的公园城市) – and the recently developed sports facilities, together with the proximity of’ ski resorts in the ‘Oriental Alps’, will enable Chengdu, or so goes the hope, to maintain its distinctive age-old identity as China’s most liveable city. (Unicorn Island is also trumpeting its green potential – ‘a car-less area easily navigated by foot or bike’.) With sport such a driver for design, fashion and digital technologies, perhaps this new hub will also become a beacon for creative industries. But the sports facilities in the east of the city are also an encouragement and opportunity for local residents to develop healthy lifestyles – something key to China as its population ages. Those behind the 2012 London Olympics Games claimed that the ‘legacy’ sports facilities would galvanise local people to develop healthier lifestyles. It has been a lamentable failure in this regard. It is always easier to build hardware than to shape human habits.
The Chinese government has made no secret of its desire that contemporary culture mines China’s own cultural history – and many companies are trying to do just that. Chengdu is a home for animation and one of its companies, Chengdu Coco Cartoon, in 2019 pre Covid, released Ne Zha which took US 742.5 million US$ at the box
office (more than three times Mission Impossible – Fallout in China) and worldwide it is the second highest grossing non English language film of all time.
However commercially impressive is Ne Zha, a more indicative sign of China’s determination to take back cultural control might be the success of Pan Ge Panda – developed in an online comic during Covid by the Chengdu based company Sichuan Hongyao and its founder Wu Honglian.
Pandas are of course native to Sichuan of which Chengdu is the capital and there have been many attempts to develop the IP potential of the panda. There was much consternation and a national conversation when DreamWorks managed to ‘do’ something with the panda in the film Kung Fu Panda. Well, the modest success of Pan Ge Panda may finally be a sign that China is finally developing a panda ‘character’ with international IP value – as we write, the Pan Ge Panda is attached to a suitcase brand, milk and drink products, tea packaging, snacks and so on. Mr Wu believes that what he has done answers to the government’s injunction to recognise the commercial value of China’s cultural distinctiveness. Already the emoticon of Pan Ge Panda is visible in 230 countries, although visibility and brand and financial value are not the same thing.
STOP PRESS It is said that Shanghai’s art fair ART021 will launch in Chengdu next Spring.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

Copyright © 2022 Made in China (UK) Ltd, ‌All ‌rights ‌reserved.

Want to change how you receive ‌these ‌emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe ‌from ‌this ‌list.