The Wide and Narrow Alleys of Chengdu: Preservation or Profitization?
Kuan-Zhai Xiangzi -- The Wide and Narrow Alleys of Chengdu, China
The Wide-Narrow Alleys (Kuanzhai Xiangzi -- 宽窄巷子) are a set of lanes that have been preserved by the local government in Chengdu. About 60% of the buildings have been rebuilt, and 40% were renovated in their original architectural style. The rebuilt buildings took some liberties, adding some touches that would help them be more commercially appealing -- for example, French style windows. This gives the alleys a feeling that I would describe as chic-ancient. Nonetheless, they’re a very popular tourist destination in Chengdu. As the sun comes down, people swarm the streets to shop and eat. They’re not there for the historic value. If they are, they’ll be walking away disappointed.
While the Wide and Narrow Alleys don’t feel like ancient China, they do have an interesting history. During the Qing dynasty, the neighborhood was called the Shaocheng area. It housed the Eight Banners of the Manchu -- the administrative and military people for the last imperial dynasty of China. Han people were not allowed in the area. When the dynasty collapsed, the communists took over and moved their people in. Eventually, Shaocheng was given back to the people of Chengdu. The giant mansions were divided up into small abodes. The area actually became a poor part of Chengdu for the next 50 years. Picture this: beautiful traditional Chinese mansions -- but each room now home to an entire family, instead of chandeliers there are laundry and smoked meats hanging, noodle shops and tea houses are packed into what was once regal gardens. To me this sounds amazing. The golden era of the area.
In 2003, it was decided that the alleys would be fixed up. Originally, the plan was to preserve the historic buildings and improve living conditions, but the uniqueness of the buildings was too great not to share. A plan was put together to develop the area into a commercial tourism destination. One by one, the houses were bought by the government or traded, and the former dwellers were relocated. Out of the 900 residents, only 100 remained. Of course, purchasing the homes of 800 people is quite costly. To afford it, the government obtained money from outside sources, including some foreign businesses. The once lively homes were stripped of life and turned into what the Wide-Narrow Alleys are now: panda souvenir shops, Starbucks, and restaurants that the previous dwellers would never be able to afford to eat at.
When you know the history, the alleys are actually kind of sad. How is removing the people that lived there and getting foreign investments preservation? Sure, they’re packed with cool sights, tasty food, incredible architecture, and a cleanliness that has been missing for a half a century -- but the soul of the area left with the former residents.
Do I recommend going to the Wide-Narrow Alleys? I don’t know. I enjoyed the hour we spent there. There’s some traditional street food there that looked delicious, but the neighborhood surrounding the tourist attraction is more my style. For example, Xiaotong Alley, which has a ton of neat cafes and bars, or Kuixinglou and Jixiang streets, which offer food that even the priciest restaurant in the the alleys can’t touch.
Location: The closest main street is Changshun Upper Street, but you could also approach them from Xiatongren Road. They have their own metro stop on line #4 (called Kuanzhai Xiangzi). From Tianfu square it’s about a 20 minute walk.
The People’s Park is a short walk away, so you might want to combine these attractions in a single day.
Hours: Shops close around 9PM, but the restaurants and bars stay open late.
Entrance Fee: Free, but the cost of almost everything is higher in the alleys.