Thomas Hahn is a self-described "scholarly type" who first began studying Chinese in 1975 with a small group of friends from high school in Frankfurt. After completing doctoral studies in Sinology in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, Germany, Hahn worked in a number of countries, including China, and since 1998 has resided in the United States. He currently works at Cornell University in New York.
Hahn's first trip to China was a 10-week tour of the country in 1981. In 1984, he moved to Shanghai on a three-year grant to continue his studies at Fudan University and then relocated to Chengdu in the summer of 1985. Apart from Sinology, Hahn's interests include history of human settlements, curatorship, collection management, documenting, and photography—the fruits of which you can see on these pages. Below, he describes life as a foreigner in 1980s China.
Can you paint a portrait of Chengdu in the mid-1980s for those readers?
That's a tall order. December 30, 1981, was my first visit to Chengdu. My notes from back then simply state that my wife and I needed a bit of a rest from having climbed Mt. E'mei just a couple of days prior, and that we encountered the worst food and the worst service since we had been on the road. Things had changed somewhat (at least on the food front) by 1985 when we both settled into the dormitories at Sichuan University with our young daughter. The city was busy, but it felt old and mostly grey. Tea culture was prominent and seamlessly integrated into peoples' lives. These lives were very visible and public: You would have people stroll along outdoors in their sleep wear while eating. The washing of clothes was public, so was the drying, the cooking, and many other activities usually associated with a so-called private sphere. The children were well-provided for during the day, but would populate the streets after school, and I mean the streets, not the sidewalks.
Sichuan was Deng Xiaoping's old domain—he opened up the dialogue to negotiate the policies for state-sponsored economic reforms down in the Shenzhen special economic zone, but for small-scale private businesses, Chengdu was one of the earliest new-era, private entrepreneurship type springboard cities in China. One could figure out the best restaurants by checking if there were any motorcycles parked up front (today's equivalent of a black Audi A6). A meal for four with beer would be around RMB8, usually less. I ruined my intestines with hot and spicy food while patching things up with imported Swiss medicine (the medicine lost out big time).
Your photos show incredible old buildings that are long gone. What were those buildings like inside?
As I said above, in many areas, the city felt old and neglected. Other parts consisted of socialist-style housing compounds one could find in Warsaw or East Berlin as well. The average amount of living space per person throughout the '50s and well into the '70s was around 2.3 square meters nationally. Chengdu was no exception; a family of three would occupy a room of perhaps 3 by 4 meters; no toilet in the house, one sink for multiple families out in the courtyard; the collector of night soil was still a common and daily sight. Many residential structures were one-story only, constructed of wood and brick, or wooden frame and mud. Much of this type of the old housing stock was seriously sub-standard. There was quite a bit of mid-to-late Qing vernacular, "playful" residential architecture left, though, with regional-style decorum and traditional ornamentation.
It was a city without cell towers or powerful transformer stations, too, so a lot of households rigged their wiring and participated in the local power grid on a rogue or "guest" basis. I don't recall seeing many air-conditioning units (or heating elements, for that matter) in private use anywhere. Noise levels were very low in the old neighborhoods. There was no home ownership—it would take another 10 years for provisions to own a house or a flat to be put in place. Certain house pets had just been allowed again. Monthly salaries were around 80 to 100RMB (if that!); about 20 percent or less would go for housing/rent. Much would be spent on food. Food stamps were still in regular circulation. We used them for cooking oil, rice, etc.
What were you able to buy in those days? Did you miss anything while you were living here?
Chengdu throughout its history always has had a lot to offer—a huge range of local or regional agricultural and aquaculture products; arts and crafts; excellent food, and some—for the 1980s—rather daring sartorial adventures. It wasn't too long before that one would either wear green or blue garb to work, but by the mid-1980s Chengdu provided choices in color, material, and distinct levels of quality, more so than Shanghai, in fact, which, as a city of capitalist repute was on a tighter leash. The whole social-equity issue held so dearly during the Cultural Revolution was off the table, and the seeds for the huge diversity and plurality of products and merchandise available to the consumer society nowadays sprung up every evening at the party-sponsored and -sanctioned Chengdu night markets. I don't recall missing much at all. We went native very quickly. Ironically, transferring to Beijing University in the spring of 1987 got us stranded in a hyper-regulated city which, compared to Chengdu, appeared almost life- and bloodless, certainly after 7 p.m.!
Your photos make it looks like Chengdu's population was much less dense than it is today, and you write that "By and large, Chengdu was a car-less, walkable city back then." What was the urban setting like?
It could well be that Mao on the central square was the tallest structure in the city. Seriously, though, it may have been the Jinjiang Hotel on Renmin Nan Lu, or the tower of the Soviet-style exhibition hall. Chengdu certainly had no "skyline." There were patches of land under cultivation almost everywhere. The extensive animal husbandry and the amount of intra-urban farmland under cultivation made us consider Beijing, for example, a huge rural village. Chengdu was similar, with danweis growing their own vegetable crops and raising their own poultry right in the city. On the other hand, there were small and large factories and production units everywhere, right within the city "limits." The idea of zoning only started to be adopted back then, meaning that a lot of urban areas were multi-functional and holistic, compressing the vital aspects of production, consumption, education and transportation into well-administered chunks of space which few felt compelled to leave because these chunks of space offered everything one ever needed.
The notion of the competitive city was discussed but not yet implemented. One would walk or bike to work, and walk or bike back at the end of the day. The bicycle was still the vehicle of choice everywhere. I don't know the exact number of cars in Chengdu at the time, but very few were in private ownership. I'd say there were more buses and trucks in the streets than cars. Longer commutes were rare, and daily trips quite low, statistically, maybe 1.3 per day. Traffic flow patterns and red lights were at odds with each other. A map from 1981 I have shows one complete 360-degree ring road and two partially finished ones.
You write "With the Cultural Revolution barely a decade past, some of the people encountered in the streets or teahouses still had a traumatized air about them. Unlike Shanghai, it was evident that individuals and institutions were still in a state of suspicion when it came to dealing with strangers, including foreigners." Can you elaborate on that?
The sense of trauma was everywhere, especially in contested cities and throughout the country's interior. Chengdu combined both of these elements, one political, the other spatial-psychological. I heard many stories from within the religious, artistic, and academic communities of extreme terror and sacrifice. Often I was the first foreigner to be privy to whatever atrocities a survivor felt compelled to lay bare. Many stories were heartbreaking, rendering the encounters with the protagonists even more unreal. The opposite was also true: seeing that I was a foreigner, people would not talk to me at all. Or they would drag me 10 blocks away to the local Public Security Bureau to have me officially approved as someone they were allowed to talk to. When I visited temples in the countryside, much of the destruction from the previous decade littered my way, untended, un-mended; Red Guard slogans hadn't been washed off yet from many temple walls. At Sichuan University, as a matter of policy, I was not allowed to borrow certain books from the library.
How many other foreigners were in Chengdu?
There was only a small community of foreigners in Chengdu at the time. Most of its members were affiliated with one university or another. I met very few members of the business community, and tour groups from Europe of the U.S. would be far and few between. However, once in a while, proselytizing Mormons, young kids from Utah, would come through, or scholars from Europe with a particular research agenda. All told, I would be surprised if the number of resident foreigners staying six months or more in Chengdu in the mid-'80s surpassed 200.
Were you able to travel much around the rest of the province or country in those days? What was involved?
With interests such as mine, I was on the road quite a bit. Traveling was complicated, but held many rewards. Each trip required a so-called Alien's Travel Permit; without such a document, many counties, cities or townships would not host a foreign traveler. There is quite a collection of such permits in my files still today. One such permit enabled a bus trip to Ya'an and further west to Kangding and Tagong. Shanghai was two solid days and nights on the train. A trip we made quite often was to Xi'an, if only for getting out from under the permanent Chengdu cloud cover, and for the excellent Shaanxi dumplings. Places like Zitong county, or Xinjin, or Danba had just "opened" to travelers, with only the most basic infrastructure in place. Even Guanxian was a two-and-a-half-hour trip away; same-day return was tricky. But people took care of your needs when you were on the road; or, put differently, for all the right and wrong reasons, they'd rather not want to lose this foreigner out of their sights.
What did you do for entertainment on the weekends?
I was on the university varsity soccer (football) team, and we had our games throughout the city on the weekends. In the way of private (or public) entertainment there was the regular fare, with theatres, cinemas, the odd live performance by an acrobat troupe on the street corner, and other such venues. Someone in our dorm had a high-powered shortwave radio, which meant we managed to tune into the BBC's programs on occasion. In hindsight, this was a very productive period for many of us who had come to Sichuan University to study or to teach there. I managed to get some articles published, and a couple of my friends and colleagues used their stay in Chengdu to lay the foundation for successful careers in academe, too. Those were pioneering times in many ways for a foreign scholar in China. Time wasn't to be wasted. By 1989, this window of opportunity had closed again.