Growing up in Europe I saw roads—streets—as a given, a part of the necessary infrastructure, connectors existing solely to deliver our bodies from point A to point B.
Streets are a gray that separate people from their destinations, a boring and dangerous color we use if necessary but spend as little time on as possible. We learn to hate them, we get stuck in them. Impatient and so focused on getting to my destination, I view other people as only in the way.
Streets are reserved for vehicles, constructed around cars, not people, with even the small strips of sidewalk laying on either side mainly for the purpose of getting in our out of, or to, the vehicle. Like mad computer scientists city planners step deep into the tangle of cables to ensure that everything a city needs can be transported from point A to point B and back again: information, services and labor, goods and consumers.
The streets are clean, sometimes even clinical. They are regulated to a microscopic level of detail. There are rules, laws and fines, assigned and self-appointed agents of the system, to ensure the order is obeyed.
Leaving the Western world and traveling around the globe, I rediscovered streets; I relearned to vagabond around towns and cities like a child might have before the advent of cars, without destination or the pressure of time.
Here, get off the main road, and you are back in the "'hood" where the community takes care of its own. Middle-aged women wash their hair and men with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths play cards, while the fruit vendors gather around to watch. Grill masters fan smoky coals, repairmen with black hands tinker with bicycle parts, ladies hunch over manual sewing machines, and around the corner is a stack of bootlegged DVDs—a wide spectrum of small commerce. Life isn't easy for the citizen struggling to make a living, but in the 'hood they make their dime directly on street.
Some climb up the very bottom rungs of the corporate ladder and open their own little shop. The shop is open late and when it closes it's converted to the sleeping room. Every time you enter the shop, you also enter their living space. How would you feel about a hundred people passing through your flat every day? But this special situation also creates a certain atmosphere of familiarity. The shopkeeper isn't a robotic cashier in the supermarket. The shopkeeper is someone you deal with daily, and you feel the heat when he's had an argument with his wife, when he's sad, lazy, happy, eating, shouting, watching TV, laughing, sick, has a new haircut or shirt. His true privacy is pushed into the short time window between closing and opening the shop.
The shops fill the otherwise gray street with everyday life, the dirt on the street, the discarded vegetable bits from produce stand, the oil from the restaurant, the blood dripping from the butcher's stand, the bones, the plastic and paper all recording the history of the day right onto the street.
The way of life in the West is enclosure. Homes are holy, curtains stay closed, and we interact with people mainly on the Internet. We pass through the streets, keeping distance, heads down, polite, respectful, forgetful of life. Wait on the sidewalk here—people will brush you as they pass by. Don't think they are rude—it's just xiguan, habit; the boundaries of personal space much smaller.
But Chengdu's xiaoqus are changing, fading away as new apartment complexes praised as "luxury" conquer every last square meter. These vertical isolation cells come in compounds, separated from the rest of the city with fences and wires and a guard greeting guests and residents with a military-style salute. The surroundings are empty—no dirt on the lanes, no shaokao in sight, only exhaust fumes to guide the population on their long-distance journeys to the supermarket, their monetary exchange with a face-changing cashier their last contact with the outside world for the day.