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Cultural Chongqing: Spicy Broth, Smokestacks and Indie Artists

Chongqing is a city of extremes. It’s one of the biggest cities in the world -- 30 million people live there -- yet few outside of China have ever heard of it. Chongqing is built across three steep mountaintops, with the Jialing and Yangtze rivers running in between the peaks. This stark topography means directions are given in terms of uphill and downhill, instead of left or right,  and while you can cross the city in cable cars, porters called bangbang carry heavy loads on their shoulders and heads throughout the city. The food is also some of the world’s spiciest: Chongqing’s chilli-oil drenched ‘little noodles’ are a typical breakfast, while dinner is often scorching hot pot in numbingly spicy mala broth. Summers are extremely hot and humid — up to 40 degrees — and winters are pretty cold and humid, especially since most buildings aren’t well insulated. The city is grey and green at the same time. Nicknamed Fog City, Chongqing is one of China’s most polluted cities, but the urban landscape is teeming with with plants growing out of every nook, cranny, and crack in brutalist concrete and bricks.

Throughout history, the city changed names over a half a dozen times (and was formerly referred to as Chungking). In 1937 Chongqing became the capital of the Kuomingtang-led Republic of China, who were at war with the Communist Party.  Many artists came to Chongqing to find peace and refuge from the ongoing civil war, establishing the Sichuan Fine Art Institute in 1940 and creating the foundations for the city’s cultural scene. The Communists ultimately won, establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (and rule to this day)  and the Chongqing’s economy continued to grow from heavy industry. Recently, some of these factories have become artist studios and cultural spaces, like Testbed 2. Nowadays, the smokestacks from defunct power stations alongside the riverbank still tower over the skyline. The form campus of the Sichuan Fine Art Institute (called Chuanmei for short) launched the careers of many famous artists like Zhang Xiaogang, and the area remains a hotspot the local artists. Studios and performance spaces like the Yinzi Experimental theatre fill the 501 Warehouse and countless art training schools and art supplies stores line the streets.  , started by artists and professors Yang Shu & Ni Kun in 2005, continue to host discussions and forums, supporting experimental practices for emerging artists. The Himalaya Bookstore is a great place to continue discussions (though it doesn’t actually sell books, it’s more of a art library and teahouse), and since 2014, Dimensions Art Centre provides studio space for visiting and local artists.

Chongqing skyline from the top of the 501 building, where Organhaus is located. Photo by China Residencies.

While the 1940s campus with its defunct military tank became a space for experimentation, Chuanmei continues to be one of China’s leading art academies, moving to a brand new campus in Shabingba on the edge of town to house the growing number of students. The school’s impressive museum and library are surrounded by beautifully landscaped fields of flowers. Across Chongqing, contemporary art spaces like the Galaxy Museum and an offshoot of Shanghai’s private Long Museums show cutting edge and more established contemporary artists. Recently built major national art centers like the crisscrossed red structure of the Chongqing Contemporary Art Museum sits right across from the Chongqing Grand Theatre, creating world-class stages for touring artists, while the Changjiang Contemporary Art Museum hosts a photography & video biennial. Nearby construction the Three Gorges Dam, which involved relocating over one millions residents through the project’s completion 2015, and led to the created of the Three Gorges Museum to house the artifacts displaced by the water.