24. Mar 2009

ISSN: 1864-1407

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The Wuhou District (武侯区), a Tibetan enclave in Chengdu

The unrest in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 2008, and the on-going disturbances across the plateau have occasionally highlighted the Tibetan presence in Chengdu, the prosperous capital city of Sichuan province. A fairly recent creation and little known outside the region, the Wuhou quarter of Chengdu is increasingly becoming a major point of exchange, both between Tibetan communities, and Tibet and the outside world.

Chengdu, although culturally Chinese, is adjacent to the Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures (TAPs) of Kardze (Chin: Ganzi) and Ngaba (Chin: Aba), which form the easternmost parts of the Tibetan areas known traditionally to Tibetans as Kham and Amdo. Although historically the Chinese state has strived to exert influence over eastern Tibetan principalities from Chengdu, it was only in the 1950s that this part of Tibet was absorbed into Sichuan. The previous Xikang province (西康省), artificially created by the Guomingtang government to separate Central Tibet and Kham, was abolished and its territory allocated between the newly-formed TAR and Sichuan province, thus creating the much larger land mass it now claims.

Google map of the Tibetan Quarter in Chengdu - Wu Hou District.
The Tibetan quarter in Chendgu is located south of the Fu Nan river (府南河), and inside the city's first ring road, next to the Wuhou temple (武侯祠)(1), in an area that until recently was farmland. Like other Chinese cities, Chengdu has experienced enormous growth and rapid construction in recent years, and its expansion has benefited from its location on a wide and flat expanse of land in the Sichuan basin, just east of the Tibetan plateau. The Tibetan quarter in Chengdu is hence a relatively new development. Most of the Tibetan businesses and residents have arrived in recent years. One local resident said: "15 years ago the Tibetan area here didn't exist; it was only when the Kangding Hotel (康定酒店) opened that Tibetan people started to come, it was all mud and dirt tracks outside".

Until the 1980s and 1990s, Tibetan entrepreneurs had a very limited presence in Chinese cities. However, China's economic growth and increasing trade opportunities with the mainland has resulted in a significant increase in the number of Tibetans coming to and staying for varying periods in Chengdu. The quarter has hotels and hostels for Tibetans, many Tibetan restaurants with traditional as well as more diverse menus, and shops selling monastic equipment, clothing, Tibetan jewellery and fashion, some of which have been transported from as far as Lhasa, Nepal and India.

The main intersection facing towards Kangding hotel & Gesar restaurant -...
The proximity of the South West University for Nationalities (SWUN; 西南民族大学) was another factor in the establishment of the Tibetan quarter in the area. Founded in 1951, SWUN is one of the few Chinese universities with Tibetan language departments(2), and it has a Tibetan student body of around 150-200 students and several Tibetan faculty members. Frequently, businesses in the area are connected with the university and the Southwest Minorities Publishing House; for instance, printing shops run by Tibetans are often commissioned to publish new books by lecturers as well as other independent organisations.

While education or business opportunities laid the ground for the Tibetan quarter, nowadays there are other factors influencing Tibetans' decisions to temporarily reside or settle in Chengdu. One important consideration is the dire standards of health care in the clinics and hospitals in Tibetan areas, whose poorly qualified medical staff have only minimal knowledge and ability to use the substandard equipment available to them. As hospitals in Chengdu are the best in Sichuan province, Tibetans who can afford to prefer to travel there with relatives and friends for medical treatment. They usually stay in hostels and dormitories run by Tibetans and eat almost exclusively in the restaurants of the Tibetan quarter.

Butter tea churning machines - Tibetan quarter - Chengdu
Many Tibetans also make annual trips to Chengdu before Losar, the Tibetan New Year. They arrive in the city wearing their colourful traditional clothes and purchase goods at cheaper city prices for the festival. This influx can also be seen in the increased number of people buying and renting property in the more prosperous towns and cities throughout Tibetan areas; in this way they take advantage of modern facilities and the convenience at which they are offered. Some Tibetans, who spend longer periods of time in the quarter, rent or buy apartments and set up dormitories, which allow other Tibetan travellers to stay at cheaper rates and avoid having to register, as they have to in the more formal hotels and hostels. Some of them also send their children to local Chinese schools, expecting higher standards of education and better long-term opportunities.

Young Tibetans occasionally find jobs in Chengdu in the tourism industry as tour guides for foreign travellers. Although these businesses are usually Chinese run, a few Tibetans have managed to acquire the necessary licenses to set up their own agencies. Some of these Tibetans have returned from studying in India, while others have learned English through language programmes run specifically for Tibetans by foreigners inside China and Tibet. Some young, educated Tibetans are fortunate enough to get jobs with the few foreign sponsored NGOs working in Tibetan areas. Although not as secure as a government position, these kinds of jobs are in high demand.

Tibetan and Indian articles in a Tibetan shop - Tibetan quarter - Chengdu
There are also Tibetan criminal gangs in Wuhou district. They are allegedly involved in car theft and drug dealing, and other Tibetans consider them dangerous. Occasionally, a car is broken into on the street, but scenes of violence remain rare in the area. It is however conspicuous that rumours about the gangs usually reflect traditional regional prejudices, i.e. they originate among Tibetans from areas of Ngapa (most of which was traditionally part of Amdo) and are directed towards Tibetans from specific areas of Kardze (traditionally Kham), and vice-versa.

Although Tibetans working and living in Chengdu more often than not speak, read and write Chinese proficiently, their social interaction with Chinese people is still broadly limited to business. It is common to hear Tibetans declare, with some pride, that they don't have any Chinese friends, and they find it surprising when Chinese show enough interest in their culture to enter the Tibetan quarter and try Tibetan food at one of the restaurants there. Tibetan people generally consider themselves separate from Chinese (Han) and other ethnic groups in the city, and there is little inter-ethnic contact. Young men may take advantage of the inquisitive female attention of Chinese women, but they seldom settle down with them or marry them.

Tibetan and pseudo-Tibetan dress in a Tibetan shop - Tbetan quarter - Ch...
It is among the second generation Tibetans, brought up and educated in Chengdu schools, that signs of acculturation can most clearly be seen. They frequently follow current Chinese fashions and neglect their traditional culture and language in favour of that of their classmates and peer groups. They may understand Tibetan, but choose to respond to their parent's questions only in Mandarin. Usually, Tibetan families will return to their hometowns over the summer holidays, to join in the summer festivities of horse racing and grassland picnics. However, children who have been educated in the city complain that they don't fit in, and that it is boring in the countryside, preferring instead to stay in the city and hang out in internet cafes.

There are also many Tibetans living in Chengdu who deliberately choose not to live in the Tibetan quarter, usually to avoid the high cost of living near a university and, more recently, steer clear of the political tensions associated with the area. But most Tibetans coming to Chengdu use Wuhou district as their first port of call in the city, and will frequently return to the area to enjoy traditional food and to carry out business.

Meeting point and interface

Indian dresses in a Tibetan shop - Tibetan quarter - Chengdu
While Tibetans universally regard Lhasa as their capital, the Tibetan quarter of Chengdu, despite its relatively small size and short history, is increasingly becoming Tibet's gateway to the world. To a certain extent, it has replaced the historical role which Nepal's Kathmandu or India's Sikkim-Darjeeling-Kalimpong region once played, until the arrival of the PRC state disrupted free movement to South Asia in the 1950s, in easing modernity into Tibet,. The Chinese towns of Xining in Qinghai, and to a lesser extent Lanzhou in Gansu, play a similar role, albeit one that is more limited to the north eastern part of the plateau. As a fully-fledged metropolitan centre and a truly modern city, Chengdu offers more amenities and opportunities than Lhasa or Xining. Furthermore, attracted by the town's mild climate, many wealthy Tibetans own a secondary residence here, allowing them to escape the harsh Tibetan winters. The Tibetan district in Chengdu has thus become the most significant meeting point (Tib: dzomsa) for Tibetans from all walks of life and from all regions of the plateau outside of Lhasa. It allows for an intense inter-Tibetan forum of experiences and ideas, a role that Lhasa's far more repressive atmosphere can hardly match. Last but not least, Chengdu also plays a crucial role for the flourishing Tibetan pop culture as the city has state of the art recording studios where many of the popular albums by Tibetan singers are produced.

Tibetan shops in the Tibetan quarter of Chengdu.
Chengdu remains the main cultural interface between Tibet and China, with many Chinese who have an interest in Tibet, its culture and religion present. There is a significant colony of Chinese (and occasionally also Japanese and Korean) artists and intellectuals interested in Tibet that has been established since the 1980s(3). In recent years, Tibetan lamas and Buddhist monks have been increasingly passing through Chengdu on their way to cities in eastern China where they teach Buddhism and raise funds for the reconstruction of monasteries destroyed or damaged during the worst years of the Chinese presence in Tibet. Most shops in the Tibetan quarter therefore sell monastic paraphernalia, like monks' clothing, statuary, thangkas and various artefacts needed for rituals and ceremonies. It has become quite usual to see Tibetan monks walking about the streets or sitting in restaurants in the company of their newly-converted Chinese followers. Some of these have even provided accommodation in Chengdu, discreetly converting these into small Tibetan Buddhist temples, where they carry out weekly Buddhist practices.

Political tensions

During the unrest in Tibetan regions between March and May 2008, this usually calm part of Chengdu city warranted a presence of nearly 150 heavily armed troops and riot police. Police patrol cars, with roof-mounted surveillance cameras that monitored pedestrians, continually drove up and down the main intersection, and parked at 20-metre intervals with their lights flashing day and night.

A Tibetan woman walks past Chinese paramilitary police officers on duty ...
Tibetan students at SWUN were singled out from amongst the rest of the student body and informed that they were not allowed to leave the campus without permission for weeks, due to a short candle-lit vigil held on the new campus several miles outside the city centre, in the Shuang Liu (双流) area close to the airport.

Tibetan children attending Chengdu's mainstream schools reported back to their families accounts of bullying, and bore scratches and bruises to prove it. There were several reports of newly-introduced intensive education programmes in primary and secondary schools, where children were shown footage of Tibetans indiscriminately "beating, smashing, looting and burning" (打砸抢杀), as state media characteristically described it, which resulted in some Tibetan youngsters coming home in tears terrified of Tibetan people and the Tibetan quarter, even though they were themselves Tibetan.

Over this period, the majority of taxi drivers would not enter the Tibetan quarter, claiming it was too dangerous and they refused to pick up Tibetan customers. People dressed in distinctive Tibetan clothes in any part of the city would find it nearly impossible to hail a cab. Suspicion of Tibetans also resulted in them no longer being able to check into hostels and guesthouses run by Chinese (Han).

Since that time, Tibetans in the quarter have been less reticent about airing their discontent, for instance while meeting in small groups of friends in tea houses and restaurants and talking about their experiences. However, the fear of omnipresent surveillance and intimidation tactics by the authorities set clear limitations on the range of such discussions.

Plant beds for crowd control - Tibetan quarter - Chengdu (Sept. 2008)
Speaking about the plant beds installed in September 2008 at the intersection of the quarter's two main streets, a local witness commented: "Previously, this intersection had acted as a important location for businesses touting for Tibetan businessmen and drivers. Each of these corners would have had numerous privately owned vehicles for hire or that were used to transport people and purchases to Aba and Ganzi prefectures. During the protests and disturbances last year, the military police deployed in the area enforced a no parking policy, and people were no longer allowed to tout for business there. But after things settled a little, the drivers and their vehicles came back. Then suddenly overnight, these plant beds appeared - an aesthetically pleasing form of crowd control!"

In early 2009, as the 50th anniversary of the failed 10 March Lhasa uprising of 1959 approached, protest in the neighbouring Kardze and Ngaba Prefectures, as well as in other Tibetan areas, was pre-empted by a spectacular deployment of security forces and the closing down of those regions to foreigners. Chengdu's Tibetan quarter was no exception. Obviously, the local government regarded this ‘Little Tibet' as a risk factor. An AP report of 28 February 2009 by Henry Sanderson noted: "In the sprawling south western Chinese city of Chengdu, police maintained a visible presence in the heavily Tibetan neighbourhood of Wuhouci Saturday. Special police forces stood at some corners, with at least one holding an automatic weapon across his vest and about two dozen paramilitary police sat inside two olive drab trucks parked on the side of the road".

1: The 1,500 year-old temple enshrines Zhuge Liang, Chancellor of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period of China's history.
2: Next to Chengdu's SWUN, two other National Minorities Institutes with Tibetan studies departments on the fringes of the Tibetan Plateau were recently renamed universities, in Lanzhou and Xining respectively. The Central University of Nationalities in Beijing, now named the Minzu University of China, also has university status. The Tibet University in Lhasa also has a Tibetan studies department.
3: A similar development is known from Yunnan's capital, Kunming, although the Tibet focus is far weaker there.

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Bubble Thank you so much for this very interesting and informative article. I visited this area in visits to Chengdu in 2006 and 2007. I have been receiving articles from tibetinfonet for some years, and wish to thank you for them.

Posted by Leona Kieran on 24 March 2009 at 22:57

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