Chaotianmen and Raffles Square

Chaotianmen is the famous passenger and commercial port where the Yangtze and Jialing rivers converge, right at the tip of the Yuzhong peninsula.

The three character name in Chinese (朝天门) means ‘Facing – heaven – gate,’ and originates an imperial edict from the Song Dynasty capital of Lin’an, modern day Hangzhou, with instructions to sail upriver and establish a port of the same title.

In a brief history, the year 1891 saw the creation of the first commercial wharf and customs point, which lasted until 1927, when the former city gates made way for the construction of Chaotianmen port.

A devastating fire in the year 1949 left the whole area in smoking ruins, including schools, banks, warehouses and many residential properties.

For many a decade, armies of ‘Bangbang棒棒’ hauled goods up and down the port steps. These are historically by far the most famous workers of Chongqing, manual laborers who carry bamboo poles over their shoulders, and can lift a huge quantity of wares in return for a modest payment.

Over the years, demand for this manual labour reduced drastically once cargo ships began mooring at Cuntan寸滩 container port, only a few kilometres downstream. Public demand also deminished along with the increased mechanisation of modern life.

However, there are still a few remaining Bangbang around the peninsula, and I even managed to capture one furtively on camera this afternoon as he lifted two crates of drinking water up a flight of steps.

The famous Chongqing hotpot dish is said to have originated from the steps of Chaotianmen. Spicy red chillies and corn peppers are hot in produce of Sichuan, so intuitive labourers boiled the leftovers into a spicy soup to cook their meals. This dish finally reached the point where locals all over the city embraced this delicacy and named it hotpot.

Nowadays, the docks are mostly for passenger services, such as the many Yangtze cruise liners, as well as boats that sail tourists on a round trip up the Yangtze and Jialing rivers every night.

The most significant development in relation to my post today came in 2012, when the towers that once comprised passenger terminals and the Three Gorges Hotel were demolished. In their place was to rise the 24 billion yuan Raffles Square, a giant seven tower complex shaped like the masts of a sailing boat, with a horizontal structure similar to the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, stretching mid-air across the tops of three towers, and at a even greater height.

On September 6th, just a few days ago, the gigantic Raffles Mall section of the complex officially opened its doors for the first time. The office towers themselves and the Sky Garden are to open in the near future.

 

The Grand Opening

 

On the fourth day after Raffles Mall opened its doors, the opportunity I was awaiting finally came.

Under a surprisingly hot autumn sun, we emerged from exit 8 of Xiaoshizi(小什字) Subway Station. The roading leading to Chaotianmen always pulls a large crowd thanks to the expansive wholesale markets, where people from all over come to stock their shelves with bargain priced clothing and endless other goods. This street is definitely the Chongqing equivalent of Dongdaemun in Seoul, Korea.

Now. I have always resolved against covering mundane topics such as shopping malls, as there is not much to distinguish them from counterparts elsewhere in the world. However, I am making this one exception due to the history of Chaotianmen Docks, and the great change the Raffles complex has brought to the city skyline.

A short word on the mall itself. I counted six floors that branch off in four directions from a round, open vertical space at the centre. All the upmarket and well known high street brands are in there, and the impeccable decor, spaciousness, and navigable layout made for a pleasant stroll.

Since I do have a typical male aversion to shopping, my explorations were limited to the third floor where we entered the mall, and the first where I walked out the other side straight onto Chaotianmen Square.

Other than the searing heat, it was a perfect day to set foot on the square for the first time in well over a decade.

Old memories of sitting right by the splashing Yangtze waters at night, plus the desire to bring my readers a glimpse into the surroundings, lured me into retracing my steps and back to the same spot.

I passed a bangbang under the port gate, then encountered a fisherman casting his small net on the closest riverside step. In front of me, the fast flowing turbid waters of the Yangtze gurgled by, and vied with those of the clearer Jialing River. The borderlines stretch right into mid-river at the confluence point, and locals fondly compare this sight to the yin-yang hotpot, the mixture of red spicy soup on the outside, with plain water in the middle.

More than the mall itself, I was interested in seeing the ancient city walls that builders unexpectedly discovered back in 2012. Instead of demolishing them, the developer altered the design so that the walls could be preserved on public display.

To my slight disappointment, the walls (Gu Cheng Qiang Yizhi古城墙遗址), along with the tower blocks and Sky Garden, are not open to the public. However, when the day comes, be sure that I will gain the full experience and tell you all about it.

Finally, after a Teachers’ Day treat to chocolate cake over English tea, we walked back the way we came, then headed to Shapingba on Line 1, our destination being the realm of daily life.

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