Searching for Books in the Heart of China
In Chongqing I wanted a bookstore. An English bookstore. I’d just finished the two fat pieces of literature I brought to China—Infinite Jest and Anna Karenina—and it was time to replenish supplies. Chongqing, with its 15 million human beings, figured to have at least one.
I find a lead on an obscure forum called CQ Expat. The last post is from six years ago, which, in modern China years, is a solid 13. The forum points me toward Bridge Books—a coffee shop/bookseller on the other side of the river. It’s enough for me. With a dated address and a dying phone, I take the rickety elevator from my 52nd floor hostel, and make my way into the city.
Cities are urban manifestations of their spheres of influence. Boston is the urban manifestation of New England. New Orleans—southern Louisiana. Paris—France. San Sebastián—Basque Country. New York—the world. Cities are condensed microcosms of a region’s demography, its marketplace, culture, geography, power. Cities, at their best, are the symbolic totality of another, larger place or concept. I have not been to a city in China—not Guangzhou, not Shanghai, not Beijing—that so effectively sums up China as Chongqing.
Chongqing is China’s nucleus. It sits roughly halfway between Lhasa and Shanghai. At first—and second, and third, etc—glance it is an impossible city. A few hours flight from the power centers of both the east and south coast, it lies at the confluence of two rivers, one being the empire-building Yangtze. Chongqing is constructed on, under, in, and around hulking, shadowy mountains. Being here, it feels like you are in the galaxy’s last outpost—some sort of cosmic waiting room, where the next stop is the abyss.
Chongqing, like the country it resides in, is contrast manifest. Hordes of middle-aged men carrying oversized packages on their shirtless backs scurry down tight, vertical alleyways. Ancient city-dwellers scramble Mahjong tiles at warp speed. Squat apartment complexes, paint long cracked, breath down each others’ necks. Colorful clothes hanging out of windows seem to weigh down whole buildings. Cars share the road with motorbikes. Across the river, in the CBD, world-class skyscrapers stare back at the garment-laden dinosaurs of the old town. Men in dark suits squat on stools and slurp spicy noodle soup. An aging Buddhist temple is shaded on all sides by monoliths of glass and steel. Everyone is occupied. A million sounds coalesce into one intense urban clatter. Horns. Stall-owners’ cries. Whistles. Passionate phone calls about nothing. Planes above. Subways below. I walk for hours. I see one foreigner—a black man in a suit crossing the street.
It is incredibly intense. On par with Mumbai and Hong Kong in terms of sheer chaotic density. I walk in circles and don’t notice until the fifth time. It makes midtown Manhattan seem oomphless and languid. This patch of land simply could not accommodate any more life.
I take the subway—the fire-code-violatingly-crammed subway—a half dozen stops out across the JiaLing River. My bookstore is there. It’s tamer beyond the rivers. Central government planning is more obvious, as opposed to the consummate mayhem in the central downtown core. Wide avenues curve smoothly over the hills. Traffic lines and signs are clear. Trees neatly dot sidewalks. Tall buildings still line the streets, but life is happening inside them. I notice a group of street cleaners sitting on the steps of a high-rise, smoking, and eating packed lunches. Steamy Tupperwares bulging with rice. They wear baggy bright orange jumpsuits. I approach and ask for directions. Each mumbles and waves in unison toward a place down the street. I walk for a few moments to a nondescript three-story shopping center whose ground floor tenants are Starbucks, Ferrari, and Maserati. I head into the basement. A spa, a beauty shop, a curious corridor leading to a hall called The HJ Lounge. I chuckle.
It’s silent down here. No people. No bookstore. Two timeworn women listlessly mop the tiled floor.
Hey. Isn’t there a bookstore down here?
In unison, not looking up: Moved.
Moved—moved to where?
Looking up: California.
California Road. They wave in the direction. 30 Minutes that way.
They sit down on a bench, tired from the exchange.
I check the CQ Expat forum again. There’s a phone number under the address and I call it.
So, you guys aren’t under Ferrari and Maserati anymore?
No. Are you there?
Yeah. I’m outside the HJ Lounge.
OK. We left that place years ago. The new location is on California Road. I’ll text you the address.
He texts me the address. It appears to be in another shopping mall in the next neighborhood. I commit it to memory. My phone dies. I go up to Starbucks and order a Caramel Macchiato that costs four times the price of a meal. On the cup, under the space for my name, they write foreigner in Chinese.
I walk along the boulevard, asking surprised people to point me towards California Road. I see a black man in a suit crossing the street. I cross over into what feels like Chongqing’s CBD. If it weren’t for the red flags with yellow stars, it’d be hard to place this neighborhood in the same country, let alone the same city, as the area just across the river. Brand name stores share real estate with western cafes and English schools with pictures of smiling white people. Luxury cars meander amongst each other. Pedestrians wait their turn and motorcycles are few. This, as much as that, is China.
I find my target—the type of sprawling seven-story shopping mall to be found in multitudes across China’s cities. Replete with gleamy escalators and stores that have sensual pictures of foreign men and women wearing clothes unrelated to the business they advertise with deceptively Western sounding names like Ferani or USA Fashion that surely exist nowhere outside of this particular mall. The mall is relatively quiet. An ice cream truck-y tune wafts over the sound system. There is neither hustle nor bustle. This is the undeniable future. As a disillusioned American, I want to get on the PA and exhort everyone to get the fuck back across the river before it’s too late.
The bookstore is on the sixth floor.
I take the elevator.
In a quiet, open storefront an attractive man and an attractive woman fuddle with an espresso machine. A young woman in a low-pulled black baseball cap, straight and shiny black hair, a pristine white sweatshirt, and superfluous black sunglasses sips a fancy coffee and stares at a MacBook. Bookshelves—shelving English language books—ring the coffee shop, serving as walls. More decoration than merchandise. On the sixth floor of a shiny new mall, a few hundred meters off Chongqing’s CBD, I find my English bookstore oasis.
It’s an oasis full of caffeine-free Four Loko and Pepsi Blue and straight piss—a literary selection that resembles the fifth day of a four-day book sale.
SAT Math Flash Review
The Year 2000 Guide to U.S. Coins (Prices and Values)
Sometimes God has a Kid’s Face
The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book that Everyone Uses but No One Reads (Uncorrected Manuscript for Limited Distribution)
Born to Referee: My Life on the Gridiron
California Country Inns and Itineraries ‘99
Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul
And a thousand formulaic paperback mysteries with names like Devil’s Night and The Butcher’s Theater.
I sigh and scan the stacks, chuckling. I find a thin, coverless copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
Where do you guys get these books?
I don’t know. Our boss brings them back when he goes abroad.
It’s a bizarre selection.
Really? Most people come for coffee. The books are more for decoration.
Yeah. That’s good.
I pay 29¥ for Man’s Search for Meaning and—feeling mildly disappointed, wholly unsurprised, and slightly whimsical—find a subway to take me back across the river
Later, I sit outside on the balcony, reading the last readable book from Bridge Books, drinking a Chongqing Beer, and taking periodic chopstick stabs at spicy, peppery Sichuan noodles. A misty, pollution-tinged fog hangs over Chongqing. The sun is behind the mountains and skyscrapers. Below, headlights careen down brilliant new highways. Bright lights from big towers penetrate the dusk. The brown Yangtze, full of all manner of ships, arcs toward Shanghai, 900 miles away. People run up and down, back and forth, like determined, slightly bewildered ants, trying to keep pace with their river, and their city, and themselves, and their country.