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People's Party Animals

To get rich may be glorious to a lot of Chinese, but residents of Chengdu are happier to knock off early for drinks and mah-jongg.

February 08, 2006|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

CHENGDU, China — It's past midnight on a cold, wet Tuesday and the MGM club is hopping. Scantily dressed women stand behind a large circular bar, playing dice with customers to see who will take the next drink. Disco balls twirl from the mushroom-shaped ceiling. Cigarette girls peddle roses and Havana cigars.

David Xu, a 24-year-old businessman with a wisp of hair under his lip, is on his fifth glass of wine and crooning along with a band performing on stage. "This is my home," he says.

Not far away, Babi's club is warming up. Patrons here like to dance and drink into the morning. They consume so much alcohol that Chivas Regal claims that Babi's sells more of the whiskey per square foot than any other establishment in China.

"They make $60 and spend $50 here," says Wang Bing, the club's wiry 36-year-old owner, of his clientele.

Shanghai has built its reputation on commerce and Beijing is the Communist Party's seat of power. But Chengdu has carved out another title: China's party capital.

With about 3,000 pubs and karaoke bars and roughly 4,000 teahouses that are often packed with people playing or betting on mah-jongg and cards, this southwestern city in Sichuan province knows how to live it up. Chengdu, the provincial capital, has more bars than Shanghai, though its population of 10.5 million is half that of the eastern metropolis.

Unlike people in other cities, where the frantic pace of China's booming growth is evident, "in Chengdu, their attitude is to get to the teahouses as soon as possible," says Bill Gormley, an American who moved to this city in 1995 as the operations manager for engine company Pratt & Whitney. The 62-year-old retired two years ago but never left.

"Life is good here," Gormley says, swirling a glass of Johnnie Walker at Shamrock Pub, a popular expatriate hangout near Chengdu's consulate row.

Beijing is trying to spur economic development in the western region. Its "Go West" campaign is in its sixth year, and companies such as Intel Corp. and Motorola Inc. have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Chengdu, lured by cheap labor, free land and tax breaks.

But Chengdu moves to its own beat.

For foreign companies accustomed to operating 24/7, Chengdu's laid-back culture presents challenges. Many people here are used to working 9 to 5, often with long lunches. Many avoid working overtime or on weekends, extra pay or not.

Bryan Stadelmann, who came to Chengdu a year ago as Crown Logistics' account manager, remembers the shock on a young employee's face when Stadelmann said she might have to work a Saturday morning to finish a project.

"What? Oh my God!" Stadelmann, a 27-year-old from Rhode Island, recalled the employee exclaiming.

Stadelmann's response: "Welcome to the real world."

But for most residents here, that is not their world. On sunny days, people will skip work to sunbathe or play mah-jongg or cards outside or in teahouses. On weekends, Chengdu families flock to villages and mountain resorts an hour or two away, scouring places to kick back and satisfy their desire for exotic tastes.

These days Miao Duo and her husband have been driving to a nearby town known for rabbit brains, prepared in typical fiery Sichuan style. "Wherever there's good new food, we'll visit there," she says.

Miao, 26, works for a private tax-services firm downtown. The Sichuan College graduate starts at 9 and uses her two-hour lunch break at 11:30 to surf the Internet, play mah-jongg online or shop. Miao usually clocks out at 4 or 4:30 p.m. She never takes work home. Nor does she check e-mail after work.

"It's not really important," Miao says about money. She earns about $250 a month, enough to help pay the bills, save a little and enjoy life. "If you want a higher salary, you have to sacrifice a lot. You have to work overtime, weekends and holidays," she says.

A survey of residents in 10 large Chinese cities found that Chengdu ranked last in income -- about $190 a month -- almost half of Shanghai's figure. But Chengdu rated higher than Shanghai and every other city except Hangzhou in "happiness."

The most important factor in people's overall happiness wasn't moneymaking opportunities, says Christopher Hsee, a professor at the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business. In fact, that played no role. It was their feeling about the pace of the city. "Chengdu people are very content and the pace is pretty slow," Hsee says.

Chengdu and Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, are vying to be China's top leisure city. Hangzhou, with its famous West Lake, has been promoting the first World Leisure Expo, to be held later this year.

"But the leisure of Chengdu people is completely different; it's in their bones," says Luo Xinben, a professor at Southwest University for Nationalities and an expert on gambling.

Luo and other scholars say Chengdu's laid-back culture was spawned by its 2-millennium-old irrigation system.

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