River City - Return to Chongqing – Photo-reportage

Thomas Dodd returned to Chongqing after twenty years. He found a city transformed, though also some of the old Chongqing, still hanging on, just.

Coming back to Chongqing, China's tenth largest city, after a quarter of a century, I thought at first the whole place had simply been made physically anew. But, bit by bit, as though my eyes were adjusting to a new cast of light, the past I had remembered started to seep back into my senses. There were places that were still a physical connection. Places you could touch and know had been there before.

I was there last in the spring of 1989, for one night and two half-days, only months before the student movement and summer protests, now never even mentioned. The damp air smelt of sulphur and coal smoke. It was a dark cold place, even in the daytime. Our hotel was one of the newest and tallest in the city. The lifts didn't work and nor did the toilets. On the skyline was a geometry of cranes pointing randomly to future buildings.

The city is China's tenth largest, about the size of London, growing daily by some 1,300 people, and sits in Sichuan province, in the South West of the country. Yet, outside China very few have heard of it. Two rivers, the Yangtze and the Jialing, merge here, cutting into the urban mountains with deep smooth dirty curves of slow-moving water. It is a city of rivers and bridges. And everywhere there are steps leading down to or away from the river. Huge and decades-old municipal lifts endlessly crank people up and down, for 2 Yuan (20p) a ride, all novelty long since lost.

These photo’s report a story of the new being literally super-imposed of the old. Yet the old still pushes through the layers of the new like grass through concrete.

The new buildings, muscular trophies of capital, seem to sprout up in the milky light from the tallest points, exaggerating the sharp rise and fall of the topography.

Apple has a huge cylinder of glass housing the spiral staircase to the vault of electronics below.

A show about Romeo and Juliet was on at the art gallery, itself a massive leaning stack of red horizontal columns.

The beginnings of the old city become evident about midway up the hill, as the buildings become smaller and nature returns. The district is called Yu Zhong, sitting on the steep hill

Casting my eyes up from the broken concrete, the geological layers of the last 20 years of building are clearly exposed, creating the illusion that the city has been literally built on the crushed remains of the past. The hotel I stayed in all those years ago, had been long-since pushed out like an old decayed tooth by something new. Such is the cycle of building and destruction and building in China.

Stairways snake up and down the hill connecting the river and its older communities. It was here I began to rediscover the street life familiar to me from twenty years earlier.

A deep fried food stall on wheels

An unveiled sun is a rare visitor. Dogs will bark at it in surprise they say.

A woman carrying her husband in her bag

Knitting, waiting for the bus

Apart from young lovers, boredom is reflected in the screens of mobile phones. Anywhere but here.

An old man begins the descent down the steps.

Massaging according to ancient principles, laid out on a chart.

A woman hating the camera, selling bad copies of porn on CDs.

On the steps cheap mobile phones for sale. Nobody talks of smart phones in China because they all are.

There is a saying in China that you change mountains and rivers but you cannot change a culture. This resonates in the markets. The tall buildings catching the morning sun high above seem disconnected from the things happening down here - the appeal in a woman's eyes selling steamed bread,  the contours of a man's bare back hardened through a lifetime of lifting and carrying, these things are like windows straight back through the centuries.

Everything is carried.

A man stripped to the waist sitting in the shade on a low plastic stool with bamboo cups sucking to his back, therapy for his body and mind.

A group of friends in the morning, with trinkets arranged on the ground, are in fact attending to the real business of the day - talk.

And there is the old famous cable car, its two opposing cars quietly moving on a slack arc way above the river. This was here when I was last here, a physical connection to the past. The view is often more vertical than horizontal.

The cable car winches slowly across at an altitude level with the high rise riverside tenements. Among the hundreds of damp balconies piled up vertically, each a person's home, there was once with red washing hanging out in the evening sunlight, filtered into dark glowing red by the soupy chemical air.

The air is a soup of chemicals suspended in natural fog, stagnating in the mountainous basin the city is built on. Because of the long intensely hot and humid summers Chongqing is known as one of the Yangtze's four 'hot stoves'.