Name: 十八梯 | Shibati – The 18 Steps
Where: 重庆市渝中区 | Yuzhong, Chongqing, China
What to do: Descend the stairs that used to run through the old areas of Chongqing.
Getting there: From Jiaochangkou subway station, cross to the south side of the traffic circle. There, you’ll find stairs leading down into the old neighborhood.
In the old days of Chongqing, homes and businesses were built to adapt to the city’s steep and rocky geography. Built of wood and connected by an often intricate network of stairways, these closely-knit neighborhoods of stilt houses have slowly given way to concrete and glass skyscrapers as the city has rapidly modernized over the last 20 years. This is particularly true in Yuzhong, the commercial center of Chongqing, and also the site of some of the city’s steepest areas carved out by the merging Yangtze and Jialing Rivers.
Shibati, literally translated as the 18 steps, is one of these steep stairways through the stilt homes that remained untouched. Descending toward the Yangtze river from the upper city at the very commercial Xinhua Road, Shibati’s rough and unleveled stairs pass through what was advertised as one of the best places to see traditional Chongqing urban life.
That is until recently.
In Chongqing’s continued push from the central government toward development and artificial growth, older neighborhoods are being cleared to make way for new compounds of skyscrapers. And despite being one of the last holdouts in the central city, Shitbati has been entirely demolished in the past few years.
However, that mass demolition does not yet include the stairway through the old neighborhood, and this stairway remains a popular walking spot away from the hustle of Jiefangbei’s commercial center. It was a spot we decided to explore on a sunny October afternoon, as neither of us had thoroughly wandered the old sections of the city.
Walking from Jiaochangkou subway station over the congested roundabout, we found Shibati in a location I had passed dozens of times thinking it nothing more than a dilapidated neighborhood below the street level. Down the first section of stairs, we found an old couple cooking flatbread and sweet potatoes over an an old trash barrel. From there, we would see numerous individuals with their trinkets and what is honestly just random junk laid out that they were hoping to sell to the passersby.
Behind these junk vendors and in place of the buildings that used to line these narrow walkways are quickly-erected walls sporting posters of the better lives the relocated residents are now having in their shiny, modern apartments. The message these photos are attempting to convey is blatantly obvious, but they raise strong feelings on both sides of a complex issue in Chongqing. Of course, gentrification is an issue in every major city, but here it takes on a few more facets.
There are infamous photos that I don’t have the rights to use of the the Chinese government either forcing people from their homes or trying to intimidate them out by whimsically building around them. The legal shorthand is that the Chinese government owns all land in the country and the citizens lease it from them, therefore, the government has every right to force them out. Those citizens who refuse a relocation deal are usually not well-favored afterward.
Those arguing for this side often cite the destruction of traditional culture and the loss of the livelihoods and means of many people. While I can’t dispute the livelihood aspect, as many people’s lives depended on small jobs only available in such small-scale communities, the argument that the living conditions that they are being relocated to are somehow worse is far from true.
I have seen firsthand the old buildings throughout many parts of Chongqing, the similar surviving old neighborhoods of nearby Southeast Asian countries, and even those few old buildings still standing around Shibati. The quality of these shoddily-built homes is alarming. There is very rarely any complete shielding from the elements and the debris falling off their exteriors only makes one imagine what they must look like on the inside. The fact is that many of them appear as if they could collapse on their occupants at any time.
That is not to say that I have high compliments to pay the newly-constructed skyscrapers that are regularly appearing in the skylines across the country. Many times, they are abandoned halfway through construction, left to the elements for years, and then work continues when funds reappear. That doesn’t even take into account the quality of materials used or the lack of maintenance once the residential buildings are completed. All this together leads to a situation where buildings that are only 10-20 years old appear to be in the condition of a 60 year-old building in the US.
Shibati is a nice reminder of this continuing situation. If you are able to look at the story these propaganda photos provide with a healthy dose of criticism, you may very well enjoy your walk through what remains of Shibati. Otherwise, after all the demolition, there really isn’t too much left to see.