1980s Chengdu, mobile bicycle florist ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn
Flower delivery by motorcycle and on foot. April 14, 2009 Wuhou Dajie ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn
When I first visited Chengdu in 1985 I was impressed by the amount of flowers being sold in the city. At that time Qingshiqiao Flower market was a wonderful, crazy mix of old wattle and daub houses, lively street life and vibrant flowers. More unique though was that in Chengdu flowers were sold from the backs of bicycles, the flowers gathered in bouquets and stuck into bamboo "vases". Intrepid salespeople bicycled all over the city on their "Flying Pigeons" and "Forever" brand bikes in search of customers, calling out their products just loud enough as a free-market economy like this was still in its nascent years in China and people were a bit leery of anything so unorganized and freewheeling as this. The colour that these flowers brought into everyday life had a great impact on my psyche, as China at this time was one of the drabbest, greyest, most visually depressing countries I had ever been in. I hadn't yet made it down to Yunnan Province (or other minority dense areas) where colour was a given everyday of the year.
Red mums and purple flowers (eterneller in Swedish, "everlasting") that you could later dry were one of the most common flowers sold at this time and I always regretted that my dormitory bed and room at the infamous Black Coffee Hotel on Binjiang Lu (dungeon is a more appropriate word as it was actually a converted bomb shelter, it was located just about where the five star Sofitel is now) didn't lend itself to floral decoration. Anyway, plastic flowers were more the Black Coffee's style. No matter that I never for one day ever experienced a clear blue sky in Chengdu I immediately fell in love with the city and returned over and over again in the following years. There was just something unique about Chengdu and the Sichuanese.
During my 1980s seven month backpack around the country I only found flowers commonly being sold in Yunnan province and in Guangzhou near Hong Kong. China was still too conservative about bourgeois self-indulgent things like colourful flowers for the rest of the nation to dare have them in their homes, potted or cut. It was of course also a question of money, the country was still extremely poor and few could afford extravagant luxuries - ration coupons for food staples were actively in use and 1,2 and 5 fen notes were still considered important (they were phased out eventually in 2006 the first year we moved permanently to China).
Little by little, China, the Chinese economy and the Chinese consciousness opened wider and wider and today few foreigners (or for that matter young Chinese) anywhere in China can imagine a day without a riot of flowers and colour. Florists in Chengdu are now chockablock and wonderful flower markets like Sanshenghuaxiang can be found all over the country, selling the most incredible flowers for - in our foreign minds - ridiculously low prices. Qinshiqiao, like almost all other street markets that undergo renovation/reconstruction (I call it "market economy reschooling") by the government has unfortunately lost most of its former charm. Almost everyday I remind myself that China in a thousand ways has become a much more pleasant country to live and work in - especially for the Chinese themselves, who had to live through every depressing, constricting blue-grey second of the past and who today surely find it a better place to be.
Thankfully, bicycle sellers still exist in Chengdu, cycling around town with their lovely flowers fresh in from the countryside. Soon enough though I will have to let go of this colourful feature of everyday life and let it fade into the past, as today it is only the poorest of the poor who do these jobs and I would prefer that they too could take a step into the bright, colourful world of a better economy and everyday life.