Chengdu was not the epicenter of the quake — that was about 60 miles to the north. So the city of 4.5 million people is not a scene of devastation. Don't think New Orleans after Katrina: The people are still here. They may be worried about aftershocks, but there is water, gas, electricity and bus service. There aren't collapsed buildings in the city.
As the cliche goes, things are getting back to normal. But what is normal in a big city in the most populous country in the midst of the biggest sustained economic boom of our times?
Over the next three days, NPR's Robert Siegel will offer three glimpses of life in Chengdu as it is experienced by people who have one thing in common: They all live near an outer orbit of urban life here — the Third Ring Road. The road encircles Chengdu about five miles from the city center. It opened in 2002, when the city had grown right past two earlier ring roads. The city is still growing, and development is gobbling up farms as new apartments go up in their place.
Making It Beyond the Third Ring Road
Like most people in Chengdu, Lei Lei and her family are OK after the earthquake. And in their case, OK is pretty good, indeed.
Lei Lei, 26, teaches English at Chengdu University of Technology Information. She is tiny, confident and brimming with enthusiasm. Her husband, who goes by the English name Jason when he uses an English name, is a sales manager for a real estate firm. In October, Lei Lei and Jason are expecting their first child.
For now, they live with her parents, who are both civil servants. Her father cooks. It's a skill he acquired later in life, just as he later took up investing in the stock market. Lei Lei's 86-year-old grandmother lives with them, too. But they're not crowded.
Lei Lei's parents bought their sixth-floor apartment five years ago. It's undamaged by the quake and well worth the walk: It has three bedrooms, two baths, a spacious living room, a dining room, televisions everywhere, four computers and a room one flight up that opens onto the roof, where Lei Lei's mother keeps a garden.
By Chengdu standards, it's a big apartment. By just about any standard, it's a big apartment.
So for Lei Lei, who is the only English speaker in the group, the move that she and her husband are about to make will be momentous, but it will also entail some downsizing. Lei Lei and Jason have bought their own place, but they haven't moved into it yet.
Lei Lei took Robert Siegel to see the new apartment, which is along the far edge of Chengdu's urban sprawl and beyond the Third Ring Road. Called Vancouver Gardens, it is near the airport, in a new development built by a Chinese-Canadian joint venture. From the new apartment, Lei Lei can walk to work at the university. Jason will drive to work downtown.
The New Apartment
The apartment is about 950 square feet. The room that would strike Americans as different from an American apartment is the bathroom. There is no tub, just an open shower next to the toilet, with a drain in the floor. Except for an air conditioner and a washer-dryer, the apartment is fully furnished. And it will sit vacant for months.
"We're going to move in September or October, because we can't come here now for the smells," Lei Lei says. She notes that many apartments are still being decorated. "So it's noisy here. I can't come here because I'm [in] my family way. After the birth of the baby, we'll move in."
The apartment cost 389,000 renminbi, or about $56,000. Lei Lei and Jason saved for years and borrowed from their families to make the down payment. They also got a 20-year loan from the bank. They put 30 percent down and the interest rate is 7 percent, according to Lei Lei.
People only began buying their own homes here during the past 20 years, and real estate really took off just a few years ago. The real estate market softened this past year, but an apartment is still seen as a good investment. In fact, there aren't a lot of other investment choices.
"The year before, we invested some money in [the] stock exchange," Lei Lei says. "And now it's not very good. The year before it was doing very well, but in 2008 the stock exchange has been influenced by the stock exchange in America, in Japan, in Hong Kong. So it went down."
There's a lot of talk about the stock market among China's new middle class. It may be a little disorienting, but no more so than the scene at Lei Lei's new apartment.
Her in-laws were watching a movie — a drama set during the Long March, the Red Army's arduous 1934-1935 trek to northern China, led by Mao Zedong. The film was playing on a 40-inch Sony LED screen television sitting on the brand new living room credenza.