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.
Du Jiang Yan, as it's called, was built in 256 B.C. to control and channel the waters of the Min River, which had caused floods when torrential waters rushed down the mountains.
"The irrigation system solved almost all the problems in the local agricultural industry and made Chengdu free of any natural disasters for 2,000 years," says Tan Jihe, a researcher at Sichuan Provincial Academy of Social Sciences.
He says Du Jiang Yan, and Chengdu's fertile soil and moist air, made it easy to plant rice, corn, potatoes and a rich assortment of citrus and other fruits, giving farmers not only good harvests but also plenty of time for leisure.
"No matter rich or poor, everyone in Chengdu enjoys his life and has entertainment," Tan says.
Many like to bet on cards and mah-jongg, researchers say, though the amount most play with is too small to draw the attention of police. Gambling is illegal in China.
Chengdu people are particularly fond of bai jiu, white wine. But public drunkenness is uncommon and frowned upon. Drunk driving carries a stiff penalty.
"Relatively few Chengdu people get drunk," says Southwest University's Luo. "Chengdu's personality is milder and people have more entertainment and leisure, so they're less likely to go to extremes."
On a Monday morning in January, central Chengdu, like other big cities everywhere, is congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic. But few drivers honk their horns in frustration as bicycle riders and peasants pushing their carts move past them.
As on most days here, the weather is gray, a condition of being on the bottom of a great basin that the Chinese long ago dubbed "heaven on Earth." Two rivers flow through the city, and surrounding the Chengdu plain on all sides are gorgeous highlands where a two-hour drive leads to a ski resort.
In the city, construction crews have begun work on a subway, which residents say will be ready when it's ready, meaning a few years. Business here is as likely to be conducted in tea shops as in conference rooms. Many people don't exchange business cards, a ritual in most Chinese cities. Dress is casual.
Stadelmann, the Rhode Island native, used to work in Shanghai. He brought 15 tailor-made suits to Chengdu with him. In the last year, he has worn a suit just once, for a Christmas Eve business function.
"I was overdressed," he says.
Chengdu residents are big spenders, and the Go West campaign has brought wealth to many people, particularly those involved in real estate.
Chengdu's downtown has some of the same high-end department stores as does Shanghai. Carrefour, Starbucks and Haagen-Dazs are here. A Wal-Mart will be opening soon.
"They spend money out here like a drunken sailor," says Gormley, the retired Pratt & Whitney executive.
Gormley ran an Irish pub in Chengdu but now works as a consultant. The bar business in the city is brutal, he says. "There are too many of them."
There are, in fact, probably even more than the government's tally of 3,000, which includes only those that are licensed. In the outskirts of the city, there are thousands of nong jia le — literally, rural family happiness — a term for village drinking and eating establishments where people go to sing and play mah-jongg and cards.
Gormley, the past chairman of the Sichuan American Chamber of Commerce, which currently has about 75 members, says foreign companies have found talented workers from Chengdu's many universities and technical schools. To counter the city's relaxed culture, some corporations have tried to encourage workers to live closer to the plants and farther away from the city so they'll be less distracted. Others have relied on recruits from other Chinese cities.
Managers complain that it's sometimes difficult to find good help. Quick delivery might mean a day for some messenger services in Chengdu. Relations with local vendors can be particularly tricky.
Benjamin Wang, a Beijing native who succeeded Gormley as chamber chairman, helped open five Coffee Beanery stores here in the last three years. There are times, he says, when some of his vendors seem to disappear.
"It's not a big deal anymore; I know which tea shops to find them," he says, sitting in a south-side Coffee Beanery, where a table behind him is occupied by four men playing cards for money.
At first, Wang didn't allow smoking or card playing, but he said the policy changed because there were too many complaints from patrons. "Customers are always right," he says.
At 3 p.m. on a Monday, most of the 50 or more tables are already taken at Datang, a downtown teahouse. Many patrons are playing Beat the Landlord, a fashionable card game involving farmers and landlords. Some are getting their shoes shined; others are having their nails polished.
Yan Zhongjun, 38, lies on a rattan bench, his hands clasped behind his neck, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Across the table are three of his work buddies, smoking, chatting. One is dozing off. Yan rises and explains that he and his friends run a construction firm. With the Go West campaign, he says, business has been good in recent years.
Yan says he started the day at 8:30, dropping by the housing development site to check on the work. He played a little cards between tasks at the office, he says, then went to lunch. He and others came to rest at the teahouse, where they plan to wile away the afternoon before going out "to sing, dance and drink."
"If there's something urgent, they'll call us. We don't need to be there," says Yan, as he takes a sip of a bottomless cup of flower tea, which costs $1.25.
Asked if he ever gets tired of song and drink, he answers: "There are over a thousand discos to visit. Music is people's spirit. There's no limit to it. The more you have it, the more fun you have."
Times researcher Cao Jun in Shanghai contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times