The importance of being sincere

Bruno Cooke
May 23 · 3 min read

Reflections on modern China, by a short term resident

[Written in 2017]

Chengdu is a human city much like any other. All the city constants are here — fashion is here, just as in London or Paris. There are leather trousers everywhere, sexy boots and ‘distressed’ jeans, lensless glasses and bouffant barnets. Pretty hip youngsters parade in garish patterns and wear expensive jackets with lurid docketing (like Superdry for the Chinese — examples include MY EX DIED and DON’T WORRY, WE ALL DIE ALONE), there are old, haggard street-people hocking loogies onto the pavement; there are juniors gobbing incongruously between glances at their phones. Phones are everything. They watch you just as they listen to each other. Kids lollop about, glued to luminescence, parents trailing them along by a thumb.

People are active. They are also everywhere. Street food vendors line narrow roads and churn out all hustle and bustle. Everyone is different — noisy, quiet, boisterous, timid, grotesque, refined — all nestled among architectural & societal & cultural contradictions. The city is oxymoronic. Stalls sell frogs’ legs and chilli squid alongside dried kiwis and skinned pineapples, bulbous wooden instruments and chariots made of sugar.

WeChat is a god. It is social media profiling, instant messaging, filesharing, video chat, timeline, group conversations, it is scanning for a bike ride, paying for your taxi, it is your credit card, your face, your identity, your geo-mapped position and your way of communicating with everybody — friends, family, students, bosses, companies, yourself.

The Metro is a recent addition to the city and is gorgeous. It is more navigable than the London Underground, even for an English speaker. Metro TV, bag searches, glowing arrows on the ground, flashing lights and screens and the future. Meanwhile, the busses wheeze like bloated locusts through the streets pumping dust and fumes into car windows.

Rabbit head, duck head, chicken feet, pig trotters & snouts, lambs’ ears, squid and frogs’ legs are all available at a dime a dozen, shimmering with oil and flecked with chilli. At a hot-pot restaurant everything is available — intestines, brains, fish innards, offal of all shapes and sizes, some peachy pink, others maroon red. Personally I have seen very few selfie-sticks for sale (weird) though possibly a million in action.

People are largely unabashed by social etiquette details which grind Englanders’ gears: proximity, being watched, spitting, eating with gusto (and I mean gusto), etc. Everything is honest, as it comes; you know where you stand. There are very few thank yous and, as far as I know, there is no way of saying please in Mandarin. Does language sculpt a national character or vice versa? What came first, the chicken feet or the steamed egg?

Originally published on

Bruno Cooke

Written by

UK novelist/writer currently based in the Philippines, writing about long distance cycle trips, cultural differences and global politics. Visit

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