Chengdu’s Flower Town thrives as a haven for artists, busy farmers, and an escape for urbanites
In Nongke, farmers grew flowers instead of food, drew city tourists into the countryside and then set a national trend
China’s back-to-the-land movement started in the late 1980s, following the country’s Green Revolution, which used heavily subsidised petrochemical fertilisers, improved irrigation techniques and other policies to dramatically expand agricultural output. Although a success in terms of productivity, the damage to the environment soon became apparent and local governments and enterprises, reacting to urban demand, started experimenting with less destructive methods.
One of the most interesting developments was the rise of the “nongjiale” (literally farmhouse fun), a country farmhouse that also served as a restaurant and leisure option for urbanites.
China’s first officially recognised nongjiale, Nongke village, was established in Chengdu during the back-to-the-land movement. In Nongke, farmers started moving away from traditional crops to sell flowers to the local government and low volume produce to urbanites. Soon urbanites were taking trips out to Nongke to buy fresh flowers for their own homes and local farmers made fortunes: by 2004 Nongke village residents enjoyed an annual per-capita income of 40,000 yuan
(HK$47, 800). When Chengdu authorities saw what Nongke village was doing, they jumped on the model, creating nongjiale around the Chengdu suburbs where farmers could make money and city folk could enjoy a weekend away from a metropolis under constant construction. The most successful nongjiale was established in a small collection villages called San Sheng Xiang – known locally as “Flower Town”.
Flower Town began as many other nongjiale did. Farmers switched crops to flowers, urbanites showed up, and both prospered. Over time the model became more structured and regulated, with local governments stepping in to provide funds for larger greenhouses, for example, or for road and public transport links between the countryside and the city.
By 2006, Flower Town had a diverse population of farmers and urbanites who created a community that was both traditional and rural, as well as urban, connected to the outer world, and very artistic. Musicians and painters, attracted by both the environment and state-sponsored programmes – rent subsidies and other bonuses, set up studios and stores in Flower Town. Their work then inspired younger people to travel out to the countryside and also spurred a wave of newer tea houses modelled on the old styles, but with a modern twist.
The Flower Town community thrived for many years, and found a balance between farmers, tourists from the city, and local artists and entrepreneurs who wanted the best of both worlds. By the end of 2013, there was also a fairly large group of foreigners living out at Flower Towns, adding a new wrinkle to an already unique community.
In the past few years, the urban sprawl of Chengdu has expanded past the Third Ring Road, making Flower Town less of a rural location. Apartment buildings ring the north side of Flower Town, and newly paved highways stretch further south into the countryside, bringing progress with it. Even so, the community continues to act as a haven for artists, a wealth generator for local farmers, and an escape for urbanites.
Most of all, Flower Town has created a path for other villages around Chengdu and the entire country to follow. The concept has helped rural folk out of poverty; inspired artists and young people, and without destroying the natural beauty of Sichuan’s countryside.