It was a Saturday night at Tony’s Bar in Nanjing, China, and as in any good university town, packs of rowdy students were making quick work of their pints.
A long-haired guitarist in a black leather jacket crooned Chinese love songs from a small stage.
Young men bent low over tables playing boisterous dice games while their girlfriends, hair dyed various shades of red and brown, smoked disinterestedly and texted, their faces illuminated by the glow of their phones.
“I tell my wife I only have two dreams in life,” said Tony Zhao, the bar’s owner, who was wearing a jacket emblazoned with the English words “Viking School Softball,” low-slung skater jeans and a goatee. “To open a bar in my hometown and to have kids with her.”
Thanks to a combination of young entrepreneurs like Zhao, large numbers of university students and revitalization efforts by the local and national governments, today’s Nanjing has an air of youthful exuberance that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.
Indeed, the city, a booming city of 6.5 million on the banks of the Yangtze River some 298 kilometres west of Shanghai, bears little resemblance to the broken and brutalized former capital of China that suffered one of the worst atrocities of World War II.
After seizing Shanghai in late 1937, the Japanese Army went on a six-week rampage in Nanjing, then known as Nanking, slaughtering and raping waves of civilians in an episode that later became known as the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking.
Most historians generally agree that at least 150,000 people were killed in the massacre – China puts the death toll at 300,000 – and tens of thousands raped.
The incident has received more attention in recent years; it has been the subject of books, most notably Iris Chang’s 1997 best-seller “The Rape of Nanking,” and movies, including the coming “Nanjing Heroes,” directed by Zhang Yimou (who put on the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies) and starring Christian Bale as a U.S. priest who shelters prostitutes and students.
Filming began in the city in January.
“Every family in Nanjing has a story to tell,” said Frank Hossack, the Scottish-born founder of a media-consulting firm in Nanjing. His wife’s grandfather was a soldier in the Chinese Army in the 1930s and is one of about 300 survivors of the massacre believed to still be alive.
But Nanjing has shown a remarkable capacity for reinvention during its 2,500-year history.
And in recent years, the city has moved beyond its tragic past to become a vital engine of China’s economic growth, thanks in part to its position in the middle of China’s prosperous eastern seaboard.
Growth has also accelerated thanks to improved ground transit: A new bullet train linking Nanjing and Shanghai started service last year, cutting travel time between the cities from several hours to just 75 minutes, and a Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line is scheduled to open later this year, with a stop in Nanjing. Within the city, two metro lines were built in the last few years; 15 more are planned to begin service by 2030.
Signs of Nanjing’s newfound wealth and optimism can be seen everywhere.
In the heart of the downtown Xinjiekou district, a bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of modern China, looks out over a bustling commercial area awash with luxury-brand boutiques and car dealerships for the mega-rich (Gucci, Hermes, Lamborghini) and Western chains for the young and trend-obsessed (Starbucks, H&M).
There is perhaps no more visible symbol of the city’s transformation than the Zifeng Tower, a 451-metre skyscraper that opened its doors last May.
Housing offices, restaurants and an InterContinental hotel, the tower is the second-tallest building in China and billed as the seventh-tallest in the world.
Underlying all this development is a large Chinese and foreign student population – there are several major universities, plus a branch of Johns Hopkins’s international studies school – as well as a substantial group of young expatriates, drawn by job opportunities and the low cost of living.
They hang out at places like Ellen’s, a dive bar where the burgers cost $3, MIA is on the iPod playlist, and patrons are encouraged to tag the walls with graffiti. In fact, art and music crop up in all sorts of venues.
“Another art exhibition has just opened at an Italian restaurant that doubles as an art space, and there are more bands visiting on tour,” said Keith Maguire, who moved from his native Ireland to Nanjing to co-found an English-language city guide. “More art, more live music is a good thing in my book, and the venues for these are largely around the universities.”
On a larger scale, local government officials and private investors are pushing the city as an emerging centre for contemporary art and architecture, hoping to lure tourists from the neon-bathed streets of its neighbour Shanghai.
The most ambitious project on the horizon is the Contemporary International Practical Exhibition of Architecture. Currently under construction in a national forest about 19 kilometres outside town, the privately financed project will include a futuristic contemporary art museum designed by the U.S. architect Steven Holl, a convention centre, and 20 villas individually designed by architects like Ai Weiwei – China’s political provocateur of the moment – and David Adjaye from England.
Delayed for years by construction problems, the $250 million park is set to open in October. Zhu Tong, the director of the Holl-designed Nanjing Sifang Art Museum, believes it will put Nanjing on the art world map.
“Many people think the contemporary art centres are in Beijing and Shanghai,” Zhu said, “but we want to show the world that Nanjing will be the best in the country for contemporary art.”
Another addition is the Jiangsu Provincial Art Museum, a striking structure that opened last February. Although exhibitions lean toward the traditional – calligraphy, scroll paintings – the museum also hosted Nanjing’s first biennale in October, which featured contemporary artists like Marina Abramovic and Tony Oursler.
The independent art scene has been slower to develop, largely because of a lack of exhibition spaces and limited interest in contemporary pieces among the art-buying public. But a small group of artists has been trying to change things by showing works in restaurants, cafes or their own modest gallery spaces.
One of those leading the way is Qian Dajing, who returned to Nanjing after spending 20 years in New York because he believed his hometown would now be receptive to his public art installations.
He said that he wants to use what he learned in the West to create “something real” in his hometown. “In the United States, everything is normal, everything is in order,” he said. “In China, we have some new chances.”
Peter Huang, a curator, also returned to the city after studying and working for several years in Chicago, Shanghai and Beijing to open an exhibition space, the Nanjing Drug Art Museum.
“I can feel from just five years ago, things have changed,” he said. “When my friends and I organized shows in Nanjing before, the government came in to stop us at the openings. But today, I can have a show with government support.”
Even with the city’s transformation, though, memories of the past still linger. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, dedicated to the atrocities, reopened in 2007 after a two-year expansion.
On a recent steel gray day, visitors stared solemnly at the names of victims etched in Chinese into a white granite wall.
“I had read about it and hesitated to come here,” said Huey Lu Ho, a visitor from Singapore, pausing by the museum’s reflecting pool. “But it’s very dignified. The message in the end is still peace. In order to achieve that, you need to understand what happened.”
Outside the museum, the atmosphere was more exuberant.
Young couples, flashing smiles, snapped photos of one another in front of statues in anguished poses, while teenagers fired up their mobile phones and checked their messages.
This new generation won’t necessarily forget what happened, but their eyes are firmly fixed on the future.