Kunming: China Lite

A version of this article was published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine


“Kunming is the un-China,” explained Lee Perkins, on a soft, glorious spring evening in the strangely seductive capital of Yunnan province, which begins on the high eastern slope of the Tibetan plateau and runs south to the tropical regions on the border with Burma and Vietnam.  With 26 recognized ethnic minorities, Yunnan is the most diverse province in an overwhelmingly Han Chinese country and its capital is a city of probably five million – small by China standards – with a laidback atmosphere that feels far removed from the centers of power in Beijing and Shanghai.  “I think,” Lee went on, “that Kunming is for people who don’t want too much China with their China.”

I knew what he meant.  My strongest memory from my first visit to Kunming, in 1994, was of the giggling: a warm, free-spirited joyfulness rare in China.  Travelers tended to pass through Kunming quickly on their way to better-known destinations in the province like Lijiang and Dali, but on my first visit I fell in love with the city’s tree-shaded lanes and charming Muslim quarter filled with listing wooden houses and eaved roofs so old that grass grew on the tiles.  The city had its soulless modern parts, even then, but the economic tidal wave sweeping China’s east coast had barely begun to hit this far inland.  Since then, I’d heard that Kunming had gotten caught up in the property-building, money-making frenzy so in April I returned to see, in a sense, whether China had finally come to Kunming after all.


The city is alight with glowing advertisements now but the makeshift street markets tend to form in the shadows.  Late at night, on the sidewalk in front of Wal-Mart, a group of Uighurs wearing white Muslim caps fan waist-high charcoal grills stacked with skewers of halal meat.  They look more Turkic than Chinese, reflecting distant ancestry in Central Asia, but their features are obscured by the great plumes of thickly spiced smoke that rise up from their braziers.  Nearby, ethnic Yi and Miao women from the countryside, distinguishable in this newly modern city by their weathered, farming faces and traditional dress, squat by vegetables laid out on cloth.  The market briefly reminds me of the vibrant Kunming of old, except that when I was last here there was a neighborhood of beautiful wooden shops and small houses where the Wal-Mart now stands.

It is the same, I discovered, almost everywhere in Kunming, as in so much of China.  The Muslim quarter is gone; the beloved bird and flower market – which, despite its name, sold everything under the sun – lies vacant, awaiting imminent demolition.  And while Kunming’s thin, high-altitude air has a dizzying effect that isn’t why the trees on Jinbi Road look smaller now.  They are the same trees I remember, replanted, but they are dwarfed by the changes: the road has become a wide avenue and the quaint two- and three-story buildings that once reminded me of colonial Hanoi have been replaced by an endless succession of monstrous concrete towers with acres of reflective glass.   It is a transformation that came so quickly that the nostalgic, sepia-toned postcards of ‘Kunming in the old days’ sold in the bookstores show street scenes from 1997.

“I am not even old,” says Liu Xiaojin, a formidable, frenzied woman of perhaps 40 who makes documentary films and recently founded Yuansheng, a performing arts space in Kunming.  “And the roads, the alleys, the cinemas, the stores, all the little places I remember are gone.  Just today, I was looking for the tea market in the north of the city; I knew where it was but I no longer knew how to get there.”   This disorientation is part of why Liu started Yuansheng, which showcases the music and dance traditions of Yunnan’s minorities: she recognized that the province’s living cultural heritage might one day be as endangered as its architecture.

“Sometimes the new generation comes in to the store and I try to teach them about traditions,” says Huang Rui, as we sit surrounded by jazz records and Chinese translations of everything from Baudelaire to Susan Sontag in the quietly hip Wheatfield Books she runs with some friends.  The store is a reflection of the new, more cosmopolitan Kunming – it would have been unimaginable in1994 – but it also a kind of Beat poet sanctuary for young artists and intellectuals trying to find their way through the materialistic, conformist ethos emanating from more business-oriented cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai.  “So many modern children just play computer games,” Huang laments, sounding like a grandmother.   When I remind Huang that she is only 25, she shrugs and says, “That’s China speed.  If you don’t want to get used to it you just have to die.”


A sawed-off metal pipe sticks up out of the sidewalk at the entrance to Wen Hua Lane, the rough concrete around it retaining the rectangular outline of the neighborhood toilet that once stood there.  Despite this, Wen Hua is as close to hyper-stylish Shanghai as Kunming gets: a meandering passage of aging, low-rise apartment buildings with caged windows that is lined, at street level, with trendy clothing stores, skateboard shops, and even a sort-of punk hair salon.  But Kunming still doesn’t fully run at China speed, no matter how hard it tries, and it can take a while for the latest styles to make their way to Wen Hua; by the time they do, they’ve generally lost the too-cool posturing that went with them, giving Wen Hua less the feel of Shanghai than of a small, liberal American college town.

I meet the rap artist Hu Xuan at Salvador’s, a coffeehouse on Wen Hua with beanbag chairs and couches in a cozy loft space that is Kunming’s unofficial bohemian headquarters, the sort of place where a half-dozen Chinese kids sporting Mod haircuts and looking like the early Beatles can sit next to People’s Liberation Army soldiers and no one bats an eye.  Hu raps in kunminghua, the local dialect, under the name Tang Ren Ti and has never been outside of China but his eloquent English comes in a round literate-street American accent.  “Hip-hop is a kind of communication,” he explains, when I ask how he got into rapping.  “It’s not about what race you are.  In Yunnan, we have 26 races” – meaning the ethnic minorities – “and hundreds of different languages, but with this hip-hop thing we can communicate.”  Actually, as Hu admits, there’s not much of a hip-hop scene in Kunming and the record companies are all in places like Guangzhou and Beijing, so for now the communication is more of an underground thing.  “I rap in kunminghua but I don’t talk about Kunming.  Actually, I want to do that but the truth is that I don’t know the history of Yunnan because I never studied it.  So I don’t sample from Yunnan music.  Right now I’m listening to 1970s stuff, a little bit of funk.  But sometimes I don’t remember the names.  I just download it from the internet and I say, oh, this loop is cool, I can use it to make my music.  That’s the revenge of China,” he says, laughing.  “We don’t have any copyright problems.”

Hu says he likes being far from the big-city pressures but the truth is he’d look at home in Shanghai or Guangzhou in a way that few others in Kunming would.  For all the changes, there is still something endearingly provincial about this city.  Someone, somewhere, is clearly making a fortune from all this real estate development but on the whole Kunming must be one of the most laid back and least money-oriented cities in China.  The city’s pace is still pretty civilized: even on the rare occasions that they find an open road without traffic, Kunming’s taxi drivers don’t go very fast.  Bicycles remain a favored means of transport and though there was a mass slaughter of trees as the city redeveloped enough remain that it is always possible to find a shaded street to ride down that feels practically pastoral.   And I could hit all the city’s best nightlife options in less than four hours, including a dive bar called Speakeasy that was described to me as the sort of place that makes you feel bad about having to be there.  I went; it did.  But if Speakeasy had been a slick, trendy Shanghai-style place I would have liked it – and Kunming – less for it.

Still, I was finding it difficult to feel at home in this new city.  Huang Rui suggested that if I wanted to connect to the past before I leave I should go to Green Lake park, which is a haven of trees and interlinking ponds in the center of the city that is large enough to forget what lies beyond its perimeter.  Parents bring small children for a family outing in the park, lovers steal private moments on benches by the water, and idle young men with no role in the new China pass the days playing cards with friends.  But mostly, Green Lake is for old people and as I walked through the park I followed the high, reedy sound of Chinese opera to find clusters of them gathered under the willowy sweep of the trees playing string instruments with fingers made stiff by age; others, dressed up as if for the stage, took turns singing and, for a moment, reclaiming the adulation of their youth.  The applause was heartfelt and the laughter sweetly carefree.

A little further on, old friends were practicing ballroom dancing – holding each other awkwardly and slightly apart, like embarrassed teenagers – while a melancholy, old-time song that could have been from a Wong Kar-wai film played on a tinny cassette player.  The dancers giggled, oblivious to the people who had stopped to watch them; it was the joyfulness that I remembered.  One middle-aged woman in white danced and twirled alone, her face absolutely serene as she held her arms out for an imaginary partner.  I smiled.  The landscape has changed, perhaps, but the small pleasures of Kunming remain.


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