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Interview: Shopkeeper Ms Tang

This article was posted by in Features and published

This house has been in Tang's family for five generations, dating back to the Qing Dynasty
This house has been in Tang's family for five generations, dating back to the Qing Dynasty

Editor's note: The subject of this interview, Ms Tang, requested GoKunming not use her photo.

Much of Kunming's physical history has disappeared and it is increasingly difficult to find buildings more than a few decades old. Street names that once meant something, such as Baita Lu, can seem like figments of someone's imagination unless you know where the names originated.

The task of preserving Kunming's past has been largely relegated to photographs in museums and the conservation of a few buildings around the city. An almost bottomless repository of Spring City history does still exist however — the memories of the residents of Kunming.

GoKunming recently spoke with someone with this kind of knowledge. If you have spent any time in the Wenlin Jie/Wenhua Xiang area you have probably met her. She gives her name simply as Ms Tang, and she owns and operates one of the thousands of little shops — or xiaomaibu (小卖部) — that dot the city.

What makes Tang's four-square meter shop special is that it is located in one of the few remaining traditional structures in the heart of the city, just across Wenlin Jie from the Xinjianshe cinema. We sat down with Tang and discussed the bygone days of Wenlin Jie against the familiar background of honking traffic and jostling pedestrian crowds.

A bit of tradition in the midst of modernity
A bit of tradition in the midst of modernity

GoKunming: How long have you owned this shop?

Ms Tang: This house has been in my family for five generations. We've always had one business or another running out of it. It's been a xiaomaibu for a long time now.

GK: Has it always looked like this?

Tang: No, it used to be much larger! [laughs]. Eighty or ninety years ago this entire area was traditional two-story houses. They were all siheyuan [四合院]. Do you know what I mean? Walled courtyards with the house at the back. The street was just a little lane. My grandfather used to say if you leaned out across the alley you could light your neighbor's cigarette.

Our house was a bit taller than the ones around it because my grandfather was a carpenter. He was always making little additions and trying to decorate the eaves and the doors.

GK: So your extended family all used to live in this house?

Tang: Some of them. Up until the year 1958, when a lot of property was redistributed, everyone on this block had the same surname. Everyone living here at that time was related.

A festival scene at Wenchang Gong Temple (文昌宫) in 1900. Today this is the intersection of Wenlin Jie and Jianshe Lu/Dongfeng Xi Lu
A festival scene at Wenchang Gong Temple (文昌宫) in 1900. Today this is the intersection of Wenlin Jie and Jianshe Lu/Dongfeng Xi Lu

GK: If Wenlin Jie was a small alley, do you know what Jianshe Lu looked like back then?

Tang: Jianshe Lu wasn't called by the same name back then. Instead of a big road it was lined by a bit of a community garden. The families that lived in the area would work together to grow vegetables. There were chickens running around. It was a bit like a small farm.

Even before then, I heard that where the cinema is now, there used to be a large gate called Daximen [大西门]. It was the counterpart to Xiaoximen [小西门] and there were also old temple buildings. When the Japanese were bombing the city in 1938 people tried to hide by the gate and in its surrounding buildings. A bomb was dropped on the gate and many, many people died.

GK: What has been the biggest change on this street?

Tang: So much has changed. Much of it I've just heard about from older family members, some of it I've seen. The whole Yunnan University area used to be one huge hall and gardens where people would come to take the civil service examinations.

That was more than 90 years ago. Wenhua Xiang used to be called Qianma Xiang [荨麻巷]. It was named after the nettles that grew everywhere. I think it was renamed Wenhua Xiang just after the 12-1 shootings.

Gongyuan (贡院), the testing hall where provincial-level exams were administered at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Today this area is home to the main gate of Yunnan University
Gongyuan (贡院), the testing hall where provincial-level exams were administered at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Today this area is home to the main gate of Yunnan University

GK: What about change that you've seen personally?

Tang: The biggest change is the geography. So many trees, forests, hills and streams have been cleared away for new buildings. I miss all the old houses that have been torn down. It makes me a bit sad. All that history is gone now to make room for newer things.

GK: With all the construction that is going on, how has this place avoided being demolished?

Tang: I don't really know. It is a small place and the real estate isn't really worth that much. I'm sure it will be torn down someday, maybe soon. We just don't know when.

GK: Wenlin Jie and Wenhua Xiang are filled with people selling things out of their cars every night. How do you feel about the street vendors?

Tang: My husband and I like them. They don't affect our business in a bad way. They may actually increase the number of people walking by and stopping in to buy things. It's interesting to meet all the people who come down here to shop now.

When I was growing up there were similar outdoor markets at Daguan Lou [大观楼] and on Qingnian Lu. Those markets are gone now, so I like what is happening here on Wenlin Jie.

A view of the back of Tang's shop with the intersection of Jianshe Lu and Wenlin Jie on the right
A view of the back of Tang's shop with the intersection of Jianshe Lu and Wenlin Jie on the right

GK: Do you have any crazy stories from all these years working on this street?

Tang: Nothing too ridiculous. This area has a lot of students, both foreign and Chinese. Everyone gets along. It is also a cultural place. Of course it sometimes gets a bit frenzied in the evenings, but overall this is a safe street with not much dangerous going on.

GK: What is a typical day like for you?

Tang: We open everyday at 7:30am and close around 10:30pm. Early mornings are busy because people are going to work and children have to get to school. After that we have some time to relax. Evenings are always busy — so many people walking and driving by.

GK: Do you ever get a day off?

Tang: I usually take one day off a year on the first day of Spring Festival. It's coming up soon, so my husband and I are excited.

Color images: Yereth Jansen
Black and white images: Originally taken by Auguste François and provided courtesy of Kunming collector Yin Xiaojun (殷晓俊)

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Comments

Great stuff. Thanks for the article!

I've walked past this shop many times and enjoyed its anachronistic setting. Never shopped there before, but I will now. Fascinating article.

More of this, please!

great article this, I like it when you are digging into Kunming history. Makes up for everything that's been lost and rebuilt.

One day off per year !!
When i think that i'm often complaining because my 14h/week's schedule is too much ! How spoiled i am :(
Great article, thanks.

Waiting for more picture of old kunming !!!

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