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Ode to a bygone era: Kunming of the 1990s

This article was posted by in Travel and published

Green Lake boats in the early 1990s
Green Lake boats in the early 1990s

Editor's note: The following article by author Jim Goodman explores the Spring City as it was in the mid 1990s. Goodman has just released an ebook entitled Living in Shangrila: Tibetans and Mosuo in Northwest Yunnan, which can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. More of his writings can be accessed on his blog, Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy).

In 1999 Kunming hosted the International Horticultural Exposition. To ready itself for this event, for the previous two years the city had busied itself with a massive renovation and building program. Most of the overpasses, big hotels, tall buildings and skyscrapers visitors saw in 1999 went up during this short period. The city still had its parks, ancient pagodas and temples, but the transformation included the nearly total obliteration of the city's old quarter. Inevitable, I know, but as I observed this happening I was afflicted with a wave of advanced nostalgia.

Carved doors and railing on old Wucheng Lu
Carved doors and railing on old Wucheng Lu

I first visited Kunming in the summer of 1992, when it was not yet attracting many foreign tourists, and when those who did visit made but a brief stopover before heading out to Dali, Lijiang or Jinghong. My own research was elsewhere in the province, but back in the 90s the only way from Thailand to enter and leave Yunnan was by airplane to Kunming. So I wound up for a few days in Kunming during each trip. My favorite daytime activity was exploring the old quarter, west of the big square at the intersection of Beijing Lu and Dongfeng Lu.

Window detail from the home of a wealthy family
Window detail from the home of a wealthy family

This was my first Chinese city and once I got past the proletarian metropolis part of town, with its drab tenement buildings, and got to the neighborhood between Dongfeng Xi Lu and Green Lake, I felt I was transported back in time to all those old books and articles I had read describing urban China in the old days.

Redwood buildings dominated the streets. Some were simply two-story shop-houses, with tiled roofs full of overgrown vegetation. Others rose higher, with rows of tiny windows on the upper floors. Some had balconies with carved railings. Sometimes residents hung potted flowers from the upper balconies or strung cabbages or bunches of chilies on wires to dry.

During future visits I paid more attention to the details on the buildings around the old Bird and Flower Market. On Wencheng Lu I spotted carvings of phoenixes and lions on balcony railings, floral patterns on doors and shutters, arabesques on posts. Some of the fancier houses had ornate, tinted oval windows. More old houses stood on Wuyi Lu and Guanghua Jie, where the warren of shops where the Bird and Flower Market was located.

Besides birds and birdseed, shoppers could find small fish, fish food, turtles, peacock feathers, kites, fishing tackle, Dai umbrellas, jade ornaments, orchids, porcelain and antiques. And at the north end of this market stood the pair of very narrow, triangular 'Sister Buildings', the shape of which reminded me of the Flatiron Building, on of New York City's first skyscrapers.

Shop-houses in a quiet part of the old quarter
Shop-houses in a quiet part of the old quarter

Not every old building featured redwood walls. Some were built of brick with a redwood front or were plastered over in creamy white. A few had a wooden front of blue or green. One street was full of sign-making shops. Alleys in between featured late afternoon teashops, where locals in their classic proletarian blue suits and Mao caps smoked tobacco bongs and refreshed themselves with pots of tea. Traffic was never heavy, for Kunming then was a city of bicycles. It was also primarily a daytime city, where it was hard to find a restaurant open after 9pm.

The same general neighborhood style prevailed south of Dongfeng Xi Lu, where many old-style small restaurants stood, specializing in Cross the Bridge rice noodles. A little further west was the Hui quarter, with the same kind of architecture, but notable for the slabs of beef and mutton that hung from racks all along Shuncheng Jie. At the restaurants in the area the cooks prepared the dishes outside in front of the dining area. A small mosque stood at the end of this street, but a bigger, more venerable one lay in a courtyard off Jinbi Lu.

Former Chinese-style mosque in Kunming
Former Chinese-style mosque in Kunming

Architecturally, the exterior of these mosques resembled Buddhist temples in shape and design. The difference lay in the details. A crescent moon graced the center of the roof and the decorations eschewed any depictions of humans or animals. The outer doors were of green wood, with Arabic calligraphy above. These have both been replaced now by buildings more in an Arabian style, but a few still remain.

Jinbi Lu at that time featured a very different architectural style, with yellow, three- and four-story buildings with tiled roofs, but devoid of carved embellishments. The entire street was lined with trees, much like Zhengyi Lu. Shops didn't open until after 9am and closed promptly at dark. People lived above the shops, and you could tell by the lights in the windows after dark. In the neighborhood around the Bird and Flower Market this was seldom the case. At night this quarter was mostly dark, leading me to speculate that the shop owners lived elsewhere, for one reason or another, perhaps because the old buildings were falling apart.

Jinbi Lu prior to October, 1997
Jinbi Lu prior to October, 1997

Besides the plethora of small shops, the old quarter featured a lot of mobile merchants pushing carts selling one item or another. Mini-stalls selling things like hot bread, kebabs and other snacks stood up in the middle of the street between rows of vendors with their goods laid out on mats on the street. Outside the old quarter, Tibetans stood on Beijing Lu with various furs draped across their outstretched arms and Uighurs stood by carts selling raisins from Xinjiang. Near the university and in front of the Camellia Hotel on Dongfeng Dong Lu, Sani women from the Stone Forest area sold handicrafts and offered to change money.

The old quarter didn't have any hotels, and anyway foreigners in the early 90s were restricted to a handful of the city's guesthouses and subjected to the use of Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) for paying their lodging bills and buying air and train tickets. Ordinary shops and restaurants didn't want FEC notes because of the hassle of exchanging them, so the Sani women in front of the Camellia did a brisk trade in exchanging FEC and foreign currency for yuan at better than the official rate.

Sani trader on Dongfeng Dong Lu
Sani trader on Dongfeng Dong Lu

Only restaurants around popular hotels like the Camellia on Dongfeng Dong Lu and Beijing Lu had bilingual menus, while some shops tried catering to foreign tourists with oddly phrased Chinglish signs with slogans such as 'Chinese and Alien Snacks' on Huguo Lu, 'Jewelry and Queer Stone Shop' on Baita Lu and 'The Chafing Dish of Old Turtle' on Tuodong Lu.

Westerners were still a new phenomenon to Kunming people in the early 90s. While most shied away from the strange people, many Chinese were quick to engage with them. I thought of Kunming then as 'Hello City'. Students sometimes stopped to ask if they could practice English. Others started conversing without preliminaries. Old men asked me which country I hailed from, and when I answered the United States, they warmly shook my hand. The Flying Tigers, it seemed, left a very good impression of Americans on that generation.

Ornately carved shutters on old Wuyi Lu
Ornately carved shutters on old Wuyi Lu

Kunming didn't have much of a nightlife back then. There were some bars on Wenlin Jie near the university as well as the original Camel Bar on Baita Lu. For most tourists though, entertainment consisted of dinner with a stage show featuring various ethnic dance troupes.

For the first couple of years my visits to Kunming included an evening at the Dai Nationality Girl Hall, as it was called, on Xiziying, which featured Xishuangbanna dances by Dai and Aini waitresses. But that was replaced by a Hui restaurant in 1995, without a dance show, of course. Other restaurants offered shows both afternoon and evening, with troupes performing various Yi, Dai and Jingpo numbers as well as the exuberant Wa Hair Dance. Patrons could enjoy the show just by ordering a ten yuan bowl of noodles.

The Wa Hair Dance in a Dongfeng Lu restaurant
The Wa Hair Dance in a Dongfeng Lu restaurant

Another kind of entertainment was on display early mornings at the big square at the intersection of Beijing Lu and Dongfeng Lu and in the park beside Green Lake. Groups of mostly middle-aged Chinese gathered to perform physical exercises like taiqi or ballroom dancing to music coming from a portable tape recorder. Health concerns were not the only motive, and most of those present were unmarried and the square and the park were venues to meet the opposite sex without having to spend any money.

Green Lake was like the lung of the city, where the air seemed to be cleaner than
anywhere else in town. Boatmen poled customers around the lake in wooden rafts, while others stood on the shore tossing food to the gulls. Unfortunately, metal, self-pedaling boats with Disney character fronts replaced these in the run-up to the Expo.

Overlooking Dianchi Lake from the Western Hills, looking toward Kunming
Overlooking Dianchi Lake from the Western Hills, looking toward Kunming

Just south of the city lies 300-square kilometer Dianchi Lake. The nearest major viewpoint was and is Daguan Park, at the time, a quiet and attractive place in Kunming's southwest suburbs. But by the mid-90s big new buildings obscured much of the scenery. By going up the Western Hills temple route one could get a view of the entire lake and by hiking along the western shore near Guanyin Mountain observe fishermen at work with nets, traps and poles. The water was still pretty blue then and on clear days one could see the entire cityscape across the lake.

By 1997 Kunming's transformation began to accelerate as the city started molding its new image for the International Horticultural Exposition. On a bright Sunday during the first week of October, shops on Jinbi Lu held their final, everything-must-go sale with dramatically reduced prices. The next day the wrecking crews came to tear down the buildings. The new street was wider and construction crews spared the Catholic Church. It was set back far enough from the original road, which swerved away from the old mosque, ending in a newly created square that eventually featured a pair of ornate gateways and a shopping mall of traditional redwood buildings.

The lost art of Wucheng Lu
The lost art of Wucheng Lu

The Bird and Flower Market survived in a slightly altered form, but work crews destroyed everything on Wucheng Lu — its old church and even older traditional homes, and all the classic shop houses on the adjacent streets. When I watched old houses being dismantled on Wucheng Lu I wondered what would happen to the carved embellishments on the posts, doors and railings. In subsequent years I never saw them in antique shops, nor could anyone I knew guess their fate. Firewood, perhaps?

Shuncheng Jie, the meat street of the Muslim quarter, survived this phase of reconstruction until post-Expo development reached in to destroy it in 2005. In between the new Jinbi Square and the roundabout at the end of Nanping Jie, classical style gates went up over a pedestrian walkway in between new department stores. The roundabout was sealed over with a new overpass, underneath which was full of small shops, with a statue of a snub-nosed monkey, the Expo mascot, mounted on top. The blind masseurs who used to operate at the roundabout moved downstairs or over to the street along the Panlong River, joining the ear-cleaners and bootblacks.

Outdoor meat merchants on Shuncheng Jie
Outdoor meat merchants on Shuncheng Jie

In the early 90s I had to hold my nose when crossing this river. But the city's renovation included the river, cleaned up on both sides and lined with parks and walkways. Young couples and families now filled the benches beside the river, which no longer exuded the odor that in the past made people hurry past. The addition of gardens here also helped and in fact, just before the Expo opened, city authorities arranged for pots of flowers, altogether two million of them, to be set along all the city's widest, cleanest avenues.

The Horticultural Exposition was a great success and its gardens remain a tourist attraction even today. But having knocked down its old quarter getting ready for the Expo, development in Kunming afterwards took a slightly different approach. The city rebuilt its Jinri Tower, formerly the main entrance into the old walled city, which had stood near the East and West Pagodas and had been destroyed in the early 1950s.

The re-creation was exactly the same size and style as the original. The same held true for the two gates erected on Jinbi Square and the renovation of the Daoist temple, teahouses, stage and shrines of the Zhenqing Square compound on Baita Lu. The white, Tibetan-style pagoda, though, was put up in the compound, rather than at its original location in the middle of the street.

Of course, towering new buildings and shopping malls dominated development work in the new century, but the purposeful recreation of classical architecture did mean the city was still conscious of its history. The old residential area was gone, but at least it wasn't turned into an artificial theme park like Lijiang's old town. And the presence of ancient and restored buildings served as evidence that Kunming wanted to preserve at least a part of its heritage, rather then leave it all buried beneath the foundations of the new skyscrapers. Not all of it had to submit to the international standards of modern architecture. The city still has areas where the atmosphere of Old Kunming prevails, where it still feels like the authentic Chinese city I encountered on my very first visit.

Vanished Kunming
Vanished Kunming

All images: Jim Goodman

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Comments

Thanks for another good one, Jim. The balance between what is lost and what is gained is a hard one to figure. The question is, did it have to be this way? A better question is perhaps what should be done, or not done, next. Also important is who will be asked this question, and whose answers will be listened to.

I also visited Kunming for the first time in 1992, really wish I had taken more pics. The city and its weather have changed just so much.

Wow the sky was so blue in a few of those pictures. There are few days anymore when the sky is that blue. I wish I had seen Kunming in those days. Nice article.

You in the same city seahorse62, the one thing I love about Kunming is it's pretty much constant pure blue sky! Always enough to cheer me up when down....

Thanks Jim for this window in on Kunming during the 1990s. I wish I'd had a chance to see it back then. I appreciate that you don't just dwell on what was lost in the late 90s developments, but highlight some of the positives as well—the improved parks and landscaping, and the restoration of some historic structures.

While this may seem obvious to anyone who's traveled outside Kunming, I'd just point out that for those who yearn for some of the bygone scenes and architecture which Jim describes so well here, take heart that they do still exist in hundreds of cities and towns around the province! Yes, hundreds of cities and towns around the province are also in the midst of their own redevelopment plans, but many are still a long ways behind Kunming, and old streets, neighborhoods, shophouses, and temples are not too hard to find once you get out of Kunming.

@Geogramatt: True, but the direction in which these other places are moving should be better considered - mistakes need not be repeated, though the lack of channels for input into decisions about directions leads one to a rather pessimistic outlook.

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