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Kunming in 1944: The photos of Dr Clinton Millett

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A gate in Kunming's old city wall
A gate in Kunming's old city wall

[Editor's note: Due to an office error, some of the photos originally included in this post and the accompanying gallery were taken by Paul R Burch. The Burch photos have been removed from the gallery that accompanies this post, and photos taken by Burch that were used in this post have been labeled as such. GoKunming regrets the error and thanks the Millett and Burch families for their cooperation.]

When does a city become a city? This is a difficult if not impossible question to answer, but most modern metropolises do have their 'moment' in history – which may span several years – in which they stopped being large towns and became cities.

For Kunming, that turning point took place during World War II, when refugees were pouring in from Japan-occupied regions of China. From 1937 to 1938, the city's population swelled from 150,000 to more than 210,000. During the war years, when it was the second most-important city in "free China" after provisional capital Chongqing, Kunming quickly became an important industrial, logistics and education hub.

From the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, Kunming experienced what would be its most dramatic period of change until this past decade.

Luckily, there was someone there to record these changes. Lieutenant Colonel Clinton C Millett, MD was stationed in Kunming as a doctor with the US Army in 1944, during which time he snapped hundreds of color photos of a changing Kunming.

Dr Clinton Millett
Dr Clinton Millett

Prior to 2004, most Kunmingers had never seen color photos of their city during the war year. It was that year when Gregg Millett, son of Dr Clinton Millett, brought an exhibition of his father's Kunming photos to the Spring City, with the help of his new friend in Kunming, Jin Feibao.

The exhibition attracted tens of thousands of curious visitors, some of whom were able to identify family members in Millett's photographs. The exhibition not only gave Kunming a new perspective on its own history, it also created a lasting friendship between the Millett family and Jin – Jesse Millett, Dr Millett's grandson and Gregg Millett's nephew, recently cycled with Jin throughout Southeast Asia on a friendship mission.

GoKunming is happy to introduce our newest album in our photo gallery - Kunming: 1944. Gregg Millett has generously provided us with more than 70 photos of Kunming in 1944 through the eyes of Dr Clinton Millett. If you're interested in seeing the city as it once was, it is worth looking through. Dr Millett's photos of Kunming are also on display at the Yuan Xiaocen Art Museum on Hongta Xi Lu.

Here are a few of the more noteworthy photos:

Rice noodle stall
Most Kunmingers have a special place in their hearts – and stomachs – for mixian, the thick rice noodles that can be eaten any time of day. This stall specialized in cold mixian, and it looks like business was good. We especially enjoy the woman grabbing a quick bowl of mixian while a child dozes in a basket on her back.

Stilwell Road sign
This sign shows the distances from Ledo in northeast India's Assam State to important stops along the Stilwell Road, which terminated in Kunming and was a crucial Allied supply route through northern Burma. China, Myanmar and India were planning on rebuilding the road to facilitate regional trade, but in 2009 India pulled out of the project.

Man and bong
Vertical water pipes – aka bongs – have long been a part of local smoking culture. Here a man selling his wares at a street market is using a homemade bong constructed from tin cans to smoke.

Jinzhi River*
Not long ago, we took a look at the urban renewal project along the Jinzhi River, which snakes through the city. This photo shows the river prior to it being canalized, covered up and then uncovered again.

Selling ham at Xiaoximen
Today Xiaoximen, the former site of the old city wall's lesser west gate, is best known for being a busy intersection in the city center. In 1944, it was a place to go for daily necessities including food such as Yunnan ham.

New York Café*
Kunming is well-known in China for its café culture. Before Starbucks, before Wenlin Jie, there was apparently a coffee house known as the New York Cafe.

Dianchi Lake*
Today Dianchi Lake's pollution is one of the city government's biggest challenges. In 1944, the lake was suitable for swimming, fishing and everything else you would want to do in a clean lake. In those days, the water was blue instead of green. Another 40 years would pass before the lake would become toxic.

(*Photo by Paul R Burch)

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Thanks, this is great, very interesting period documentary. Would be even better if all the other photos had some labels too, perhaps just stating location. Things have changed a bit and it's not obvious where in the city they were taken.


Wow! Makes me wonder what other chinese cities looked like at the turn of the century. Excellent post!

Thanks for another set of great pictures and backstory, historian Chris! :)
Is there a Joseph Rock of Kunming perhaps?

Lol,pretty awesome! Scenes of my hometown,the capital city of shandong province,are almost the same. It is the so-called socialism with chinese characterics,though we citizens don't hold the cards.(Just a one-liner) I made 2 E-zines(Album of China's Country and Album of China's City) with a friend several months ago,which reveals the history and changes among the two regions since the reform and open policy 30 years ago,but unfortunately,in chinese.

@RyanChris: please send links if you have them... many of our readers can read Chinese


My! This is so interesting! It is really a pity that during the process of urbanization and mordenization in Kunming, those historical things lost so quickly that even local people can't stand the changes. Kunming is now becoming as boring as many other cities in China, concrete jungles without history and memory.

Great work staff

Go Kunming is a class operation.





The stories in Dr's book are as precious and interesting as the photos, strongly recommended. I bumped into a professional cameraman in NYC, who came to Yunnan first time in 1985, recorded her adventures and true Yunnan through her lens. There are certainly numerous great images of Yunnan. We need reserve them for better future, however, hope we won't see our history by those images only.

Xiaotang: Any chance you could bring us in touch with that photographer? Would be great if she would like to publish her pictures.

Today I'm revisiting the past.

Here's are ~50 vintage photos of Kunming in the 1940's, some retouched w/ color:


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