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Interview: Great Leaps author Colin Flahive

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GoKunming recently sat down with Colin Flahive to talk about his book Great Leaps: Finding Home in a Changing China. In addition to being an author, the long-time Spring City entrepreneur is co-owner of Salvador's Coffee House and health food company Dali Bar. He also co-founded the not-for-profit charity Village Progress.

"It has been a long time since I saw one of these," Colin gives our voice recorder a curious look as we place it down on our table at Salvador's.

In the book, Flahive describes his experiences traveling, settling down and doing business in Kunming. But his is more than just another expat-in-China memoir. He also shares with the reader the story of his employees — young women who have left their home villages to move to Kunming — offering insights into the vast but oft-forgotten Chinese countryside and the lives of migrant workers.

GoKunming: Could you tell us how you originally ended up in Kunming?

Colin Flahive: I first came to China in 1998. I took a year off from college and travelled through China, Nepal, India and Southeast Asia. I was studying Anthropology and Asian Studies, and later I came back to research the Three Gorges Dam. There were things I hated and things I fell in love with in China. When I graduated from college, I decided to sell all my stuff and come back again to study martial arts. That didn't last very long, and ended with Kris and me opening up Salvador's in Dali.

GK: Why did you chose to write Great Leaps and what it is about?

Flahive: My idea was to introduce the Chinese countryside through the eyes of our employees, young women who have left their past lives behind to come and work at Salvador's. Everybody talks about China in these one-dimensional ways — modernization, cities, historical sights, the Great Wall — but half of the country lives in a very different way on farms. That's what I find most interesting and pleasant.

I've always thought that for me, moving to Kunming was a lot easier than for people from the countryside. To them, it's a different world. Earlier versions of the book were more anthropological, but a lot of people wanted to hear more personal viewpoints and so, even though I never wanted it to be one, the book became a kind of memoir. Not just mine, but also for some of our employees.

Future Salvador's Coffee House owners Kris Ariel (left) and Colin Flahive (right) get to know each other
Future Salvador's Coffee House owners Kris Ariel (left) and Colin Flahive (right) get to know each other

GK: What was the writing process like for you?

Flahive: Writing the book was really hard. I have been writing since I was young and have always wanted to publish a book. When Kris and I opened the Dali Salvador's, I thought I had finally found a place and time to write. I soon realized that running a business takes up most of your day, and after moving to Kunming this was even more true. So it was actually really hard to find time. I first tried to force it in while working at Salvador's, or I went to other cafes to try to write. In the end, I took a month off and traveled to Turkey and the Ukraine, with the idea of just going to cafes and finishing the book.

GK: You're also working on a Chinese version of the book. Are there any publishing restrictions?

Flahive: The Chinese version is ready but I'm not sure about its publication yet. There are some restrictions. It has to go through censors, and some parts will probably have to be changed a bit. But first, I need to find a publisher who's excited about it. This is all new to me.

I think the book has more opportunity for success in Chinese, because urban Chinese people don't know much about the countryside, and to see it through the eyes of a foreigner could be interesting for them. For a long time there has been a feeling in China about how "The old is bad and the new is good", but maybe that is coming to an end now. People are starting to remember the past, and that includes the countryside too.

GK: If your book were to become a movie, who would you choose as actors?

Flahive: I don't know how it could be a movie, because there's no real plot. It's more about me recording the interesting things that happened over the last 12 years. I thought it was a good frame to introduce the Chinese countryside and the lifestyle changes going on there — both for our employees who moved to Kunming from their villages, and for us, as part of the business. I don't know if it would work well as a movie. And actors? [Laughs] I don't really know any.

Instead, I think it would be fun to film a documentary following the girls going back to the countryside, and watching how things have changed because they have lived in the city for a few years. It has had a strong influence on my life and I'm sure that it had a huge impact on them and their families back home, too. In fact, many of them send most of their salary back to their families. To me, they are really like Marco Polo, first-time explorers — the first ones in their families, if not the entire village — to come to the city, and see the modern world and make money.

GK: The expat books-about-China genre is quite saturated. What gave you the confidence to persevere with yours?

Flahive: I think we've had a pretty interesting 11 years. We have lived here longer than most people who write these kinds of China books, and we definitely had a very different experience. We started our own business, working pretty much exclusively with people from the countryside, and we've been involved with our employee's families and went to their weddings. I wouldn't necessarily say we've had a more in-depth experience, but we've definitely had a very different one from what most people do. Also, most people who are writing about their experiences in China are doing so from a Shanghai or Beijing perspective. Southwestern China is a completely different world, and that's why I thought we had a special story.

Plus we've had some crazy shit happen here...The bombing was a re-start button for me, a moment where I stopped wanting to just take advantage of China, whether by doing business or living cheaply, and became more and more involved in our employees lives, and in how we run our business.

GK: The book is very honestly written. Is that a style you consciously chose or did that just come naturally?

Flahive: I detest "categorizing" a place or a group of people. One thing that I found most fascinating once I moved abroad was that people are much the same everywhere. To categorize something is racist, and drives me crazy. So my goal wasn't to try to define China or Chinese people, but more to present my experience and hopefully those of some of our employees or other characters in the book.

I tried to be as honest as possible, without exaggerating. I wanted the story to be something that my expat friends would appreciate, but at the same time a book for people who don't know anything about China — something that could change their perception a bit of what this country really is.

GK: What's your favorite chapter or anecdote in the book?

Flahive: I wouldn't say it's my favorite part, but there are chapters of the book that still make me get teary eyes when I read them. We lost one of our employees due to illness, and going through the bombing was such a traumatic experience that every time I read through those passages I feel like I'm really right back into it. I also liked introducing my wife, A Ling. She is a fascinating person who grew up without going to school — instead raising ducks and farming — and later became an artist.

GK: You write a lot about your travels in the book. What's your favorite destination in China?

Flahive: I still like spending time in Dali, because that's where my life in China really began and I still have lots of friends there. But if I'm actually traveling, I'd rather be on my motorcycle going somewhere random. I love driving through China's countryside, especially in Yunnan, Sichuan, or the northeastern parts of Xinjiang. Actually, I can really get on a motorbike and drive in any direction, and I'd be very happy, even if I didn't have a map. Cities anywhere around the world kind of wear you down and it is really important to get out of Kunming and remember why Yunnan is actually pretty awesome.

GK: So much has changed since you first arrived here. Do you think there are still opportunities in China for young people from foreign countries?

Flahive: I still believe Yunnan is one of the best places for studying Chinese. But starting a business is now a lot harder than it was. When I first arrived, I used to feel that the money I made back home was worth so much more here, and now it feels the opposite. China has gotten expensive, its economy has grown a lot and the country is now getting closer to being an equal player in the world. It's not as easy to take advantage of low costs and new markets as it was before. But I still feel there are far more opportunities for me here that there would be if I had to move back to the States.

One of the reasons I still love living here is watching the change, things happen so fast, and I am still fascinated by it. Whether for good or bad, it's always moving. We started Dali Bar only a year and a half ago, and we haven't really succeeded yet, but I think we have the opportunity to do so. It would be a lot harder to start such a project back home.

GK: You said China is always moving. Was that part of the motivation for starting the charity Village Progress?

Flahive: Change for migrants, like the employees at Salvador's, has been huge. About six years ago, I became more and more interested in the villages of our employees and conducted some surveys about education and healthcare. I really wanted to see if there was a way we could give something back. I learned pretty quickly that I didn't have a lot to offer. We started working with some schools in the countryside, bringing out teachers and doctors — both Chinese and foreign volunteers. At the beginning, I had these grand ideas about agricultural and healthcare projects, but it quickly became obvious that it was not something I was qualified to do.

Lately we have been focusing on outdoor education, such as hiking or rock climbing — working with underprivileged schools in Kunming mostly. This is mainly because it's easier for us to manage, but also because some of the schools we work with in the city are far more underprivileged than those in the countryside. Students are mainly from migrant families, and don't have a hukou [户口]. It's hard for them to get access to education, and their families can't afford a healthy and clean lifestyle. We bring volunteers to schools for art or outdoor projects. It's nothing life altering, but hopefully an experience the kids will remember.

GK: Of all the experiences you've had these past 11 years, which one sums up the whole period best?

Flahive: Sometimes, when I'm out on my motorcycle on a country road, I really feel "This is the reason that I moved here". It's really only when I escape Kunming that I get that feeling. Kunming is not very different from where I'm from — it's just another city like many others. When I get out, I see people coming down from the mountains, maybe because they have been foraging mushrooms, just living a much simpler lifestyle – even though I hate the word "simple". I think for those who find themselves feeling like "I can't take China anymore," all it takes is getting out to the countryside.

Visiting with parents of Salvador's employees
Visiting with parents of Salvador's employees

Editor's note: The English version of "Great Leaps: Finding Home in a Changing China", is available at Mandarin Books in both Kunming and Dali, as well as at Salvador's Coffee House. The book is also for sale online on Taobao and Bookspringer. "Great Leaps" will be available for the US and international markets in both paperback and e-reader versions soon.

Top and cafe images: Chiara Ferraris
Other images: Colin Flahive

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Kris could totally pass for a Chinese guy.

Fine book, good read, good guy.

The book is indeed a great read.

Somebody with the name such as "Colin Flahive" should also consider branding a personal perfume: "Eau de Colin Flahive."

This was just a random joke by the way, without any implicit meaning :)

Good luck with book.

I'm pretty sure nobody wants to wear my smell... not even me.

I enjoyed reading your book Colin

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