Snapshot: A trip to Kunming and beyond in the 80s

By in Features

Today we are taking another look back in time, at the Kunming of yore. There are not many international residents who have witnessed the city before the modernization drive of the 90s. John Israel — who we interviewed in a previous article — is one of the few foreigners who settled in Kunming in the late eighties, not long after the Reform and Opening Up policy was adopted. Another foreigner who ventured into China was Leroy W. Demery Jr — with his camera at the ready. In 1983 he was 27 years old and recorded the everyday scenes he saw in the streets as he travelled around China. He visited Kunming, and here we share some of his shots.


Not only did he take photos, but he also saved his maps, which give an interesting insight into how the city has developed over time. These maps show the city before the extensive changes that were made — in tandem with Swiss city planners — in the 1990s. Note how entirely undeveloped the northern shore of Dianchi looks, and how small the city appears in comparison to the metropolis of millions it is today.

Kunming city

The photographer captioned many moments of everyday life in Kunming, some of them not so different from today — Kunmingers still enjoy their mixian noodles.

Others are very different — people nowadays look on their smartphones and no longer read notifications posted on the walls.

The cityscape has made a dramatic transformation. From a city of simple mudbrick, stone or wooden buildings with tiled roofs, to the high-rises where today's middle classes comfortably reside.

Green Lake was and is a place of leisure in the big city.

Green Lake ParkGreen Lake ParkGreen Lake ParkGreen Lake Park


Another similarity with the days gone by is the markets and the fresh produce for sale.

And the elderly gentleman, quietly enjoying his bamboo pipe, is also still a common sight in 2019.

All in all, life was much slower in 1983. You could get around the city with a horse-drawn cart instead of an e-bike, listening to a story-teller was a common pastime, and Dongfeng Square was a place where farmers produce could be sun-dried.

Dongfeng Square
Dongfeng Square

Dianchi Lake

Despite vigorous efforts to clean up the lake, bathing in Dianchi Lake is as yet not an option.

In the 1980's it still was, and judging by these snaps it was a favorite pastime of Kunmingers. The lake was furthermore enthusiastically used for transportation, sightseeing, and fishing.

The Stone Forest

As these pictures show, the Stone Forest has been a popular Kunming tourist destination for decades.

Already in 1983 the Sani people were performing and sharing the remarkable stone formations with — mostly domestic — visitors. This was long before it became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007.

Kunming temples

We are not sure which of the Kunming temples Leroy W. Demery Jr visited. He mentions Golden Temple, but in these photos it looks like he went to the Black Dragon Pool. This must have been some way out of the city in those days, and it was well before the Kunming World Horticultural Expo Gardens were made. If you recognize where this is please let us know in the comments.

Overlanding to Chengdu

He left Kunming by train and went on to visit Chengdu and beyond. Visit his Flickr (proxy needed) account to see his photos of the rest of China, including far-flung destinations in Xinjiang.

All images:: Leroy W. Demery Jr

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Came to Kunming in 1987,came back stayed from 1990-1992, brought back so many good memories. Thank You!!!!

Great story. The temple does appear to be the Golden Temple

The evanescent appeals of old Kunming may only be captured in bygone memories and these still photos, but new blood is being transfused.

This is no more evident than Nanqiang Pedestrian St. (南强步行街, GPS 25.034788, 102.714101) where young entrepreneurs are setting up an eclectic taste to this particular pedestrian street near Nanping Jie.

Under rows of lanterns and lights, semi-portable food stalls and novel handicrafts vendors are mixing new flavours to our KM night market scene. A must visit for foodies. The early 20th century Sino-Vietnam train theme is cool.

I expect this site under development to be very popular among younger locals and visitors alike.

Old Kunming has mostly gone. Among the forest of uniform tower blocks you may find a few scraps of it left. Plus some fake "old streets" about which the less said the better.

When I walked down the new Nanqiang Street the other day,

I smiled at the ancestors captured in time.

The continuation of shopkeepers, who embodied the hopes of their fathers. The same fears shared by mothers a generation prior.

While grappling with impermanence, their ancestors smiled back.

The ultimate foundation where our feet stood and smiles met were untainted by age.

Authenticity is a matter of perspective of the beholder.

Such beautiful scenes he captured. The photos make me yearn for an old Kunming that I have never visited, they make me want to go back in time. The ones from Dianchi are especially wonderful. How terribly sad that the lake has been spoiled.

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