|shop houses in a quiet part of the old quarter
I first visited Kunming in summer, 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 a few days in Kunming each trip. And my favorite daytime activity was exploring the old quarter, west of the big square at the intersection of Beijinglu and Dongfenglu.
|carved doors and railing on old Wuchenglu
|window of a wealthy house owner
|ornately carved shutters on old Wuyilu
|tea time in the alleyway
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 the Arabian style.
|former Chinese-style mosque in Kunming
Besides the plethora of small shops, the old quarter featured a lot of mobile merchants pushing carts around of 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 a mat on the street. Outside the old quarter, Tibetans stood on Beijinglu 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 Dongfengdonglu Sani women from the Stone Forest area sold handicrafts and offered to change money.
|Sani trader on Dongfengdonglu
Westerners were still a new phenomenon to Kunming people in the early 90s. While most shied away from the strange foreigners, many Chinese were quick to engage with them. I thought of Kunming then as Hello City. Students sometimes stopped ne to ask if they could practice English. Others started conversing without preliminaries. Old men asked me which country, and when I answered America, they warmly shook my hand. The Flying Tigers left a very good impression of Americans on that generation.
|the Wa Hair Dance in a Dongfenglu restaurant
Kunming didn’t have much of a nightlife back then. There were some bars on Wenlinjie near the university and the original Camel Bar on Baitalu. For most tourists, though, entertainment consisted of a dinner with a stage show of various ethnic dance troupes. For the first couple of years my visits to Kunming included an evening at the Tai Nationality Girl Hall, as it was called, on Xiziying, which featured Xishuangbanna dances by the Dai and Aini waitresses. But it was replaced by a Hui restaurant by 95, 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.
Another kind of entertainment was on display early mornings at the big square at the Beijinglu-Dongfenglu intersection and in the park beside Green Lake. Groups of mostly middle-aged Chinese gathered to perform physical exercises like tai qi or ballroom dancing to music coming from a portable tape recorder. Health concern was not the only motive, for 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
|Green Lake boats in the early 90s
A much bigger lake, nearly 300 km square, is Dianchi, just south of the city. The nearest viewpoint was Daguan Park, a quiet and attractive place in Kunming’s southwest suburbs, but by mid-decade 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
|Dianchi from the western side, looking at Kunming
By 1997 Kunming’s transformation began to accelerate as the city started molding its new image for the Exposition. On a bright Sunday first week of October shops on Jinbilu 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, but it
|Jinbilu prior to October, 1997
The Bird and Flower Market survived in a slightly altered form, but work crews destroyed everything on Wuchenglu, with its old church and even older traditional homes, as well as the classic shop houses on all the adjacent streets. When I watched old houses being dismantled on Wuchenglu I wondered what would happen to the carved embellishments on the posts, doors and railings. In subsequent years I never
|the lost art of Wuchenglu
Shunchengjie, the Meat Street of the Hui 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 Nanpingjie classical style gates went up over a pedestrian walkway in between new department stores. The roundabout was sealed over a new underpass below, full of small shops, and 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.
|meat merchants on Shunchengjie
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 Jinrilou 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 50s. 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 Taoist temple, teahouses, stage and shrines of the Zhenqingguan compound on Baitalu. 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 conscious 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.