Sunday, February 23, 2014

Turn-of-the-Century Kunming

                                                                  by Jim Goodman

shop houses in a quiet part of the old quarter
    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 that year went up during this 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 advance nostalgia.
    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
    This was my first Chinese city and once I got past the proletarian metropolis part of the city, with its drab tenement buildings, and got to the neighborhood between Dongfengxilu 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.
window of a wealthy house owner
    In future visits I paid more attention to details on the buildings around the old Bird and Flower Market.  On Wenchenglu 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 Wuyilu and Guanghuajie, where the warren of shops known as the Bird 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 “Sisters Buildings,” the shape of which reminded me of the Flatiron Building, New York’s first skyscraper.
ornately carved shutters on old Wuyilu
    Not every old building featured redwood walls.  Some were built of brick with a redwood front or were plastered over in cream 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 9 p.m.
tea time in the alleyway
    The same general neighborhood style prevailed south of Dongfengxilu, where stood many old-style small restaurants specializing in Crossing-the-Bridge Rice Noodles, a Yunnan favorite.  A little further west was the Hui quarter, with the same kind of architecture, notable for the slabs of beef and mutton that hung from racks all along Shunchengjie.  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 Jinbilu.
    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
    Jinbilu at that time featured a very different architectural style, with yellow, three -and four-story buildings and tiled roofs, but without carved embellishments.  The entire street was lined with trees, like Zhengyilu.  Shops didn’t open until after nine a.m. and closed at dark.  People lived above the shops, for 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.
    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
    The old quarter didn’t have any hotels, and anyway foreigners in the early 90s were restricted to a handful of the city’s hotels and subjected to the use of Foreign Exchange Certificates for paying hotel bills and 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 renmenbi at better than the official rate.   Only restaurants around popular hotels like the Camellia on Dongfengdonglu and the Kunhu on Beijinglu had bilingual menus, while some shops tried catering to foreign tourists with oddly phrased English signs like Chinese and Alien Snacks on Huguolu, Jewelry and Queer Stone Shop on Baitalu and The Chafing Dish of Old Turtle on Tuodonglu. 
    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
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.)  
    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
western shore near Guanyinshan observe fishermen at work with nets, traps and poles.  The water was still pretty blue then and on clear days one could see the cityscape across the lake.  
    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
spared the Catholic Church, which was anyway set back far enough from the original road, and swerved away from the old mosque, ending in a newly created square eventually featuring a pair of ornate gateways and a shopping mall of traditional redwood buildings.
    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
saw them in antique shops, nor could anyone I knew guess their fate.  Firewood?
    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
    In the early 90s I had to hold my nose when crossing this river, but the city’s renovation included the river, cleaned up and outfitted on both sides with parks and tree-lined 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 it.  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 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.
vanished Kunming
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