Things I Like About Kunming

Posted on July 31st, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

In response to Jeremiah‘s new post at the Peking Duck, I thought I’d pitch in a few reasons to love my adopted home, Kunming.

1. The weather. No, it isn’t perfect, but when Kunming is nice- and it often is nice as much as we say it isn’t- it is really, really nice. White puffy clouds, perfect temperature, bright blue skies, and a light breeze are not infrequent conditions here, which does wonders for your mood. Plus, while pollution has gotten noticeably worse as the city expands, it still cannot hold a candle to the bad air in Beijing, Shanghai, etc.

2. The intimacy. While being a major city and a provincial capital, Kunming still feels very small. I have never paid more than 30 RMB for any intra-city taxi journey, including airport runs. It’s very easy to explore the whole city by bicycle, and visits to places on the outskirts don’t require a lot of time or money. I love how running into friends just happens and doesn’t require intricate planning.

3. The low cost of living. Rent is cheap. Restaurants are even cheaper. A beer in a bar doesn’t stretch your wallet. One can live very comfortably in Kunming on 3,000 RMB per month, and that includes rent. For people on limited budgets who want to live in China, Kunming can afford that.

4. The arts/bohemian/international scene. Despite its distance from the coastal cities and Beijing, Kunming has a thriving arts scene and several good galleries located in the city. It also has held events such as the Kunming International Film Festival and an outdoor music festival. There are lots of foreign restaurants (both foreign and Chinese owned) and excellent cafes where on nice days people sit outside and chat.

5. The surrounding countryside. Within easy biking distance there are reservoirs, mountain passes, forests, lakes, and plenty of open space to explore. Yunnan’s physical beauty is well-known in China (and elsewhere), but one doesn’t have to venture far outside the capital to enjoy it. While there are a million suburban towns here, the sprawl doesn’t seem as suffocating as it does in the coastal provinces.

Kunming isn’t perfect, and people often move on to bigger and better things. For non-native English speakers, it can be difficult finding work of any kind. The intimacy also can cut both ways, and sometimes it seems that everyone knows each other’s secrets.

But for a lot of us here, we wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else in this great land of China.…

No Superpower Status for China?

Posted on July 27th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 2 comments

Washington Post’s China-hand John Pomfret argues, somewhat persuasively, that China’s internal problems will prevent its rise to superpower status. While I don’t agree with all of his points, Pomfret is spot-on in one aspect: the perception in the West of China as a menacing juggernaut overtaking the world remains vastly overstated. …

Bomb Breakthrough

Posted on July 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 2 comments

According to reports by Reuters and AFP, a Uighur separatist group called the Turkestan Islamic Party has claimed responsibility for Monday’s bus bombings in Kunming as well as a series of other terrorist attacks throughout the country. The group’s leader, Commander Seyfullah, said:

Our aim is to target the most critical points related to the Olympics. We will try to attack Chinese central cities severely using the tactics that have never been employed.

Well sorry, Seyfullah, but bus bombings are a well-worn terrorist tactic- ask anyone in Israel. And fix your grammar.

More seriously, the Uighurs have often been unfairly blamed for many of China’s ills, and tampering with the nation’s sacred cow- the Olympics- will only increase the odds of a ruthless reprisal. This group, however, has placed its grievances under the umbrella of global jihad rather than traditional Uighur nationalism. It is difficult to say which claim is ultimately more futile.

UPDATE: A new Reuters report tells us that the Chinese government is now denying that the Turkestan Islamic Party was behind the attacks, despite their recent video claim. For more information, GoKunming and The China Digital Times are on the story.

Why would a group claim responsibility for an attack it didn’t commit? The only plausible consequence that I foresee are additional troubles for China’s Uighurs.…

The 8 Conversational Don’ts

Posted on July 25th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture. 2 comments

Passport has an amusing post detailing government efforts to improve Chinese conversational manners. In particular, there are eight topics that Chinese people have been asked to avoid when talking to foreigners:

Don’t ask about income or expenses.
Don’t ask about age.
Don’t ask about love life or marriage.
Don’t ask about health.
Don’t ask about someone’s home or address.
Don’t ask about personal experience.
Don’t ask about religious beliefs or political views.
Don’t ask what someone does.

Perhaps I’ve been here too long, but to me one of the charms of Chinese people is their willingness to ask questions that Westerners (particularly Americans) find taboo. People are generally polite and won’t press if you don’t want to discuss a particular topic, and after awhile most foreigners get used to the curiosity of their Chinese hosts.

My concern is, I suppose, that with these regulations in place conversations between Chinese and foreigners will be reduced to English-corner fare, such as “Can you use chopsticks?” and “What is your favorite Chinese city?”. But even those innocent queries violate the stipulation against asking about personal experience.

In truth, the vast majority of people will simply ignore these rules, and that’s a good thing. I do hope that when legions of Westerners arrive in Beijing, they’ll find the Chinese people open, expressive, curious, and interested rather than silent automatons terrified of foreigners.…

Kunming Bomb

Posted on July 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 2 comments

As the Chinese and international press has reported, two bombs exploded on Kunming city buses on the morning of Monday, July 21st, killing three and wounding more than a dozen more. Apparently, the suspects were not tied to international terrorist groups nor a part of an aggrieved minority, yet no one has been apprehended. Chris has several posts up at Go Kunming covering the story in greater detail.…

Kunming Through Fresh Eyes

Posted on July 24th, by matt_schiavenza in Summer Trip 2008. 2 comments

People I know from back home often ask me why I don’t take many photos. They are, naturally, curious to see what daily life in a Chinese city looks like, and part of me feels guilty for denying them the opportunity. Kunming, though, is my Chinese home; I live, work, play, and study here, and events that visitors might find extraordinary pass by unnoticed.

Before setting off for Thailand, my parents and I spent five days in Kunming. Most people prefer taking their visitors to more scenic spots like Dali or Lijiang, but it was important for me that my parents caught a glimpse of my daily life. We were under little pressure to sightsee (mostly because there really isn’t much to see here), so we spent most of our time wandering Kunming’s streets and visiting some of my regular haunts.

My parents are good travelers; adventurous and open-minded. Their observations interested me, and here are some of the ones I remember:

-the sheer volume of commerce. My father wondered how so many restaurants, shops, and barbershops could stay in business. Is it the sheer population size? The low barriers to entry? Or do Chinese people simply eat out more than Westerners? What is the failure rate of small businesses in China in comparison to other countries?

-the Chinese propensity to manage their natural settings. Kunming’s Green Lake Park is a perfect example. Every square centimeter of the park seems landscaped, molded, and planned by man, with a paucity of rusticity. Even China’s major national parks, such as Emei Shan in Sichuan, are well-paved and stocked full of shops, restaurants, and other diversions. Yet despite this lack of quietude, my parents were charmed by the bustle of the park, particularly with the tai-chi practitioners performing their graceful movements each morning.

-the amount of smoking. Granted, my parents had come from California, where public smoking ranks below public urination in the ranking of acceptable social behavior. They were aware that China, despite recent government efforts to curtail tobacco use, is one of the last bastions of the vice. Yet the amount of smoking evident in bars, cafes, hotel lobbies, restaurants, taxis, and even in restricted places like train stations shocked them. In Kunming, smoking is generally banned in taxis, but drivers will rarely tell someone to stub their cigarette out and often defy the law themselves.

-healthy and active geriatrics. Chinese parks are chock-full of older people (defined as 75+) exercising, chatting, playing games, or otherwise socializing. Could this- and a generally healthy diet- explain why the life expectancy in China remains surprisingly high despite pollution, substandard health care, poverty, hardship, etc? I might be generalizing, but most senior citizens in the US spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the TV set indoors.

-simply how normal China is. The Western media, at its worst, tends to portray China as a Stalinist police state that terrorizes its citizens into submission while menacing foreigners. From their trip to China in 2005, my parents understood that Western media claims were wildly overstated, and their trip to Kunming this year only reinforced that perception.

After a few days, we had exhausted most sightseeing possibilities in the city and spent the last couple of days relaxing. Then, we flew to Bangkok for the second phase of our Asian trip.…


Posted on July 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Me. 1 Comment

It may not be as pleasant as the Thai islands, or as happening as Hong Kong, but rainy (and terrorist-hit) Kunming is still home, and I’m happy to be back….trip ruminations and other material to soon follow.…

Thailand Ahoy!

Posted on July 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. No Comments

As much as I enjoy living in Kunming, it’s always nice to escape for a little bit. Tomorrow, my parents (currently in town visiting) and I will be flying to Thailand for a much-needed vacation, followed by a few days in Hong Kong/Macao. I should have plenty of opportunities to blog so stay tuned! I’ll be back in Kunming in two weeks. …

Happy Birthday, Communist Party!

Posted on July 1st, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs. 1 Comment

Both Xinhua and People’s Daily lead with encomiums to the Chinese Communist Party, founded on this date in 1921. Here’s a snippet of Xinhua’s fulsome editorial:


(in translation)

It has been 87 memorable years, suffused with a brilliant course. Today, our party has grown to include more than 73 million members, a great party governing over a great nation with a population of 1.3 billion. In the 87 years of trials and tribulations, our party has become ever more strong and great, an organism thriving with a new lease on life. In 87 years of hazardous risk, our party has become ever more mature and confident, its cause ever more glorious.

It’s easy to poke fun at the Pravda-like nature of the Chinese media, but the resilience of the CCP is surely impressive. How “Communist” it truly is remains open to doubt. If the modern Communist Party were given a name more in line with its governing style, it’d be a Nationalist Party dictatorship attempting to juggle a market economy with a repressive political system. Will the Chinese Communist Party be around for another eighty-seven years? We’ll see.…