I had been in Kunming for about a month when I first discovered The Box. In those days, it was easy to miss: the bar was wedged in between a restaurant and a juice bar on Wenhua Xiang, Kunming’s charming “Culture Alley”. The sign, such as it existed, was difficult to see. Unlike other bars in the area, The Box didn’t seem to advertise much. It was a place that you could only find by accident.
I initially began going to The Box because it was empty. I needed a place to study in the afternoons, and felt like a quiet cafe would do the trick. Each day, after attending class at Yunnan University and eating lunch nearby, I’d walk to the Box with my notebooks filled with inscrutable Chinese characters. The bar provided a respite from the intense Kunming sun, which in the late winter/early spring could pierce through windows like a laser beam. It also had staff who was content to let you sit undisturbed, for hours.
Before long, my afternoons at The Box began to stretch into the evening, and I had become acquainted with the bar’s characters. Expat bars in China cater, as a general rule, to an eclectic crowd, but The Box was like nothing else I had ever seen. Gorgeous European women in their early 20s would mingle with middle-aged American men, guzzling beers and bantering about the day. There were Quebecois punks, Chinese intellectuals, and American professors. There was Beppe, a well-built Italian who dressed only in black and elegantly chain-smoked through a plastic cigarette holder. There was John, a crazy old Australian who wore a white suit and a fedora, meticulously counted his beer caps, and pointed his cane at people whom he disliked. Once, he admitted to me that he drank out of only one beer glass, which he dutifully washed each morning in the shower. There was Kurt, a long-haired local who pored over English texts with furious intensity. Each afternoon, these three- and many others who patronized the place- could be found in their usual seats in The Box.
By any reasonable standard, The Box wasn’t a nice place. The furniture was old and ratty, and on certain nights the place could be so claustrophobic that a lit cigarette seemed like a major fire hazard. Yet what the bar lacked in comfort it more than made up for in atmosphere. After awhile, I discovered it was no longer necessary to ask my friends if they were going. I’d simply pop around in the evening, walk through the door, and invariably find someone I knew sitting there already. Everyone had a story to tell.
I spent nearly four years in Kunming, and these were busy with change. I left Yunnan University for another school and then stopped studying altogether. Relationships began and ended. I changed apartments, and then changed apartments again. Shops and restaurants opened and closed. Friends- too many to count- came and went. Yet somehow, like a Galapagos turtle, The Box lumbered on, serving as the setting for many of my clearest- and foggiest- memories of the city.
It was at The Box where we celebrated weddings, and it was at The Box where we mourned friends who had passed away. It was at The Box where a casual conversation with a British acquaintance led to my first real job. And, two years later, it was at The Box where I announced that I was leaving China after six years, a moment as bittersweet as any I have ever had. When I came back for a visit the following year, The Box- where else?- was my first port of call.
Familiarity aside, the bar had undergone substantial changes over the years. Under the ownership of Francesca, a diligent Italian, The Box had become a nice place. The furniture was replaced. The beer improved. Imported food items- some of which were difficult to find elsewhere- emerged. Yet through all these changes, The Box never lost its cheerful vibe. It remained a place where anyone, weary from a day of work or needing a respite from big bad China outside, could stop in and have a beer and a few laughs. It was a place where the wealthy and successful could mingle with the barely hanging on, and the new arrivals could get advice from grizzled vets.
Just yesterday, I got word that The Box is closing. I don’t know why, but I suspect the cost of having a bar on one of Kunming’s most popular commercial streets had become prohibitive. Owning a business in China as a foreigner is never easy, even in the best of times, so it’s almost a miracle that The Box lasted as long as it did.
Still, though, The Box lives on in the stories that its denizens share, stories that- no matter what corner of the planet we end up- will persist a lifetime.