Blue skies are not all that’s bright in Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan, China’s big toe in Southeast Asia. While the rest of the world – including China – sinks deeper into financial turmoil by the day, prospects for Kunming are looking up. In a word, it comes down to location. Kunming, at 1,800m above sea level, stands astride old trade routes now being modernised to tie together China, Burma, India, Thailand and Vietnam. The emerging crossroads is drawing in foreigners to this idiosyncratic city, an ethnic melting pot without parallel in…
Government offices in the Wuhua District of Kunming
Migrant gardeners plant flowers at Green Lake
Early morning exercising in Dong Feng Square
Bird and Flower Market
Fountain in Dong Feng Square with downtown Kunming in the background
Pagoda in an old tea garden
A group of musicians practise at the Green Lake
Flowers ready for sale on the outskirts of Kunming at Dounan, the largest flower market in China
Outskirts of Kunming
New apartment complex, Le Corbusier
Live the life
Kunming is renowned for the variety of food its restaurants concoct, reflecting the diversity of Yunnan province where only half the people are Han. The Green Lake quarter has a good selection of upmarket restaurants. However, the best food is often served in grimy, down-at-heel joints. Gingko is the city’s well-appointed premier mall, home to all the big European luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Ferragamo. As with most Chinese cities there’s Wal-Mart, Carrefour and B&Q.
China’s major airlines fly throughout the day to Kunming from their hubs at Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Cathay Pacific flies daily between Hong Kong and Kunming, but don’t expect great deals. Express trains leave daily for Beijing via Chengdu and for Guangzhou via Guizhou taking two days. Kunming’s rapid bus transit network is expanding. Each trip costs 1 yuan ($0.15). Taxis are cheap, but hard to come by during rush hours. For a busy day use a private mini-van. Good alternatives are walking and cycling.
Five city fixes
- Street names: Getting lost can be fun, but there are times when signs in Chinese – and English – showing street names would save time and headaches. Shanghai and Beijing do it, so should Kunming.
- Media: The only daily English news source is gokunming.com. For a city with big international prospects, a daily English newspaper with good coverage of business in neighbouring countries and provinces is essential.
- Heritage: Bulldozing so many historic buildings and neighbourhoods is a mistake. City authorities need to get serious about conservation. Still, this being China they’re just as likely to rebuild impeccable replicas of what was destroyed.
- Traffic and taxis: More taxis, powered by gas or electric, would be a welcome addition to the city. Congestion charging, as in London or Singapore, might mean cars are left at home. Speeding up metro construction is a must.
- Image: Kunming needs to get serious about branding and promotion if it’s to capitalise on its location, development and business. Dowdy trade fairs are not enough. The city needs a cool logo, events such as a marathon and annual expos to keep it in the headlines.
Kunming’s go-getting party secretary Qiu He took the helm in December 2007. He’s determined to clean up polluted Dian Chi Lake, on the city’s southern fringe. Zürich is providing expertise. “The Swiss experts who visit regularly have helped with new technology to improve the sewage system and water purification treatment,” says Jian Hai Yun, vice-director of the Kunming Urban Planning and Design Institute. Other moves bode well. Ten rivers formally in culverts were recently restored with trees and footpaths. A ban on making and selling plastic bags began on 1 January. More than half the city’s 4.7 million people use solar water heaters, according to America’s Worldwatch Institute. And power-generating cells are being used atop street lamps.
US partner of Andao tea
“During 2,000 years of history Yunnan has always held a prized place. It’s going to continue that way. Yunnan has leverage within China because it has access to the neighbouring countries. Being out here allows for more free time, fresher air and better access to the countryside. Sitting around in the tea market drinking tea is heaven.”
“Agriculture is pretty strong here. Last year S&B Foods, a large Japanese company, set up a herb farm near Kunming. It’s close to Japan for shipping agricultural products and much cheaper than Shanghai. Although some people say the workers are a bit too relaxed!”
Jian Hai Yu:
“I made the plan to change the market back into the Jinzhi river, but I find it unbelievable the speed with which it happened. Within three to five years an entirely new Kunming will appear. Just like Barack Obama, we can say that in Kunming everything is possible.”
“A lot of new developments are starting to address the wider context around them, taking on a responsibility to improve the urban landscape, to add greenery, to create better street-scapes. Obviously, now there’s going to be a bit of a pinch, but on the other hand there’s a lot of policies from the central government to support the economy and help homeowners. There’s still a sense of optimism, but a feeling that this year things will be a bit quieter.”
“My generation is different because as we grew up China was increasingly open. Politics didn’t play as much of a role. We’re not as politically focused but more interested in exploring our personal interests in art. Kunming is different from other places because it is a little more removed from the world. There are many interesting things to paint here: ethnic minorities, beautiful scenery.”
Dima and Elizabeth Shanaider:
Founders of Worldwide Printing & Publishing Services
“There are people here who want to trade with the world. It’s not difficult to find people who want to co-operate,” says Elizabeth. “When we came Beijing Road was terrible, but now there’s a bus route, the traffic is organised. It’s developing, we’re really feeling it,” says Dima.
Editor of gokunming.com and founder of Meridian
“Diversity is the word which gets attached to Yunnan. You’ve got the foothills of the Himalayas and tropical jungle. You could spend your whole life exploring and still not see it all. That’s what makes the bike rides fun, you never know what you’ll come across. China itself has started to recognise the importance of Yunnan, not just for trade and investment, but for the environment. I think this city will be among the most environmentally friendly in China. More and more people from Beijing, Shanghai and the coast are buying second homes here. There’s also a plan to build China’s Hollywood here. Stanley Tong, who directed a number of Jackie Chan movies, is building a state-of-the-art production facility near to Dian Chi Lake.”