Consumerism Changes the Old City of Kunming
by A.A. Quong

EDITOR'S NOTE: Three years into a full-bore modernization drive, the re-fashioned "second tier" Chinese city of Kunming pulses with an unfettered commercialism and raw consumerism reminiscent of Asia's cosmopolitan centers. NCM correspondent A. A. Quong is a biologist working in China.

Ever since Hong Kong returned to China, the West has worried that the freewheeling former British colony would become like the Mainland. But as one of China's most rapidly developing cities in the southwest - once considered a formidable backwater - shows, it's the Mainland that is becoming like Hong Kong.

Kunming is not like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. Until recently this sleepy capital of Yunnan Province harbored elm-shaded back streets lined with two-story Qing Dynasty wooden houses.

Yet three years into a full-bore modernization drive, the re-fashioned "second tier" city pulses with an unfettered commercialism and raw consumer desire reminiscent of Asia's cosmopolitan centers.

"Kunming has gone ahead ten years," a resident remarked to this astonished visitor who has returned after a two-year sojourn. Last year's International Horticultural Expo fueled the building frenzy. The six-month-long flower and garden extravaganza drew ten million tourists - 90% of them Chinese - and cost the government an estimated U.S.$1.5 billion.

To make conditions more palatable for tourists, Kunming built new hotels, widened streets, spiffed up city buses from dusty mechanical husks, and installed some rather temperamental ATM machines at the branch offices of numerous state-owned banks.

Chasing Tourist Dollars
More than mere appearances, the fuss is all about chasing the tourist dollar. Its ethnic and biological diversity unparalleled in China, Yunnan hopes to fire up its new prosperity with its brand of eco- and cultural tourism, replacing tobacco as its number one revenue winner.

That vision of prosperity has radically altered the face of this city. Where intimate neighborhoods and bicycle-clogged streets once stood, orderly boulevards now provide efficient conduits into the heart of the city. Motorbikes vie with Citroens, lorries, and Volkswagen Santana taxis on newly built toll roads and throughways. Gone are most of the traditional houses, their residents shipped off to the urban periphery. In their stead are sprawling department stores and sundry commercial buildings.

This government-driven economic boom has also unleashed residents' hunger for, and fascination with, high-priced, status-conscious goods. At the New Era High Gold Store on downtown Dongfeng Road modestly dressed grannies, kids, moms and dads quietly queue up at the front security desk and eye the pendulous gold chains and flashy pendants in the display windows. Electric pop blasts from the storefront while a ten-foot-high video screen projects a stage-strutting Chinese starlet in tight leather pants. Shoppers course down upper Qiannian Road, drawn into fancy boutiques by pulsating techno music and young salespeople clapping out rhythms. There are expensive "Comrade"-brand shoes, fur-trimmed leather jackets cut seventies style, and cookie-cutter high-end chain-store fashions. This could be Robson Street in Vancouver.

Consumerist Novelties
New to Kunming are the cushy, well-lit boutiques whose attentive staffs encourage spending well beyond one's means. So is the concept of a winter sale. At Free Bird, a Chinese version of French Connection, young girls rummage through a pile of mauve sweaters under blow-up posters of the company's blue-eyed, brown-haired fashion models of murky European origins. Insistent salesgirls - operators, really - at a wool coat discount depot whirl about to dispatch goods to the pragmatic shopper and to apply pressure to buy, buy, buy.

But there are distinctive Chinese, or perhaps even Kunming, tastes informing the fashion trends. On display at a haughty boutique near the city's celebrated Green Lake are the following: rugged black leather vests instead of the buttery version favored in America; striped knit caps with peroxide-brown, real-hair braids; polyester gray, formal men's style suits for women; experimental, but pricey, fur vests dyed vermilion. Before the boom, local fashion items included dainty, flower-trimmed straw hats and the stock high heels.

Such fashion and materialistic status-consciousness were virtually unknown in the early 1990s, when Kunming's population was but a third of its current 3.6 million. For many the onslaught is more spectacle than reality. By some estimates, the annual per capita income of urban residents - not to mention the unregistered migrants from outside of the city - hovers around U.S.$1,000.

Housing and employment worries haunt the common folk, at a time when lay-offs from state-run enterprises have swollen the ranks of the jobless. Underlying the consumer euphoria is a deeper layer of worry about the future.

In the gleaming new city, an unmistakable presence are the new apartment and condominium high-rises that stand like dominoes in the skyline. A condo outside the downtown area goes for the equivalent of U.S.$30,000 but few can afford the price, even with a government subsidy of up to 30 percent.

"Not that much for an American," said a thirty-something government employee, "but a lot for me."

No Cultural Flattening Yet
Beneath these glamorous monuments to modernity and the Good Life, Kunming is still far from the mass-produced uniformity many fear as the cultural flattening effect of a global consumer culture.

Just off the main drag in the heart of downtown, a loud red banner beckons through a rare gap in the skyline: "Welcome to Kunming Local Muslim Flavor Restaurant." A man in a ticking onyx Audi hands renminbi, Chinese dollars, through tinted window to a street hawker selling copper tea kettles.

At an eatery run by teenage boys, an animated matron chatters to a thoroughly stoic man over steaming bowls of chili and cilantro noodles. A tremor runs through them as the pasta-maker throws and twists and slaps the dough onto a metal-covered dresser. His fingers slash the air, shredding the dough into fine strands. Nearby a boy digs idly into a pile of sizzling beef dumplings - the house specialty - and forgets to collect on a bill.

There are notable improvements in the Green Lake district, where a beautification drive resulted in marble promenades and pleasing wooden benches. When asked what she thought of the overhaul of the city, a young woman replied, "People have benefited." She added, "The city is more beautiful, there are more green places, and the air is fresher."