|How trite would it be to write about the changes I've noticed in China since I lived here a year from '92-'93; how simply unoriginal to say that in less than a decade China has mutated that I barely recognize it. But I'm going to do it because that's all I can think about as I revisit places I'd been before.
Kunming, winter, 1993. Coming out of the airport I recall seeing a large billboard of a woman in a sailor's cap, sort of smiling, painted 70's style with a pink face and pinker cheeks against a muted blue-green background. Toothpaste ad, replete with factory address. Winter, 2000. Glossy back-lit panels illuminating the Yunnan "beauty spots" and Yunnan cigarettes. Brightly lit boutiques, wood-veneered cashier desks on marble floors. Clean public bathrooms! "This could be Hong Kong," I thought; a precursor of what was to come.
We stayed in Kunming where I once lodgedthe Camellia Hotelwhich has transformed from a long-time backpackers' favorite to a 3-star with a fancy new multi-storey wing. I didn't recognize the streets of Kunming anymore. They're wider, lined with department stores, trendy clothing shops, shiny eateries. We never found the old residential alleyways buzzing with street lifefood vendors calling out Kunming local specialties, open produce and meat markets, shoe-menders... These old 'backwards' quarters (occupying prime real estate) were gone, my aunties told me. People were moved out to the high-rise apartments outside city center where I remember rice paddies used to be. It appeared that the most drammatic changes in the city happened over the last few years. Once impossible, my aunties now owned their apartments. In the spirit of Deng's "southern expedition" in '93, Jiang Zemin's words in '98 to "Open and Develop the Southwest" led to widened streets, improved city transport and infrastructure, and the sprouting up of fancy commercial buildings (still empty, of course). Giant bear mascot structures gave Kunming the air of an amusement park; remnants of the '99 World Expo aimed to attract investment to the region.
The town of Dali used to be an arduous 12-hour overnight ride from Kunming. This time we boarded the 'luxury express' VOLVO (we couldn't resist the pictures they showed us of the bus), cruised down the new high-speed motorway, arriving four hours later. Dali, too, was getting a face-lift. It was hard to find an authentically old house with ungroomed dry grass growing on its roof. Yes, in '92 there were already hints of the town becoming a backpackers' haven with places like 'Laura's cafe' specializing in banana pancakes. But there wasn't such a thing called "foreigners' street" on the local tourists' itinerary of attractions. Entire sections of town were being constructed dawn to dusk, at least tastefully in the old-style architecture ("because the tourists like it," we were told). A chair-lift now hauls you up to the temple on a mountain-side for 30 yuan (US$4), making a "rigorous" hike unnecessary.