(note: pictures below)
For all of the city’s endowments, the Kunming cultural scene is surprisingly weak. Many of the great artists, musicians and innovators produced by the province are lured to the big cities of the east coast with its promise of wealth, fame, or just exposure to more kindred spirits. Fortunately, though, this trend seems to be reversing. The past few weeks have seen a slew of art shows, music events and other fun stuff taking place in the city of eternal spring.
I was fortunate to take part two weeks ago in one of my more favorite local events, the Kunming Creative Art Fair. In a way, our involvement represented the convergence of two of the most heartening trends I’ve seen here recently, boutique design and craft food.
Though Chinese contemporary artists have shaken the art world with their work, and Chinese manufacturing has reshaped the global economy, there’s always been one component that’s missing: an explosion of Chinese style and innovation. That’s the case, at least, if you don’t live in China.
If you do live in China, you might have noticed something different though. In the side streets of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and a dozen other Chinese cities, young people are finding a material way to express their new ways of life, making all kinds of crafts from handbags to clothes, jewelry, stationary and household accessories. This has been followed by a profusion of creative fairs and compartment shops. The former is a kind of periodical flea-market where likeminded people come together to display, barter and sell their unique wares. First held in Guangzhou, this event has enjoyed growing popularity, and they are now regularly held across the country. The latter, what I call the compartment store, is a kind of collective design boutique business model where a shop owner rents out small compartments along the wall to creative folks that lack the money or market to finance a whole brand roll-out.
Without this, despite a flood of consumer goods and an array of options that would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, young people in China would really have a paucity of choice in terms of fashion. The other options are highly generic mass-produced Chinese clothes and accessories, or overpriced foreign brands that for complex tax and anti-piracy reasons, are manufactured in China, exported to the US, then shipped back to China for retail at exorbitant prices. Of course, you can always save a few bucks buying the knockoffs and “factory overruns”, but that only works if you want to dress like either Allen Iverson or Zhang the salaryman. Now, thanks to the compartment stores and creative fairs, all kinds of new styles are sprouting up, and they have a strong market to support them.
This trend is particularly strong in Yunnan, for a few reasons. First, Yunnan, especially Dali, is a kind of testing-ground for the Chinese version of the bohemian life. Slackers from across the country come down here and encounter new forms of music, cheap, laid-back lifestyles, and certain types of plants that became popular in the West in the ‘60’s. Secondly, they enjoy a wider market than most places, fueled by the tourists who come down to Yunnan and fall in love with the bohemian culture that blossoms here, bringing a piece of it home in the form of hemp handbags, tie-dye skirts and Tibetan-inspired jewelry. That brings me to the third factor at work; in Yunnan, conformity-oriented Han Chinese culture encounters the diverse artistic styles of Yunnan’s minorities, and exotic aesthetics flowing in from nearby South and Southeast Asia, usually in the bags of backpackers. This makes for a unique mix, and it’s actually had a strong influence over hipster culture across China (thanks, for better or worse, to tourism).
The other trend I mentioned was craft food. Yunnan is blessed with beautiful weather, and the mountainous topography has ensured that most agricultural operations are small. The great weather means wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, and the small operations lend themselves to experimentation. Recently, Yunnan has seen a rise in small organic farming operations, something which the foreigner scene and the traveler scene have started to put to use. We have less access down here to the luxurious imported food selections that well-heeled expats in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou enjoy, so we’ve always had to figure out how to make do on our own foodwise.
Now, one group of Kunming-based expats, Green Kunming, is arranging regular deliveries of fresh organic veggies. A foreign family in Dali is making excellent mozzarella and feta cheeses, as well as a range of foreign agricultural products such as raspberries, artichokes and lemons. The Bad Monkey Bar in Dali is starting to make some truly excellent western food. Phil Willson and I are making our own handmade sausages.
Sausages? The variety of available western fare in Kunming has been steadily increasing over the years, and the food at the cafes is getting better, but some key things have always been missing from the equation. I’ve always loved gourmet sausages, and that’s one thing you just can’t get here. I brought a few batches of foreign sausages back from Kunming last year, and we shared them at a barbecue. They were disappointing. Phil said to me, screw it, we should be making our own sausages. And that’s how we began our quest. It’s always fun scouring the Kunming markets for this or that, but this mission turned out to be more complicated than we expected. Though there are plenty of sausage makers in the city, they prefer the Chinese dried variety, which I find particularly dreadful. Also, none of them was willing to go through the trouble of finding proper skins for us, preferring instead to wrap them up in plastic. We found this unacceptable. Finally we found a street-vendor selling his own (albeit crappy) sausages, and Phil convinced him to help us make ours.
The first batch was, well, mediocre, but exciting. We had done it, and with a few tweaks, we’d be able to fatten ourselves up in no time. Word started getting around about our wacky little venture, and the requests, and advice, started pouring in.
Liu Lifen, a founding member of 943 Studio, which runs the Kunming Creative Fair at Nordica, was ecstatic. “We’ve been trying to get people to make food for the fair since it began, but no one ever does. Please come and sell your sausages!” So we loaded up my gas grill into a van, and made a massive 20 kilo batch of sausages, figuring we could eat any leftovers ourselves.
The creative fair was awesome, with all kinds of cool people creeping out of the woodwork. The Dali contingent came out in full force, bringing products, impromptu performances and a cool vibe. Locals scattered in boutique shops from across the city converged on the place, and plenty of people with nothing to sell just came to hang out. There was a lot of dancing and drumming, and even a graffiti wall by the gates of the loft. The festive atmosphere was no doubt fueled by our wonderful sausages. We were worried that 20 kilos was too much, but having almost completely sold out on the first day, we had to make another, even better batch of at least 15 kilos on the morning of the second day.
I’ve never been a street vendor before. Now I have a lot more respect for them. It’s tiring standing there and cooking all day, and dealing with change is a drag. But we had a blast talking to everybody, making them happy with our little segments of fatty goodness. Phil and I had help from Satchi Willson, his wife, and Georgia Xiong. Best of all, there was a real feeling of community, of kindred spirits coming together to do something for themselves. I don’t think I’ll ever try to make this sausage thing into a real business, but I’ll definitely be back for the next fair.