Of architecture, roses and thorns

Two more weeks, and then my year in what I call The Chinese Truman Show will be up. As I am preparing to leave my first home in Kunming I walk through my neighbourhood with slightly different eyes. One eye is sentimental, the other one has a sceptically raised eyebrow, and watches the surroundings as a critical architectural historian. This gated community architecture is interesting and very telling about life in China.

Sweet sentiments

When I arrived here for the first time it was early December, after months of pretty hardcore bicycle travel. I was more physically and mentally exhausted than I probably realized at the time, having been very sick and very cold and on the road for about nine months.

Arriving here and staying with a lovely host for a couple of days was a welcome reprieve. I loved how sunny and warm it was even in December, how lush and green and well maintained the community. The beautiful location of the house, right on the edge of Dianchi Lake. How luxurious this apartment is, with its lion-clawed bathtub, it’s German washing machine, it’s floor to ceiling windows looking out at palm trees and other kinds of lush tropical green.

sweetness and light
sweetness and light

How vast and cool its tiled space. Decorated with butterflies and roses, a baroque settee big enough for two sleeping cyclists, elaborate curtains and drapery above the windows, and as a piece-de-resistance a gigantic bejewelled bed with a rococo headboard that I have christened the rhinestone cowboy.

the rhinestone cowboy
the rhinestone cowboy

A palace for a princess, and as a dirty bike traveler I felt too shy to ask if I could have a bath, even though there was nothing in the world I wanted more when I first saw it. Half a year after this first stay I find myself back in Kunming, and I end up renting the house from my princess friend who leaves to travel the world, as serendipity will have it.

living large
living large

Home away from home

For one year I have called this house my home. It is half an hours walk from my work, and once the neighbourhood was used to my white face I no longer felt like a laowai.

The mi xian noodle ladies know exactly how I eat my breakfast noodles (with fresh tofu, a handful of fresh mint and coriander and a generous spoonful of chili). I could leave the key at my neighbourhood supermarket for guests if they arrived while I was working. Neighbours have even brought tired and somewhat lost looking cyclists straight to my front door.

In the garden three floors below my apartment is a talking beo, and the whole day through I hear my neighbours saying ni hao to him. Beo apparently likes to eat mango, because that is what he is shouting most of the day: ni hao! man guo! People in my community greet me, no one stares or takes pictures of me, and one lady tried to set me up with her son. She now calls me 荷兰 (he lan) every time she sees me: Hey you, Holland!

And now for the critical note

My neighbourhood is a cluster of gated communities grouped around a golf course. It has only been here for about ten years. Before there was some very polluting industry dumping wastewater directly into the lake. Dianchi is still very polluted and I never eat fish anymore, for fear it might have been caught from the lake. Now it is an extremely posh neighbourhood. The lake side has been beautified with a park, an amusement park and a sports complex.

The communities surrounding the golf course are built in a faux-Italian style, and the ochre and terracotta colours glow lovely in the late afternoon sun. If you look closely however Escher’s etches might spring to mind rather than Sienna.

eschers architecture
eschers architecture

I am reminded of the Mediaeval artist who drew an elephant while never actually having seen one in real life and only knew what it was supposed to look like by hearing it described by travellers.

Hearsay elephant from the Rochester Bestiary (1225)
Hearsay elephant from the Rochester Bestiary (1225)

Pilasters apropos of nothing, columns not supporting anything.  Walls à la rustica, but the natural stone is only used as a facade and not structurally. The houses are all made of concrete. The real à la rustica houses are one generation away, in the countryside. There mud brick and stone farmsteads are still standing.

Italia in China
Italia in China

There are Maserati and Porsche cars parked everywhere, on show as status symbols of the booming middle class. A small army of gardeners is continuously grooming the park-like surroundings and forever cleaning up the dog poo behind the ridiculously dressed mini-dogs and their owners. It is paradise. Friendly, green, new, well-maintained, full of nice people and great little restaurants. I love the flowers everywhere. Bougainvillea cascades onto the pavement, a jasmine tree outside my window smells deliriously good, roses and honeysuckle. The winters are short, most trees stay green throughout and there is always something in bloom.

Moving out of my community

Today I am not a tired and dirty bicycle traveller and I see things a little bit clearer. Now the house and the neighbourhood are no longer a rose-tinted mirage but my everyday surroundings. Honeysuckle cascading over the gated community fences, the barbed wire beneath the roses, video cameras hidden amongst the bougainvillaea, the friendly security guards at the entrance gates. Today I realized how fitting a metaphor the barbed wire and the roses are for all of China. Going in and out of my community as well as the country is hard and my movements are monitored. Yet life here is so pleasant you can almost forget the level of control that is exerted. That is, if you are one of China’s 1%, which we as well-paid foreigners definitely are. It is indeed life in The Truman Show. Isn’t it telling though, that most rich Chinese people will do anything in their means to get their children and their money out of the country? The kids will study in America or Europe, money is being used to buy property or enterprises abroad. Truman also wanted to escape his perfect show in the end. To be free.

China watchers to watch

I read mainstream world news, but western headlines about China don’t really do justice to the reality here as they don’t offer many nuances. They also generally stick with a fairly negative China bias. This is of course often justified, but not always. I’ve found some great newsletters that give daily or weekly updates on the political, economic and cultural nuances of China.


Trivium China sends a very concise daily politics and policy tip sheet.  It highlights news, offers a bite-sized bit of context, some bullet points, and very good insights on why certain things matter and links to further reading.

Bill Bishop is a renowned China watcher. He writes the free Axios China newsletter and the paid Sinocism newsletter.

SupChina offers ‘China in 2 minutes’, compiled by an impressive team of experts with decades of China experience. It also offers the Sinica podcast. 

Chinafornia is another newsletter that is mostly aimed at analyzing the USA-China relationship. Matt Sheehan is the former China correspondent for the Huffington Post. He also wrote The optimists guide to China.

Sixth Tone is one of my favourites: thoughtful articles about social issues such as changing norms around sex and dating. The articles are written by critical Chinese or foreign academics. It is based in Shanghai so it can’t be too critical.

Mingbai‘s daily tiny newsletter aims to tell you a little something that everyone in China but no foreigner knows. 明 (ming)  means bright, 百 (bai) means white, and together they mean knowledge.

Changpian is the opposite of Mingbai: it offers a monthly selection of Chinese feature and opinion writing, curated and partially translated by Tabitha Speelman. 

Gokunming has handy job-, housing- and personals listings, an event calendar and also a wealth of articles exploring the news, history, nature and culture of Yunnan.

I follow Chinese media such as ChinaDaily on wechat. This is basically a mouthpiece for the government so the opposite of free press. It’s interesting to read what the government wants us to believe, and it’s just as interesting what they omit. If you know of any more, please let me know in the comments below.

A short book update

I loved reading Jung Chang’s biography of the empress dowager Cixi. The love and respect for her shine through.

Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi

The opposite is true of her biography of Mao. The disdain for him is palpable from page one, and it makes the reading rather hard going. I will give it another go as it is impossible to understand China without knowing what happened under Mao’s reign. Next up: a bit more light but insightful reading from one of Peter Hessler’s excellent books on contemporary China.

China’s censorship: the Great Firewall

For the tenth year in a row China has been elected the nr. 1 of countries with the least freedom of expression. Some dubious honour. There is little audible protest against this extreme censorship: I get the impression most people are quite content with their lives and of course the consequences of dissent are grave.

China’s great firewall

Under Xi’s strong and stable but also paranoid and neverending leadership the last gaps in the flow of online information in and out of the country are being stopped and sophisticated online censorship and monitoring tools are constantly evolving. This means effectively that everything that happens online in China, within the so-called Great Firewall, can and will be monitored. This is necessary for the social rating system that is being tested in some major cities as we speak. It will be rolled out nationwide by 2020 and will have severe consequences for people who like to speak their mind and not toe the line: they will be limited in their movements, shunned by people who don’t want to risk their rating and thus isolated.
The Great Firewall
The Great Firewall 
In China there is no whatsapp, no facebook, no gmail, no other google apps, no dropbox, no twitter, no telegram, no instagram, no wordpress… (the list goes on) without the use of a VPN, which circumvents the Chinese censorship and snooping. VPN’s are tolerated for now but it is likely they will be shut down at some point.
I am from the last generation to have lived without internet but it is funny to experience how almost physically sensitive we are to disturbances in online communication: I know exactly when the government is tinkering with the firewall. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly how I know this but I’m not alone in this, all expats start sending each other messages when they feel a tightening of the net. It does feel like suffocating a little bit. Hotmail and Skype and Apple apps however will be accessible without VPN. Meaning: Microsoft and Apple have sold their soul to the Chinese government and everything sent through these companies is monitored by China. 
To all my European friends: enjoy your freedom, and protect it as much as you can. Check out Bits of Freedom if you want to learn more about internet freedom. And of course my old job at Institute of Network Cultures, which issues publications on this and other relevant topics of life online. 

Consequenses for my new life

I have been living in Kunming now for about 9 months. The first months were hard, and the only thing that kept me going at one point was the thought of going home in December. But, life got easier, I made some friends, I learned to speak some Chinese, and by the time I was in Amsterdam I found myself missing the Chinese food, weather, culture.. everything. And I had the persistent thought that I was only just scratching the surface. I could spend ten lifetimes in China and not discover everything. I was still undecided on the plane back to Kunming, but on my first day back in China I felt very strongly that I was at home here. Plus I had some wonderful chance encounters, giving me a glimpse of a more than interesting future here. I have been offered some challenging projects, a job and friendship, and I have decided to stay. My home is here, in Yunnan.
Right now I am working at organizing all the practical details of staying here for the long term. Visa, house in Amsterdam, tax, work, more boring things and now this digital merde. I have moved away from google, I quit my facebook once again (not a bad idea in the light of recent revelations on data breaches), no more whatsapp and back to keeping an offline diary. It is a hassle, and I sorely miss the ease of communicating with friends and family, but I’m sure my new life is worth it. Yes, it is life in a totalitarian state, but it is also a life with endless opportunity to learn, to follow my curiosity, to indulge in a lifelong fascination with Asia, to be constantly just a little bit out of my comfort zone, to be dazzled by the future (because I believe the future is Chinese), to enjoy some nice food in the sunshine, to build new friendships. I’m happy here. 
An update on some of the things that are in the pipeline and that have been happening lately:
  • a big exhibition about cycling culture opened last weekend in IWE, a private museum in the Western Hills. Apart from bringing the Cyclic! concept to Kunming I have curated one space of the Human Driven exhibition. I presented several ‘chapters’ of bicycle travel in the form of a documentary photo installation. I only had one month to do this and considering the time pressure, I’m happy enough with the result. Things in China move bloody fast.
  • I have been offered a job that I am very excited about. More about this later when contract and work permit and other red tape have been sorted.
  • Around June/July/August I will be in the Netherlands and in the UK and cycling around Europe a bit. I’m very excited about a reunion with the friends we cycled with in Tajikistan: 12 Pamir Pedallers are going to gather in the UK in July.
  • After the summer I will move from my posh (=boring) suburbs to the old city centre of Kunming. I will dive into my new job, continue my study of Chinese language and culture, and enjoy more of a social life, yoga schools, and all the other creature comforts of a big city.
  • I’m proud to let you know I have mastered the official 2 beginner levels of Chinese so I will start to study at intermediate level around the summer. It’s a frustrating language to learn but I’m excited about studying again.
  • For the longer term: I have been exploring the artist community of Yunnan and I’m dreaming of a future of living in the Xishuangbanna countryside, writing and organising my own lecture programme.

More blog posts soon, about tea culture and cycling.

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