China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Living in Beichen

June 12th, 2011

Our first home in Kunming is a sunny, seventh floor walk-up in the Beichen or “North Star” suburb. The apartment belongs to our friends Ari and Josh who have lived in Kunming for three years now and invited us to split the rent with them while they are gone for a few weeks. Like most apartments here it was rented to them full of the landlord’s laminate furniture, but over the years they have made it their own, adding their own pieces and filling it with lush plants and Ari’s beautiful photography.

Beichen didn’t exist when I first visited Kunming eleven years ago. Like many parts of the city, it’s brand new and continues to grow daily as developers put up taller, glossier buildings, filling the sky with scaffolding and cranes in every direction. Our street, Beichen Middle Road, is a mega-block half a mile long with large apartment complexes on both sides, each made up of a couple dozen buildings surrounding a central courtyard, all painted in the same pink and peach pattern of horizontal stripes. A semi-circle of a balcony juts out from each apartment, many enclosed in plexi-glass to keep out the dust kicked up by all the construction. The primary use for all the balconies is as a place to hang laundry.

At street-level, Beichen Middle Road is lined with restaurants, clothing stores, jewelry shops, and so many lingerie stores, shoe stores and hair salons that you would think this was the only place in the city to buy bedazzled heels or a peacock-green lace pushup bra or to get your hair bleached orange at the ends and cut into a feathered shag. Just outside of our complex’s front gate, next to a leather-goods shop, is a convenience store stocked with toiletries, snacks, beer, and cigarettes where we sometimes stop in the evening to buy ice cream bars, and a fruit shop manned by people so grumpy that, as our friend Josh once put it, “The best fruit in the world could not overcome the poison in their hearts.” On the far side of the road is a closet-sized photo studio specializing in glossy portraits of young couples in rented evening wear, an even smaller tailor shop, and a couple of foot-massage parlors where men and women come to soak their feet in hot water and have their shoulders rubbed and their pressure points activated for 10 kuai, or about $1.50, a pop.  Farther down the road, the housing complexes open up to reveal a couple of pedestrian malls lined with shabu-shabu and hot-pot restaurants along with a handful of Western-style eateries, the most popular of which is Sandra’s, run by Sandra Lindberg, a German expat who makes pizzas on cracker-like crusts that assuage the local expats’ gastronomic pangs of homesickness.

But the hubs of the neighborhood, even more than Sandra’s or the video arcade at the end of the block, are the two food markets. The first, hidden behind a large restaurant and almost directly across the street from us, is a traditional wet market where vendors sell everything from Sichuan peppercorns and dumpling wrappers to bok choy, banana flowers, and ground pork, all laid out on white tiled counters in a large, shed-like room that is kept dark during the day to keep everything cool. The second, at the other end of the block, is Metro, Kunming’s answer to Costco or Walmart. The blue and white big box-style store sells everything from camping equipment (which surprised me, as I didn’t know camping was a Chinese pastime) to underwear, refrigerators, flat-screen televisions, cleaning supplies, dry goods, vegetables, meat, and wine (both cheap wines from Europe and up-and-coming, if still undrinkable, Chinese brands). Both Chinese and Western brands are available in great quantity – the Tide next to the “White Cat” detergent, the rice crackers across from the LU Petit Écolier and the Oreos. (We bought the latter one day in a fit of low blood sugar-induced pique and discovered they are what we might consider “half-stuffed,” much of the cream having been removed to suit local preferences.) One would think that the western goods, like Swiss yogurt and Oil of Olay face creams, are stocked for the area’s large expat community, but the majority of the store’s customers appear to be from the city’s new upper class for whom Beichen is also the neighborhood of choice.

During the day, Beichen is quiet. Grandmothers gather at small tables tucked into stands of trees around the complexes’ courtyards to play cards or mahjong; the shop girls hang around in their miniskirts and heels, waiting for the occasional customer; and the shoe repair/bike repair/key-cutter who sets up shop at the end of the block plays Chinese chess with his friends on a low table while waiting for someone to come by with a broken heel or a flat tire. In the malls, the restaurants’ waitstaffs bring bags of vegetables out to the front stoop and clean and prep them while they wait for the groups of businessmen and women who show up at exactly noon and leave again an hour later, giving the waitresses time to play a few rounds of badminton before the dinner preparations begin.

At night, however, the area comes to life as the residents migrate home from offices downtown. Women in frilled dresses and men in bright striped polos or slightly over-sized jackets head to busy restaurants where tables spill onto the sidewalks; shopkeepers help their children with homework, then gather with their families to eat dinner in their shops, often preparing their meals at woks dragged out onto the sidewalk. Homework done, children ride around the housing complexes’ courtyards on brand-new tricycles or, in a sign that this really is the city’s wealthy neighborhood, the occasional Power Wheels truck. Groups of middle-aged women meet in the area’s largest courtyard to practice their fan dancing routines while smaller groups of friends gather in majong parlors that line side streets. On Friday nights, for a special treat, large groups gather in front of dance studio windows to watch kids from the neighborhood take hip-hop lessons, working their way through all the steps you’d find in the new Just Dance games for Xbox Kinect. (Ballet classes going on just down the block command a much smaller crowd.)

In the evenings, after working, studying, and running errands all day, Josh and I usually join the crowds strolling along the streets. We watch the dance classes along with the rest of our neighbors before dragging ourselves up the seven flights of stairs to the apartment to go to bed. But Beichen, it seems, continues to be busy well into the night, and we are woken periodically by the sounds of trucks rumbling by with building materials for nearby construction site and scooters’ alarms going off, sounding exactly like the car alarms in New York but raised an octave or two, like toy versions of the real thing.

Photos: Josh Wand