Monday, 10 May 2010
A Day in the New Kunming
One of the stories in Jack Reynolds' wonderful book, "Daughters of an Ancient Race", which is about his experiences in China in the late forties with the Friends Ambulance Unit, is called "A Day in the New Chungking". What was new at the time was that the communists had just arrived.
I first visited China from Hong Kong in 1978, in the eighties, in 1994 and again two months ago, this time from Thailand. Each time the change has been remarkable, but in particular I can hardly believe the material progess in the new Kunming. It is material progress on the scale of a new Singapore and they have built a truly beautiful city.
The old rural China is still there but so too are the sweeping freeways, the consumer society that a surprisingly large proportion of the people can enjoy and of course displays of the most prestigious branded goods.
The size of China's population and its problems are truly awesome but in a park in Kunming the essential humanity and individualty of its people is always so very evident. A little girl, angelic with pink wings riding a stone lion, a mother and child on a park bench, an elderly couple taking the air, all enjoying a break from the eternal treadmill of work during the Chinese Spring Festival remind one that the teeming millions have a human face.
The park is busy and vibrant, a daily festival of people expressing themselves with drama and music by the water. While she knits, he plays his violin and the old men enjoy their small orchestra of traditional instruments.
The communist revolution is now but a distant memory and the old traditions and internal struggles will mean something very different to the new generation. If a regime can deliver stability and prosperity even without political reform that is what will satisfy their pragmatic view.
And prosperity there certainly is. In the towns there are top of the range cars everywhere and the fat cats are very apparent. While the traditional subsists with the new and the older generation readily embraces progress, somehow I doubt though that China will allow itself to be truly coca-colonised. It may take some trinkets from the West but it is too big, too much of a 'middle kingdom' to allow its own culture to be submerged.
The old Kunming has almost been swept away in the face of a tide of modern development. The old university campus is an oasis of calm but elsewhere there is no stopping the twenty first century. Run down streets are closed and quickly demolished. While in smaller towns the new may be rebuilt as a pastiche of the old style there is no sentimentality about slums and they have to go.
This is a new dawn and the new year celebration in the park is the place to see it writ large. Kunming is 'the city of eternal spring' and in mid-February the temperature was perfect, the tulips in full bloom and with cameras and mobiles in abundance to record them. Big lenses record the chubby single child of recent policy who can move confidently into a future that offers so much more than her parents could ever have hoped for.
Meanwhile the expressways flow fast and the tower blocks soar skywards. This extraordinary place where more than six decades ago Jack Reynolds landed after a rough flight over 'The Hump' would be totally unrecognisable to him. He and his colleagues in the Friends Ambulance Unit who faced the daunting task of moving medical supplies across impossible roads and who confronted oceans of suffering would be truly amazed. The part each one of them played at that difficult time was truly heroic.
(Jack was born Emrys Reynolds Jones and was known at the time as Jack Jones. He wrote under the pseudonym, Jack Reynolds.)