An isolated 'Shangri-la' in China now faces worldly influx

The town of Dali in Yunnan Province has been a mecca for foreign backpackers and independent-thinking Chinese with money. But there's trouble in paradise with a deluge of tourists and rising rents.

Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Newscom
People stroll by the Erhai Lake in Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Dec. 9, 2015.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

In an ancient city far, far away, set between tall mountains and a silver lake on which the sun always shines, there lives a breed of folk who have decided to be different.

There is more than a touch of fairytale about the community gathered in and around this lakeside town in southwestern China. Turning their backs on modern China’s regimentation and materialism and drawn by a sense of idealism, an influential and swelling band of free-thinking individualists have found refuge here.

Fleeing crowded, hectic and polluted cities, some of these middle class migrants seek merely peace and quiet in this happy valley’s eternal spring. They are following in the footsteps of foreign backpackers who first discovered Dali 20 years ago as a congenial spot to bliss out. Others are today using the isolation of this place to allow a Petri dish of social experimentation, from alternative schooling to grassroots business development.

“It’s like one hundred flowers blooming here,” says Hong Jiaming, sitting in a soon-to-open restaurant that will serve the organic produce he and fellow farmers grow outside town. “People are doing all kinds of different things…following their hearts.”

Their dreams, though, will have to withstand some harsh realities: Dali’s fame has spread and the historic old town is now flooded with hordes of package tour visitors that are trampling down the town’s former Shangri-la appeal. And in today's China, visions of alternative lifestyles are by no means in tune with the ongoing central government crackdown against anything that smacks of dissent.

Yurt dwellers and millionaire artists 

The “new Dali people,” as the immigrants are known, range from yurt-dwelling home-schoolers to internationally renowned millionaire artists, forming a loosely woven web of like-mindedness.

Take Wan Ke, for example, universally known here as CC. Sorting through the homemade jams that she sells from her spacious loft-style kitchen in a converted bed linen factory, she says she has no regrets about ditching her job editing an events magazine in Shanghai a decade ago.

Visiting Dali on their honeymoon, CC and her British husband Jason Pym “both thought we were getting tired of our jobs so why go back to Shanghai?” she explains. “I’d always wanted to do gardening and cooking and Jason always wanted to draw, so we made the decision over a cup of coffee.”

CC’s quince jam won a "slow food" prize last year as one of the top 20 foodstuffs in China. She sells it and other preserves online and ships them all over China.

“We are not making our fortune, but we are doing what we love all day every day,” says Mr. Pym, a market researcher-turned-illustrator.

Tian Zhenqiong says he wouldn’t change his life either. For two decades he worked as a clothes designer in Beijing; in 2012 he brought his family to Dali and since then has devoted himself to environmental conservation, recording local wildlife before the city expands and destroys it.

Mr. Tian ekes out a frugal living as a nature guide and by selling his paintings of plants and animals. It is a deliberate choice, he explains. “My living standard is very low, but I don’t think I need things like a car, a TV or a fridge,” he says. “They are not important and I don’t have many desires.”

At the other end of the revenue scale, but also describing herself as a member of the “big family” of newcomers, is Yu Pengying, a 30-something businesswoman. The income from the building supplies firm that she founded and owns, but which she no longer manages day to day, allows her to live the life of a lady of leisure.

She dabbles in a clothes store as a hobby and lets out rooms, mainly to friends of friends, in her elegant modernist villa in a gated community. The protective shell of her iPhone is painted with the trademark laughing faces made famous worldwide by painter Yue Minjun; he is a neighbor and gave it to her as a gift.

The recent migrants – their numbers range in the thousands – have come from all over China and abandoned all kinds of careers. Uniting them, says Dong Zhenru, who quit her job with a risk management company to open a hotel on the banks of Lake Erhai, is a desire “not to follow other peoples’ paths.”

Should I stay in Shanghai?

“If money, fame and success are your only criteria for success…you should stay in Shanghai or Beijing,” adds Xu Song, a burly bespectacled former account manager with a television advertising company. Now he writes travel books and helps peasant farmers market the tea they grow direct to customers, rather than rely on middlemen.

Dali’s reputation for independent thinking has attracted many middle class parents who find the Chinese public education system stifling; the town is home to around a dozen alternative schools.

Chen Gang, who was a documentary film maker when he first came to Dali 13 years ago, says the kindergarten and primary schools that he and other parents have founded are valuable for more than their liberal educational approach.

Equally important, he insists, is the school's role as “incubators for a real community” where everybody is engaged in deciding teaching methods and governance issues through debate and democratic procedures. “It’s good that people should have a better sense of public awareness, responsibility and participation,” Mr. Chen says. “I hope that will spread.”

To official ears, that may sound suspiciously like enthusiasm for civil society, a concept of which President Xi Jinping is not a fan. And the more politically restrictive mood that has descended on China in the past two years is felt even here, far from Beijing.

In recent months, local residents say, the police have ordered a theater to cancel the performance of a classical Chinese play, and have forced a residential compound to call off a New Year’s arts gala. Authorities also banned a bassoon concert.

“They just don’t like the idea of independent intellectuals getting together,” says one such intellectual, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Yet commerce may present an even graver threat than politics to the network of artists, artisans, farmers, teachers, booksellers, doctors, chefs and writers who make up what some of them call the only real community in China.

The streets of Dali’s old town were once lined with small artisans’ stores selling traditional crafts. They have been forced out by rising rents as the city has begun to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, and replaced by shops selling tatty souvenirs or quick noodles.

Zhai Guohong, for example, who opened an intimate but well stocked bookstore in a prime old-town location four years ago, has seen his rent skyrocket from less than $3,000 a year to the $19,000 his landlord is asking for next year. He will have to close, he says.

Like others, he will move away from the city center into more affordable premises. “The changes in Dali are physical,” Mr. Zhai says, “but the chemistry hasn’t changed. The people haven’t changed. They don’t judge you by your handbag, car or house.

“Dali may not be as good as it could be,” he adds, “but there is nowhere else in China better to live.”

Xu Song agrees. “If this place were destroyed,” he says simply, “I’d have nowhere to go.”

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