‘There are just too many people moving here’: The popularity problem in China’s idyllic Yunnan province

People arrive seeking in pursuit of their dreams, but the classic processes of gentrification and spiralling rents inflict cultural damage

Built around a small courtyard, Chen Guang’s house has six bedrooms on two floors with a balcony and a roof terrace offering views over the rooftops of the snow-capped Cang Mountain. It was already warm enough this week to sit outside in the sun as friends dropped by for a chat over coffee and oranges while a small dog kept watch.

A former lecturer in marketing from Inner Mongolia, he was running a photography business in Shanghai when the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020 and work dried up. He became part of the latest wave to move to Dali in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, where his rent for the courtyard is one fifth of what he paid in Shanghai.

“Life in Dali is so comfortable compared with life in the city. A month after I arrived, I felt so relaxed. I think outsiders like us living in Dali have one thing in common, we all have calm written all over our faces,” he said.

Chen lives in Xizhou, a small town between Cang Mountain and Erhai Lake, a former staging post on the Tea Horse Road of caravan paths that wound through Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. About 20km south of Dali Old Town, Xizhou is a popular tourist spot and after a year living alone in his courtyard house, Chen started taking in guests.


“I felt it was too big for one person to live in. And some of my friends came over to visit me and said why don’t you run a home-style B&B to let more people feel this atmosphere?” he said.

About 400km from the border with Myanmar to the west and 700km north of Laos, Dali sits at about 2,000m in the foothills of the Himalayas. Home to the Bai people, one of Yunnan province’s 25 ethnic minorities, it has long been celebrated as a paradise of green hills, clean air, fresh water and warm weather.

During the 1990s, people from other parts of China started coming to Dali to live a simpler life away from the city, joining hippies, dropouts and drifters from abroad. They created alternative communities built around the principle of natural living in a place so remote that the authorities didn’t bother them.

Most came to Dali because of its climate, its beauty and the low cost of living. But some were drawn by the fact that Yunnan’s famous mushrooms include some that are psychedelic and that marijuana grows wild in the hills.

“The locals eat its seeds, just like eating melon seeds, but they don’t smoke it,” one former resident recalled. “Every year around November, we started harvesting the plants. The locals knew it, but they didn’t mind. They didn’t know we were getting high and they didn’t care.”

The authorities have clamped down on the cultivation and harvesting of marijuana in recent years but those who live in Dali’s remoter villages can still use it without much risk of detection. Elsewhere in Dali, they broaden their minds through meditation and yoga, with every kind of retreat and natural healing therapy on offer.

As the new migrants from the cities started having children, China’s system of household registration meant they were often unable to enrol in local kindergartens. So they set up their own and before long Dali had a busy market in schools using alternative or innovative teaching methods that are rare elsewhere in the country.

As China’s economic transformation gathered pace in the early 2000s, the hippies and the dropouts were joined by the burnt-out. Sick of working 12 hours a day, six days a week in pursuit of success in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, weary professionals sought refuge in Dali, bringing changes in their wake.

Deng Hucang and his wife Su Geng run a workshop making and repairing pottery in a village on the edge of Dali Old Town where they live with their five-year-old son. Deng arrived 11 years ago and although he was not one of the original settlers, the place still had essentially the same character.

“I didn’t wear shoes in the first year or two of my time in Dali, and just walked around in the Old Town because no one paid attention to your behaviour, and you were very free and relaxed,” he said.

“The people who came to Dali in the early days didn’t want to live under the system. They wanted to find a tolerant place with a good natural environment and not much traffic. And it turned out that Dali is that place.”

Deng credits much of Dali’s spirit of freedom and inclusivity to the tolerant and pluralist character of the local Bai people. When he first arrived, he spent a lot of time with the local people, who invited him into their homes and to their festivals.

During the 1990s, people from other parts of China started coming to Dali to live a simpler life away from the city, joining hippies, dropouts and drifters from abroad

“The interaction with outsiders has become simpler. It’s a ‘you rent my house, we are the landlords’ relationship. It’s just the relationship of buying and selling,” he said.

“The people who came to Dali changed. People who stay in Dali changed. The purpose of living in Dali changed.”

In a tall, narrow building on three floors in Dali Old Town, Li Yan runs a “plant-forward” restaurant called Bistro and Bowl which serves mostly vegetarian food cooked in an open kitchen on the ground floor. Up a narrow, steel, spiral staircase from the third floor is a small roof terrace and that’s where he offered me a choice of two beers, some plum wine or kombucha when we met at 8.30am one morning this week.

In 2000, when Li was 18, he left his home in Liaoning province in northeastern China for Dublin after his parents said he could study hard at university at home or go off and see the world. He enrolled in a language school to prepare for third-level study and got a part-time job as a cleaner at the Independent Pizza Company on Drumcondra Road.

“I watched everyone working as a chef and I thought, that’s really cool. When I’d get some hot water from the kitchen, I’d stand there for minutes. That guy making dough, that guy making the sauce. And whenever I got time, I’d gather with the chefs to chat,” he said.

‘The people who should stay are gone and the people who should not are coming’

—  Xiao Rao

He became a pizza chef and worked there for four years and trained at the same time to be a nurse, getting a job as a housekeeper with the Health Service Executive. But when the economic crash came in 2008, the climate changed, his hours were cut and he began to think about going home.

Back in Guangzhou, he worked as a chef first in a pub and then in an award-winning restaurant run by New Zealanders. But in 2018 he took two years off to go travelling and in 2020 then entered a competition for sustainable cooking and won it.

Part of the prize was help in setting up a restaurant in Dali and, after three months in a pop-up, he found this place. Few locals eat there, partly because Li’s dishes are more delicate in flavour than the spicier Yunnan cuisine but he feels at home in Dali.

“They say Dali is a place that can comfort any type of soul. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, it doesn’t matter what you experience, good or bad. Once you settle here, you come right. That’s the definition I heard and now I feel same thing,” he said.

“It’s like a small world to me here. I have my work here. I have a better life over here. And at the same time, although I live in small town, I haven’t lost any connection to the world. That’s the fun part.”

On the other side of the Old Town, Xiao Rao’s bar, The Guzzle Company, sits along a strip that includes a wholefood shop, a vegetarian restaurant, a cafe and a craft shop. The bar specialises in cocktails based on Yunnan flavours like ham, wild mushrooms and tea, along with beer and whiskey.

As Dali has become more popular, rents have shot up and Xiao Rao said they are now three times what they were when he first arrived.

“The tourism and real estate industries are thriving but Dali’s culture can’t keep up. So the people who should stay are gone, and the people who shouldn’t come are coming,” he said.

“When I first came here in 2017, the Chinese people I knew were from different industries, like architects, journalists, photographers, writers and poets and the Americans were teachers, journalists, literary workers and translators. But as you can see on this street, there are now four estate agents here.”

While Deng and Li both expect to spend the rest of their lives in Dali, Xiao Rao said he will leave when he has saved enough to open a bar in Shanghai. When I asked to take his picture, he took off his Iron Maidan cap and replaced it with a Trump Maga hat.

‘You have that gentrification where the people around us suddenly feel left out. They’re suddenly being priced out of their own backyard’

—  Brian Linden

“The name doesn’t really matter, just take a look at this slogan Make America Great Again. Make China Great Again,” he said.

Back in Xizhou, a cafe owner told me she was working so hard to pay the bills that she might as well be living anywhere and, after four years, she had still not gone up Cang Mountain. And Xu Rui, who runs a bar called Man Cang Craft Beer with her girlfriend, said she will leave as soon as her five-year lease is up.

“I want to move to a quiet place. These days, there are just too many people moving here. I thought that coming to Xizhou was not to make money, but to open a bar and have our own things to do. And then slowly more and more people came,” she said.

Across the street from Xu’s bar is the Linden Centre, a hotel and cultural exchange centre housed in a large Bai-style courtyard residence built in 1947, which is a protected building. American Brian Linden and his wife Jeannie restored the building between 2007 and 2009, and are the only foreigners to be allowed to take possession of a national heritage site in China.

Linden originally envisaged the site as home to a Chinese Davos or Aspen Institute, with cultural and intellectual exchanges between his home country and his adopted one. But the financial crash meant he had to lower his sights and the Xizhou venue and its two sister sites in Shaxi and Suzhou now function mainly as hotels.

Before the pandemic, students from Sidwell Friends, the Washington DC school where presidents including Barack Obama sent their children, spent a semester at the Linden Centre each year. A class will come this year for a shorter visit and Linden sees himself as a bridge between China and the US.

When we met at his site in Shaxi, about two hours’ drive north of Dali, he said he used to admire the people who moved to Dali as creative, courageous people who were willing to take a risk in the search for a new life.

“But then I feel that we also have to realise that we have an impact on the local community as well, and that our presence here changes it. And the sense of entitlement that comes with just thinking that your dream, say me as a Beijing guy who is burnt-out, that I should just find a place where I can follow my dream, we also have to think about those around us who have dreams as well and who have been here for thousands of years,” he said.

“The most common thing you will hear from those moving in here is the cost of living is so reasonable. So they can come here, and they don’t feel any professional, vocational pressure. But those around us still feel the cost of living is high. And as those people come in here, you have that gentrification where the people around us suddenly feel left out. They’re suddenly being priced out of their own backyard, and the only thing left for them to do is to just rent out their space.”

Linden employs almost exclusively local people and in the small village next to the Linden Centre in Shaxi he has opened a public museum and a library with funding from a Shanghai-based company. He suggests that new hotels should have to hire one or two local staff for each guest room, arguing that such a requirement might make newcomers think differently.

“A lot of people come here and want to do organic farming and everything and I really admire it, it’s a noble pursuit. But I would argue, if those people want to do it, come to places like this instead of Dali,” he said.

“If you want to do those things, go to the places where probably you will get the support and the people need the work. Don’t just do it because it’s close to a western food shop. And this is where I feel that in some way, we need to be looking at our decisions and how they impact.”

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