Reflections from an unglobalized part of the world

It hasn’t been very long since I’ve moved to Hong Kong. Something I find odd but a relief is how familiar this city feels, even though I’ve not spent time here before. Coming from San Francisco and Manhattan, I find this city pretty straightforward to navigate. I don’t mean only in terms of finding my way through the streets—after all, most of the city is squeezed along a narrow strip of land. Instead, nothing is very challenging about going to the shops, finding food, and taking the subway.

This is not the case in Kunming, in Yunnan province, where I’ve just spent a few weeks. I found it much more difficult to make sense of Kunming than Hong Kong, even though I was born in Kunming, grew up there until age 7, and visit every few years. Hong Kong feels so far away from New York and San Francisco, two other thoroughly globalized cities.

We’re all traveling to more places now, but I wonder if their novelty is limited by our tendency to travel to them in all the same ways. We use online booking to find hotels close to the city center, Yelp for restaurants nearby, and grab coffee in cafés that frankly all feel the same at this point. These rules don’t apply so neatly in Kunming. That city is a special place, here are some of my thoughts on an unglobalized part of the world, a description I mean mostly as praise.

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Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, far in the southwest of China, which borders Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. My love for Yunnan starts with the name: 云南, the characters for “Clouds” and “South.” South of the Clouds: It’s romantic enough of a name that Starbucks copyrighted it for a blend of its beans.

A few of Yunnan’s towns turn out to be popular with tourists, namely Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La. One can easily find accounts of their scenic or cultural value, I don’t care to recount them here. Instead I want to discuss the distinctiveness of Yunnan relative to the rest of China.

First of all, Yunnan is far from the rich coastal provinces. Not only is it distant from the most developed parts of the country, it’s heavily mountainous, which significantly increases its inaccessibility. (High speed rail came to Kunming only by the end of 2016, after arduous track construction through tunnels and over mountains.) The province had been an independent kingdom until around the 13th century, when it joined the fold of the Yuan Dynasty through Mongol conquest. Yunnan is still the most ethnically diverse province of China, home to large portions of non-Han peoples.

The province is so far removed that locals like to work into speech that Beijing is far away. For example: “That apartment is so far from downtown that it might as well be in Beijing.” I think the phrase “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away” is better adapted for Yunnan than anywhere else.

If you’re looking for modern developed China, Yunnan is not the place to go. The air there is good, without particulate from industry, though it can get dusty. It’s far from ocean ports, highly dependent on tourism, and Kunming’s income levels are far below that of other major cities. Few people speak English. Much of the province is reliant on tobacco or tea cultivation. In the city, property drives a great deal of local growth.

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My trips everywhere are organized around eating. The most memorable meal I had on this visit was at a tofu restaurant. It was in Chenggong, a new town nearby, to which Kunming recently moved its municipal government and universities. (Chenggong used to feature front and center when journalists covered Chinese ghost cities, an infamy I think it has outgrown.) More precisely, the restaurant was situated in a preserved village in Chenggong, one famous for making traditional tofus. Not only where the three tofu dishes of extraordinary quality, the hams, meat buns, soy milk, and greens were all cooked perfectly as well.

The government allowed this village to stay put in spite of commercial development all around it. Once you’re inside, it feels totally cut off from the rest of the city, much like when one is in a hutong. The village has three narrow streets, each barely enough for two cars to squeeze through side by side, and they all have to accommodate pedestrians as well. The restaurant is at the end of one of these winding roads, which brings you past through all the local establishments, until excellent tofu improbably awaits.

The quality of the meal combined with the difficulty of accessing it has much been on my mind, and it’s the main prompt for writing this post. To this day I’ve no idea what the place is called. You won’t find its website. It’s not in the tour guides. And the locals who go won’t be writing about it for you on Yelp.

And to a large extent, this was not an exceptional experience in terms of culinary revelation. In fact, many of the best places I’ve eaten at were like this to some extent. I found my favorite meals in mundane neighborhoods, areas very residential or difficult to get to from the city center. I was able to find these places only because my relatives, all of whom were born in Kunming, knew about them and took me. If I were not with locals, I doubt I’d have any idea these places existed.

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My posts are full of idle generalizations, and I’m not afraid this one will be driven by another. Visiting Kunming has made me think more about isolation, and how that can be an asset for learning and discovery.

As part of his idea of “innovation starvation,” Neal Stephenson has written on how it’s become much easier to be discouraged from trying various things. If one comes up with a novel idea, it’s very common to search on the Internet to see if it’s been tried before. And usually it looks like it sort of has. That’s typically discouraging, and one drops the idea of developing something novel.

Here’s Stephenson: “What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evidence that the idea wasn’t entirely new — and after a long and toilsome slog through many books, tracking down many references, some relevant, some not. When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields.”

If the map is full of blank spaces, it becomes exciting to discover new lands. That’s risky: Sometimes you get shipwrecked, sometimes your crew mutinies, sometimes you discover vast treasures of spice and gold. On the other hand, if satellites tell you that the world is fully mapped, or that Google tells you that your idea has been tried before, maybe you give up on adventure.

I have only a hazy understanding of Albert Hirschman’s ideas on development, but I think he’s written on something similar. If entrepreneurs or planners fully realize how finishing a project will be, whether that’s starting a firm or building a road, they may not start it at all. But they don’t realize that, so they get started, and then find it too difficult to turn back. And in most cases, the world is better off for their efforts.

If you don’t want people to be discouraged, maybe it’s better they don’t know of all the development already out there. The tradeoff is sometimes you waste the efforts of people who re-invent various wheels. But from a learning point of view, that may not be so negative. I submit that the process of manually working through solved problems is an underrated learning experience. Sometimes I re-do manual calculations of math problems usually trivial to solve; I used to make a habit out of re-typing various magazine articles (usually from the New Yorker) because it made me hyperaware of sentence construction; and one of the most valuable things I did as a musician was to copy whole swathes of sheet music. Rote copying drew derision, and nonetheless I regret not doing it very much anymore.

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If you want to cultivate enthusiasm for innovation, I submit it’s better not to know of all the solved problems out there. Stephenson calls this “Galapagan isolation.” Isolation breeds boredom and guilelessness; it encourages a belief that there are still secrets left to discover in the world.

Thiel has used an entire lecture to remind us the importance of belief in secrets: “The people who actually solve hard problems are people who believe in secrets. If you believe something is hard, you might still think you can do it. You’ll try things, and maybe you’ll succeed. But if you think something is impossible, you won’t even try.”

I’m not saying that Kunming is a great place to become an entrepreneur. In fact it has a poor track record of innovation. But growing up there possibly brings you to the optimal point between isolation and exposure, more so than say Greenwich Village. Yunnan is isolated and inward-looking. That helps to instill a sense of self-abasement that prompts one to think that much more of the world is out there; and when one eventually gets to a large city, it may be easy to feel disappointment that it’s not as exciting as the fantasy constructed by imagination. Why not discover, experiment, and consider that the status quo isn’t necessarily great?

Most of all we should avoid this tendency identified by Thiel: “People are increasingly pessimistic about the existence of new and interesting things. Can we go to the moon? We’ve done that already. Mars? Impossible, many people say. What about chemistry?… The periodic table seems pretty set. It may be impossible to discover anything new there. The frontier is closed. There is nothing left to discover.”

I like discovery-hunger, although I admit that life in Kunming offers too many leisures to sate various hungers. I’d refine my argument in favor of isolation to suggest it’s better to grow up in distant places before you move to central ones; some frustration at not having easy access to information is helpful to encourage deeper exploration. An isolated place should have enough outside exposure, while offering a great deal of boredom, in order to induce people to go out and explore. At its best, isolationism induces the sense that many people far away are much smarter than you, and that you should be learning voraciously from the rest of the world. It should also encourage disappointment with the status quo, and an optimism that one can change it.

At this point it may be relevant to bring up that the most famous person from Yunnan is Zheng He. He was the eunuch who commanded the imperial treasure fleets that sailed from China to India and Africa, before the Ming emperors halted ocean expeditions.

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Belief in secrets and a capacity for wonder manifests in non-entrepreneurial ways as well. Here are a few instances of that in Kunming:

Food supply chains are short, which means that what’s on the market is heavily seasonal. So people have different things to look forward to throughout the year, and they don’t expect that any particular fruit or vegetable will be around for long. Instead of looking for blueberries and strawberries year-round, people find a constant source of delight to discover that something has returned to market.

Mushroom picking is a good encapsulation of the exploratory tendencies of Yunnanese. Given its high elevation, plentiful trees, and mysterious other factors, Yunnan produces some of the best mushrooms in the world. I’ve gone on mushroom-picking expeditions, and I find them to be an excellent source of lessons of risk/reward tradeoffs. One might well find an extraordinarily delicious kind; one might well get poisoned. I’ve experienced both, and while I’m able to I shall continuing going on these adventures.

Belief in secrets can breed a hope for easy solutions, and that’s the flip side of the coin. For example, it might breed the lack of cynicism that makes people seek salvation through a cult; or to place faith in miracle ingredients in medicines; or fall for get-rich-quick schemes. I observe these tendencies in Kunming too.

(The front gates of Dali, a pretty town in Yunnan.)

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Day-to-day life in China is rewarding, but here’s something I’m often annoyed by: Cars have right of way. Pedestrians must yield at crosswalks when cars turn, on sidewalks when cars exit from lots, at intersections not governed by lights.

There are too many times when, midway through crossing the street, that you see incoming traffic coming at alarming speed, and you realize that you’ve taken your life into your own hands. In the city, one might not have the luxury of walking through the streets deep in thought, pondering say the latest food revelation. Frankly it’s appalling, and enough to get you to sign on to the #BanCars movement.

Then again, after some thought, one considers that car right-of-way really is the efficient Coasean solution here. Given the number of pedestrians, it’s correct to place the cost on those who can stop most efficiently. Otherwise there would be no way for cars, buses, or bikes to get around at all.

Here’s a note on public transit in Kunming: There’s a good network of buses, but not much of a subway system. Kunming has been one of the largest cities in China to have been doing without one. And it has started to remedy that, with remarkable slowness. The city announced the construction of six subway lines in 2010: Seven years later, it has opened half of them. That’s a much slower rate than every other large city.

I draw a lot of delight at this lackluster pace. Why is it so slow? My imagination offers two explanations, both of which cute: Perhaps the veterans who built the mighty Beijing and Shanghai metros arrived in Kunming and were at last humbled by a cityscape they cannot reshape; or the system is being managed entirely by local engineers, who are way out of their depth working on a project on which they dare take only baby steps. I can gladly believe in either explanation, and am not sure if I really want to know what’s really going on.

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A few final thoughts:

  • Some people say that the food in Beijing and Shanghai has been in decline. Kunming’s food is still impressive, I hardly ever regretted a meal. (Unlike in the States, where too often I felt I had to gulp down disappointment and calories in equal measure.) I’m optimistic that quality in Kunming will stay at a high level for a while longer. Development is slower, supply chains are still short, and people have the leisure time to be highly discerning about what they eat. Kunming supermarkets are often simply wet markets with a roof on top; until 2003, Walmarts used to sell snakes and slaughter chickens onsite.
  • A few general suggestions on local food: In the mornings, people eat mixian, or soupy rice noodles, which are silkier than wheat noodles. One might also look for ersi, a tangier form of rice noodles that I believe is not eaten outside of Yunnan. Lunchtime and dinnertime allow for greater extravagance. A few things to look for: Yunnan ham, soft tofus, local cheeses, bee larvae (or any other cooked insect), spicy beef, and local barbecue. Most of all, mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms, there are too many good kinds to count. They’re best in June and July, you’ll find all types then.
  • My rule of thumb for eating in China: So long as you’re wandering around residential areas, you really can’t go wrong with a meal. Go to big blocks of old apartments, and you’ll find good food nearby.
  • The Yunnan government has rolled out initiatives to fashion Kunming into a tech or finance hub. When I see these efforts, I wonder: Can’t it focus on its absolute advantages of agriculture and tourism? That seems to be working out well for New Zealand, Vermont, Bordeaux, and a bunch of other regions.
  • I very much like the idea of Hong Kong—this really is an astonishing place to find a skyscraper’d city—but I’m not yet sure of its execution.

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