It used to be Singapore that was always being used to compare heaven (Singapore) and earth, or hell (the Philippines). At one conference after another, fellow Filipinos would get together and lament how we were lagging behind the Singaporeans, pointing to the Singaporeans’ roads, buildings, even professors’ salaries.
Up to about the 1980s, Malaysians, Thais, Indonesians and Vietnamese would join Filipinos in these comparisons, but then the Malaysians pushed forward, as did the Thais; and so they dropped out of our rituals of lament.
China did not figure in our comparisons because they rarely hosted international conferences. We knew China was developing at breakneck speed, but somehow there was a disconnect with the academic world. Surely, we thought, our universities were still better, but then we began to notice how the Chinese were climbing up in international rankings. Academics visiting China would come back with stories like those of Marco Polo, except that the wonders were now of dazzling buildings, libraries and research facilities, as well as of faculty pampered with high salaries, housing and other privileges.
I was in partial denial too, arguing that, sure, Beijing and Shanghai and, lately, Xiamen and Guangzhou were well developed, but that these urban centers did not represent the whole of China.
So when I was invited to attend an international conference in the city of Kunming, I figured to better stock up with my basic needs like medicines. I had visited Kunming several times in the 1990s, and my impression of the city was that it was out there in the wild, wild west, a favorite for backpackers who want to go around the province of Yunnan, trek the mountains, visit national minorities, 26 of which are found in the province. The province seemed frozen in time, popularized by James Hinton’s book, “Lost Horizon,” which was made into a film with the same title and set in a semifictionalized peaceful mountain kingdom called Shangri-la. The Chinese have since capitalized on this, creating a city with that name.
Shangri-la or no Shangri-la, I was shocked when our plane landed. The airport, and the trip into the city, showed a new Kunming that was on a par with Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, minus the traffic. Our conference was held in a stunning convention center, so sprawled out that I joked to my colleagues that just one trip to the toilet got me doing the 10,000 daily steps recommended for good health.
Even my Chinese colleagues from the east coast (Beijing and other cosmopolitan centers) admitted they were surprised at how rapid Kunming had developed.
We did have frank discussions about China’s overall economic development and its challenges, including western business reports full of dire predictions about China collapsing because it developed too rapidly. My Chinese friends did confirm there were many misguided investments, but the Chinese professors are still upbeat about their development, saying it’s business as usual, they say, with greater caution now in their policies.
A major initiative too is a crackdown on government corruption which is seen as a major stumbling block for business. The crackdown is very real, so much so that when we offered our Chinese friends in government our traditional pasalubong (gifts), they smiled, half-seriously commenting, “You know we’re strict now about gifts. . . but who can refuse Philippine mangoes?”
Incorporated into the grand plans of China are huge investments and reforms in the educational sector, which is why their universities have been successfully pursuing partnerships with some of the best universities in the world like Yale and Harvard, even as it fosters relationships with counterparts in neighboring countries, including the Philippines.
Many of the conference delegates half-complained about the long routes they had to take to get to Kunming, which is still off the beaten track. From most of southeast Asian capitals, there are no direct flights to Kunming. I went via Hong Kong and on the way back, I did get another reminder of how China is developing.
Our flight was packed with tourists from Yunnan, heading out to vacation in Hong Kong, and they reminded me of the earlier tourists we had in the Philippines—first from Japan, then Taiwan. Many were clearly farmers, or small business people. The flight attendants were at wit’s end trying to get these tourists to sit down and stop exchanging seats. And when the plane was about to land in Hong Kong, you could hear the Yunnan tourists holding their breath and letting go, totally thrilled like they were on a roller coaster.
The man next to me struck up a conversation, and I realized from his questions (e.g., Are those clouds out there or is it the sea?) that this was his first flight. I taught him how to use the video monitor to get flight information, and he would read out the altitude, the plane cruising speed with awe, while staring out of the plane.
I found out he was from one of the many autonomous regions within Yunnan where national minority groups are the majority. His fellow tourists all looked like they could have come from our Cordillera region. My seatmate had a small shop, but was now prosperous enough to go off to Hong Kong. When the monitor flashed flight information in English, he asked me for help, explaining he could not read the English text, but that his son could, he said with pride, because they were now teaching English in primary school. The Chinese are proud of the Chinese language, but are eager to learn English to communicate with the world.
I remember back in the 1970s when we first began to get large numbers of Japanese tourists, followed a few years after by the Taiwanese, then the South Koreans. Like the Yunnan travelers, these were mostly farmers and people from the countryside, and Filipinos sometimes made fun of them, not thinking about how their large numbers reflected how well their countries were developing.
On my last day in Kunming I was offered an unexpected tour not usually done for foreigners. (It helps that I’m still considered huaren, Chinese.) This was a tour around the old streets of Kunming, something I would recommend to our own mayors and urban planners.
Many of the narrow streets are closed to vehicles, and very old buildings have been renovated instead of being demolished. An old huaniao (birds and flowers) market is now home to small entrepreneurs selling food, clothing, household items, catering more to domestic buyers. A stone’s throw away are the newer buildings and shops, still operated mainly by Chinese with shop names like “Dancing Wolves” (offering garments) and “Ideology Hall” (with artisanal crafts carrying revolutionary slogans).
“Come back,” my two tour guides enticed. They were not originally from Yunnan, and when I asked the younger one if he liked Kunming, he replied not with a lukewarm yes but with a “Tai hao le, tai hao le!,” roughly translated to mean “too good to be true.” I guess he had found his Shangri-la.
I wonder when we Filipinos will find, or build, our Shangri-la.
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