Urbanites Flee China’s Smog for Blue Skies

November 22, 2013

Urbanites Flee China’s Smog for Blue Skies


DALI, China — A typical morning for Lin Liya, a native of Shanghai transplanted to this ancient town in southwest China, goes like this: See her 3-year-old son off to school near the mountains; go for a half-hour run on the shores of Erhai Lake; and browse the local market for fresh vegetables and meat. She finished her run one morning beneath cloudless blue skies and sat down with a visitor from Beijing in the lakeside boutique hotel started by her and her husband. “I think luxury is sunshine, good air and good water,” she said. “But in the big city, you can’t get those things.”More than two years ago, Ms. Lin, 34, and her husband gave up comfortable careers in the booming southern city of Guangzhou — she at a Norwegian risk management company, he at an advertising firm that he had founded — to join the growing number of urbanites who have decamped to rural China. One resident here calls them “environmental refugees” or “environmental immigrants.”

At a time when hundreds of millions of Chinese, many poor farmers, are leaving their country homesteads to find work and tap into the energy of China’s dynamic cities, a small number of urban dwellers have decided to make a reverse migration. Their change in lifestyle speaks volumes about anxieties over pollution, traffic, living costs, property values and the general stress found in China’s biggest coastal metropolises.

Take air quality: Levels of fine particulate matter in some Chinese cities reach 40 times the recommended exposure limit set by the World Health Organization. This month, an official Chinese news report said an 8-year-old girl near Shanghai was hospitalized with lung cancer, the youngest such victim in China. Her doctor blamed air pollution.

The urban refugees come from all walks of life — businesspeople and artists, teachers and chefs — though there is no reliable estimate of their numbers. They have staked out greener lives in small enclaves, from central Anhui Province to remote Tibet. Many are Chinese bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, and they say that besides escaping pollution and filth, they want to be unshackled from the material drives of the cities — what Ms. Lin derided as a focus on “what you’re wearing, where you’re eating, comparing yourself with others.”

The town of Dali in Yunnan Province, nestled between a wall of 13,000-foot mountains and one of China’s largest freshwater lakes, is a popular destination. Increasingly, the indigenous ethnic Bai people of the area are leasing their village homes to ethnic Han, the dominant group in China, who turn up with suitcases and backpacks. They come with one-way tickets from places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, all of which have roaring economies but also populations of 15 million people or more.

On Internet forums, the new arrivals to Dali discuss how to rent a house, where to shop, how to make a living and what schools are best for their children. Their presence is everywhere in the cobblestone streets of the old town. They run cafes, hotels and bookstores, and the younger ones sit on the streets selling trinkets from blankets.

Some become farmers here, and some spend their days home schooling their children. Their presence has transformed Dali and surrounding villages into a cross between Provence and Haight-Ashbury.

One magnet is the village of Shuanglang, which became a draw after the famous Yunnan natives Yang Liping, a dancer, and Zhao Qing, an artist, built homes there. As at other lakeside villages, the immigrants, some with immense wealth, live near fishermen and farmers.

“All kinds of people come here with different dreams,” said Ye Yongqing, 55, an ethnic Bai artist from the region who has lived mostly in cities, including London, but bought a home here five years ago. “Some people imagine this place as Greece or Italy or Bali.”

“Dali is one of the few places in China that still has a close tie to the earth,” he added, sitting in front of a table of squashes in his garden courtyard. “A lot of villages in China have become empty shells. Dali is a survivor of this phenomenon.”

Ms. Lin said she first fell in love with Dali when she came as a backpacker in 2006. She returned twice before moving here. In 2010, on the third visit, she and her husband, whom she had met trekking in Yunnan, looked for land to lease to build a hotel on Erhai Lake. It has not all been easy going, Ms. Lin said, citing negotiations and misunderstandings with local officials, villagers and employees.

“We just wanted to switch to a different life,” said Ms. Lin, who had lived in Shanghai as well as Guangzhou. “My friends in Shanghai are struggling there — not only in their work, but also just to live. The prices are too high, even higher than in Europe. They become crazy, go mad.”

Ms. Lin moved here less than two years after giving birth to a son. “It’s good for the baby because it’s like my mother’s childhood,” she said. “My mother’s childhood in Shanghai — the air was still clean, you could see blue skies, there was clean water.”

That is a common refrain among parents here. One afternoon, four mothers, all urban refugees, sat outside a bookstore cafe, Song’s Nest, practicing English with one another. “The one thing we all have in common is we moved here to raise our children in a good environment,” one woman said.

The bookshop’s owner, Song Yan, moved here this year and translates books by an Indian philosopher popular with Chinese spiritual seekers. One night, she and another translator and urban refugee, Zheng Yuantao, 33, talked over dinner about their moves.

“I’ve never felt so free in my life,” Mr. Zheng said. “I grew up as a city boy, and I never realized how much I like living close to nature.”

From the nearby lakeside village of Caicun, Huang Xiaoling, a photographer, flies back to Beijing to shoot portraits and events for clients. She had once lived in a courtyard home in the Chinese capital, but fled in September with her 3-year-old son and husband, an American who works remotely as a technology director for a New York publishing company.

“I’m still productive even though I don’t go into an office,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s the weather and the environment, or just me feeling that, ‘Oh, I got out of the cave that I wanted to escape.’ ”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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