China has a well-deserved reputation for being safe, and violence directed towards foreigners is usually very rare. In the four and a half years I’ve lived here, I had never encountered abject hostility from Chinese people toward me or anyone I knew due to our laowai status.
Two weeks ago, though, a violent incident occurred at a bar I occasionally patronize in Kunming called The Box. On a Monday evening, three inebriated Chinese men, all in their early 20s, entered the bar with crowbars and immediately began bashing the furniture. One threatened to belt the Italian woman managing the bar at the time, sending her into hysterics that lasted for hours. Eventually, the cops arrived but refused to apprehend them. When a foreigner asked for one officer’s badge number, the cop told him to shut up and that if he wanted to, he could have all the foreigners arrested for not carrying their passports with them.
The next evening, two of the three men reappeared and apologized. They said that a foreigner had been rude to them–throwing money in one man’s face–and they wanted to retaliate. The fact that there was no relationship between the rude laowai and The Box mattered little; these three guys knew that foreigners congregated there, and that was good enough. Fortunately, nobody was injured in the incident and the problem has apparently been resolved.
The news shook the community up a bit, but it paled in comparison to what happened on Christmas Eve. At 10:30am, a man walked into Salvadors, a very popular cafe/restaurant in town, and blew himself up while attempting to place a homemade bomb in the back of the restaurant. He was fatally injured and died later that afternoon in the hospital. While he was dying, the police managed to extract a confession from the man for the two bus bombings that rocked Kunming in July. However, this all seems a little too convenient. Fortunately, nobody else was seriously injured.
While The Box is a hole-in-the-wall known to only a fraction of the community, Salvadors is perhaps the most prominent foreign restaurant in the city. It’s listed at the top of Lonely Planet’s list of Western food in Kunming, and year-round is packed with both tourists, local laowai, and Chinese. The cafe is popular enough to sell t-shirts and mugs that are trendy items in the city. Salvadors is located at the intersection of two roads that comprise the heart of Kunming’s laowai district. (Full disclosure: I worked for Salvadors as an English teacher for half a year and am friendly with its four owners). While Salvadors is normally packed in the evenings, its mornings are usually pretty quiet.
More clues abound. The bomber had 8,500 RMB on his person at the time of the attack, as well as a piece of paper with the fingerprints of nine different people. This has led some of us to speculate that the bomber had been in partnership with others.
It would be foolish to draw conclusions about these two events, which appear to be unrelated. However, this round of violence has shaken the community, and people are beginning to wonder whether they should avoid associating with large groups of foreigners. Others have openly mused about moving elsewhere, perhaps to a community with a less visible foreign population or one where the foreigners are more spread out.
This would be a shame on many levels. The fellows who own Salvadors are positive members of the Kunming community. They provide a service popular with a wide swath of local society, they employ over 20 women as waitresses and treat them more fairly than anyone else I can think of, and they have also organized cultural events such as the Kunming International Film Festival. To see a senseless act of violence ruin their livelihood would be tragic.
For my part, I’ll be among their first customers when they re-open, hopefully sooner rather than later. For those of you who live in and/or plan to visit Kunming in the next few weeks, there is a well-wishing sign on their door that you can contribute to.
In the meantime, I’m interested to hear whether any of you have encountered any violence in China such as the kind that has hit us in Kunming.
UPDATE: I have just read a long note from Colin, one of Salvadors’ four owners and the one present at the time of the bombing. Apparently, DNA from the cafe matches DNA taken from the scene of the July bus bombing, indicating that the bomber’s confession is likely legitimate. The man had apparently also spent 9 years in prison on an assault charge. The police also believe that the bomber had intended to detonate the device in the evening, when the cafe would have had many more customers. That nobody but him was injured is indeed a miracle.