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.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. while i’ve not seen anything of a truly violent nature here in changzhou, i’ve often felt i’d be less safe here than in shanghai or neighbouring nanjing. while a congregation of foreigners may be an easy target, it always seemed to me that places like this city of 2 million is more likely to have hatred-driven ignorance cause someone to do something unfortunate. the stares and curses are much more common here than i experienced in nanjing, and there more than shanghai. but if kunming is any indication, perhaps in the more ‘foreign-friendly’ cities people are just quieter about their hatred, if the hatred is there at all for them.

  2. Pingback: Jonathan In China » A Very Sad Christmas - Kunming Bombings

  3. Thanks Matt for your article. I am Colins brother living in Costa Rica. If you have any more details, please post it. We are all trying to figure out more exact trail of events.
    I agree with you, that we all need to support them as much as possible so they can reopen as soon as possible and get back on their feet.
    Thanks again

  4. Thank you for this well written post. Matt, you obviously love living in Kunming and are shocked by these recent attacks, as we all are. To think that Salvador’s, a place that acted as a home away from home for me when I lived in Kunming and which is a common meeting place for Chinese and westerners, was targeted by terrorists I find to not only be shocking but deeply scary as well.

    I’m afraid I can’t say that I have never seen hatred and violence break out between Chinese people and foreigners. Last spring there was an incident with an American teacher in Hunan that while totally exaggerated by the American suggested a whole lot of ill feeling that could develop into violence. However it is all very rare and generally any hateful feelings from either side seem to stay hidden from the people they would hurt. What has happened in Kunming is extraordinary. We can only hope that Kunming remains the lovely peaceful city it has been for so many foreigners trying to live in, work in, and understand China.

  5. I’ve been in China almost as long as you, Matt, but I’ve never encountered anything remotely resembling this. I spent two years in Guangzhou, which many Chinese claim is a den of thieves and robbers. And two years in Hubei. I’ve traveled to a number of cities: Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Yichang, Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Zhuhai, Macao…and been known to roam and explore late at night, inevitably finding myself in some rather seedy looking neighborhoods.

    I keep my eyes open and stay aware of my surroundings, but not once have I ever felt threatened or subjected to any kind of hostility.

    My heartfelt thoughts to you and yours in Kunming, as well as wishing all a prosperous…and peaceful…New Year.

  6. Wow, that’s some scary news Matt – I’m glad everyone is alright.

    I’ve not witnessed much violence here in China, but have heard plenty of stories. Some fights deserved, some very undeserved.

    It’s unfortunate that the would-be bomber wasn’t able to give any motive before dying. Hopefully it was just a personal beef that died with him and Kunming can go back to being the peaceful, laid-back place it’s always seemed to me.

  7. I guess the moral of the story is don’t go to places named “Box” in China. I live in Harbin, which also has (well, had) a club named Box which was more or less the only foreigner nightspot here. A bunch of foreigners I know were attacked there over a dispute about coats (someone said “操你妈“, one of the foreigners said it back, and then a ton of chinese people attacked them) a while ago. Then earlier this year, some Chinese guys got into a dispute with some off-duty police. The police beat one of them to death and left his corpse on the street outside the club to freeze overnight. (The only person arrested as a result of this was the club owner. The club is now closed).

  8. I’d guess most incidents of violence occur at nightclubs. When I lived in Fuzhou in 2006, a foreigner was stabbed to death there in a dispute with a few Taiwanese mafia guys. I’d guess most clubs on the mainland are fairly mobbed up which is pretty much the case everywhere else in the world.

    What made the incidents in Kunming a little strange was that they occurred in cafe/restaurant/bars, places that attract a fairly clean clientele and are frequented by both foreign and Chinese people, and not just Chinese girls trying to hook up with Western guys.

  9. I’m local here in Kunming,can not be more shocked by the bombing incidence (it’s like kunming’s 9 11 for me)…I always walk passed by the street when I was in high school. I literally saw they opened up Salvadors all by their hands day by day.I came back to China for Christmas holiday…didn’t really expect something like this to happen during this time,it also concerns me because my German friend has a bar called Hong xing (red star) ,it attacts laowai and chinese just like Salvadors.Kunming has been a peaceful and laid back city before all these crap.I wish everyone is well.I hope I can go when they re-open before I fly back for school .I will still love and enjoy the days in Kunming as much as I did like always ,I hope your time in Km is not ruined by all this Matt.

    P.S. haha LOL at “not just Chinese girls trying to hook up with Western guys” I don’t talk to western guys to hook them up,I talk to them because I simply like to talk :P,and I bet some chinese girls were just trying to get their english improved.some were trying to get a green card~(no comment on this one)

  10. Both of those stories are really awful. I’m glad almost nobody got hurt. I do think it’s useful to keep in mind the differences between a planned terrorist attack and a bunch of drunk guys beating up a bar. Anti-foreigner rage is clearly the motivation for the latter. The motivations for the former are much more complex. I reckon this suicide bomber wasn’t solely motivated by anti-laowai hate. If he really is connected to the bus blasts, he was probably targeting foreigners to get more press. This is still awful, but it’s awful in a different way than “f*ck-you-laowai-scum” awful.

  11. Ligaya,

    Well said. I think a likelier cause to the Salvadors bombing might have been that the place has a high profile within the city because of its foreign-owned status, more so than the bomber wanted to kill as many foreigners as possible.

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