the shenzhen diaspora in dalifornia

So, those who can afford to leave Shenzhen and escape the crazy, have. Many are hanging out in second homes in Dali, but others are young parents, who are enrolling their children in kindergartens in Dali.

Since the 2020 Covid pandemic, Dali has suffered from a lack of tourists. Indeed, many of those who opened small cafes and hostels before the 2020 pandemic, now find themselves making ends meet as delivery people or have been forced to sell off their investments in order to settle debts. The ancient city is open, but many of the shops are closed and the streets do not bustle. However, the 2022 outbreak has mobilized Shenzheners who can afford to wait out the outbreak in the mountains of Yunnan. Moreover, parents who want their pre-school children to play with others have also come to the city to take advantage of the numerous, experimental and unregulated kindergartens and childcare centers, where it is possible to register a child for one week, a month or a semester. Friends who have enrolled their children in Dali institutions emphasize that the quality of education in Dali can’t compete with that in Shenzhen, but the natural environment offers opportunities for boating, hiking and playing that are important for a healthy childhood. And yes, tuition is priced for Shenzhen wallets, especially as facilities that were set up for 15 to 20 children are now facing enrollments of over 40 students.

The above image, for example, is from the Daohe Kindergarten’s webpage, introducing its Dali program. You can click over for a sense of how this natural, slow living alternative to big city problems has been marketed. The organizer, Daohe Academy 道禾教育 is a Taiwanese education organization that has been influential in Shenzhen for its experimental pedagogy. Indeed, five or so years ago, I joined a group of Shekou parents who were visiting Daohe schools in Taiwan to evaluate how the Daohe program could be adapted in Shenzhen. However, the connection between Shenzhen, Taipei and Dali is more extensive than a yearning for better education alternatives. According to a local anthropologist, a Taiwanese investor who had made his money investing in a Shenzhen factory circa 1985 opened one of the first ‘international hippie-style’ hostels in Dali once he had made enough to pursue his California dream circa 1995.

Many of the young parents currently going Dali to take advantage of the city’s kindergartens don’t have a second home there and their intentions seem temporary, waiting out the Shenzhen lockdown. These families rent rooms in hostels that are located near their chosen kindergarten or childcare center and organize their days around their children’s schedules. The situation is reminiscent of the Wutong Mountain education environment circa 2010, Shenzhen. At the time, many families who had already established themselves in Futian and Nanshan rented an apartment in Wutong Mountain so that their child could take advantage of the area’s natural environment and experimental education facilities. Moreover, as in Wutong Mountain, this generation of Dali migrants these parents tend to be idealistic with a nostalgia for the hippie movement that they never experienced. (That said, as someone who was four years old during Woodstock, I feel their yearning to be part of a utopian movement; I too am nostalgic for the southern California dreamworld that imploded before I attended high school).

All this California dreaming provides the symbolic framework for imaging connections between Haight-Asbury, Taipei, Wutong Mountain and Dali. In fact, the first generation of Dali migrants arrived in the 1990s, they were anti-establishment, arty, smoked weed and let the clouds drift by. It was during those easy days that western backpackers also showed up in the city. Together, they created what became known as “Dalifornia,” a nexus of laidback hedonism, alternative values and (eventually) belief in the possibilities of telecommunications and the internet. Like Cali, after its first burst of idealism, Dali has also become an important hub for real estate development and startups, attracting well-educated, ambitious and idealistic digital nomads. They want the world to be a better place and here, between the valleys of the eastern Tibetan Plateau and the mountains of the western Yungui Plateau they can dream the world otherwise.

Short video by Echo Tang that introduces some of the earliest dreamers to move to Dalifornia (Mandarin with Chinese subtitles).

2 thoughts on “the shenzhen diaspora in dalifornia

  1. How facinating ! Had an after-midnight hike in Wutong Mountain once, and met some great people along the way. What’s the latest for the Wutonfornians at the moment?

    • Hi Sice, I don’t know what’s happening in Wutongshan as I haven’t been for about six months. Last time I was there, there were complaints about how the education experiments had been shut down, forcing many families to move elsewhere. Currently, I can’t cross the red-green cordon so it may be a while before I visit again.

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