By Zhou Mengya in Features

Wenlin Street in Kunming is a remarkable area, and students who come to Kunming to study as well as foreigners living in the city are no strangers to it. Located in the heart of Kunming, Wenlin Street is home to Yunnan's top universities, with the main entrance of Yunnan University to the east, Kunming Normal College to the north, and Yunnan Normal University to the west. This iconic street and neighborhood carries a long and distinctive culture starting from the time of the Ming Dynasty.

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Yunnan University was a center for national examination, bringing scholars from many places together, partly due to its geographical advantage. So plentiful were they, that a saying arose: "scholars were as many as trees in a forest." From this saying in turn came the name of this street, "Wenlin" or "Scholars' Forest".

Eraser Books in Wenlin Street near the intersection of Green Lake North Road

Back in the 1930s and 1940s Yunnan Normal University was called National Southwestern Associated University. During these early days, Wenlin Street, already featuring many restaurants and tea houses, became a "second library" for college students and professors. Entangled with its name, Wenlin Street bears a dense cultural aura throughout its history, extending beyond the academic circles. It has been the living place and cradle of inspiration for several famous Chinese writers.

Wang Zengqi, contemporary Chinese prose writer and dramatist, lived in Kunming for seven years during the War of Resistance Against Japan. In those seven years, he spent many of his days in Wenlin Street's tea houses and composed several of his most significant works. Chinese authors Qian Zhongshu and Shen Congwen, who was also a researcher of historical relics, were his neighbors. Chatting about novels, drama and philosophy in tea houses was the most romantic pasttime during the chaos of wartime.

Prague Café in Wenlin Street

At 8 Xichangpo on the west side of Wenlin Street stands the former residence of Mr. Wen Yiduo, Chinese scholar and poet known for his nationalistic poetry. On the morning of July 15, 1946, he delivered an impassioned speech at Yunnan University. That afternoon he was assassinated on his way home, turning an area rich in cultural drama into the stage of a tragedy. Now there is an exquisite, cozy café hiding just inside the narrow alleyway next to his former residence, appropriately called "The Alley".

The entrance of the alley where his former residence stands is called Qianju Street – a steep slope that connects Wenlin Street to Green Lake South Road. In the year 1660, the Qing dynasty government asked Yunnan to set up the Baoyun Coin Making Bureau (Baoyun Qianju) here, giving the street its name. Cangyuan Alley intersects Qianju Street and is home to some authentic Kunming local dining and snacks.

Qianju Street

Turning to the south, a small slope leading to Green Lake Park is named Xiansheng Po (which means "Mister Slope"), as here once lived the 'misters' who wrote national examination papers. Now it is merely a small alley sandwiched between residential buildings.

Along the slope entering Wenlin Street from Green Lake North Road, there are many night bars and cafe, as well as the famous local restaurant Duanshi Xiaoguo where one can indulge into a variety of Yunnan's famous rice noodles.

Mosaic Bistro in Wenlin Street

There are no longer tea houses on Wenlin Street itself, yet the old tea house culture continues, fostered and enhanced by dozens of small cafes along the street, as well as along Wenhua Alley, which extends Qianju Street after crossing Wenlin Street to the north. Since about 2003, many bars and cafes have opened on Wenlin Street and Wenhua Alley, and the whole neighborhood continues to be popular among the literary and artistic, as well as expats and young Kunmingers.

Salvador's at the entrance of Wenhua Alley

At the entrance to Wenhua Alley is the well-known Salvador's Coffee House, one of the earliest Western restaurants in Kunming that is still open today, with Elephant Books, a popular bookstore, just on the opposite side of the street. Besides cafes, western foods, and bookstores, there are many other small restaurants as Wenhua Alley continues, providing a variety of choices, including authentic local cuisine, all kinds of Chinese snacks, as well as Korean and Japanese food.

At the end of Wenhua Alley, right before the road turns, hides a two-floor barbecue house, which is packed almost every night. After turning right at the end of street, you will find Mandarin Books, hosting a variety of Chinese and foreign books and stationery, and further on, the rather famous Wheatfield Bookstore. Emanating a tempting smell as the road turns to Tianjundian Alley are the not-to-be-missed chestnuts, freshly roasted at the fruit shop on the corner.

Mandarin Books in Wenhua Alley

The west end of Wenlin Street leads to Dongfeng West Road and a basement which used to be the warehouse of a cinema. In 2016, famous Chinese artist Jiang Liping and her family rented and transformed it into a private art museum, named simply the Wenlin Art Museum.

Although Wenlin Street has a rich history, it has not ignored nor been abandoned by the modern era. As before, it possesses an evolving and unique charm and is a favorite hangout for many expats around town, both for long-term residents as well as visitors.

Middle-section of Wenhua Alley