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Starting in June 2021, I embarked on a 19-month fieldwork in Chengdu, a bustling metropolis located in southwest China. My goal was to delve into the unique living experiences of liberal intellectuals residing in this city. As time progressed, my focus narrowed and eventually centered on a cozy pub and public space named Dunbar, situated in the suburban outskirts of the city. Despite only being operational for 580 days, Dunbar managed to host over 200 public cultural events that left an indelible mark on the public life of Chengdu. These events included public lectures, seminars, film nights, and lively debates, among others. The exceptional quality and remarkable frequency of these events earned Dunbar compliments such as ‘a lighthouse in southwest China’; especially, its cultural series, ‘Conversations of Ten Nights,’ was hailed as the top cultural event in Chengdu of 2022. As luck would have it, I had the privilege of bearing witness to the entire life cycle of Dunbar, from its inception to its eventual closure. Throughout this period, I experienced firsthand the intricate balance between possibility and paradox that comes with maintaining a public life in today's China.


A typical night in Dunbar


Deviating from the norm found in common cultural venues, in Dunbar people usually seated outdoors in a circle, sipping craft beer in summertime, or around a crackling fire in winter nights. Moreover, unlike traditional cultural events that often adhered to pre-determined themes and structured sessions, Dunbar preferred a blind box setting: with no advance announcement of topics, attendees were armed only with the knowledge of the speakers' names and titles before arrival. There were also no limits on topics, duration, or format. Events usually commenced at 7:30 pm and would only end until the speaker were too fatigued, or audiences had nothing to follow up. This usually meant conversations lasting around midnight, allowing for a free-flowing and organic exchange of ideas.


Sitting around fire on cold winter nights

Winter in Chengdu was a season of hardship, marked by dampness, chilliness, and a persistent gloominess brought by heavy air pollution. However, the cultural events held here were a source of warmth, both physical and emotional. Around the fire, speakers and audiences sat in close proximity, facing one another in a simple and equal manner, making it easier to engage with each other. The warmth and community fostered by the fire at Dunbar had become such a defining feature that a local painter had chosen to portray the fire in a drawing of Dunbar.


Audiences chatting before events started


For many of the recurrent attendees who had attended numerous blind-box events, there was a shared sense of passion for knowledge, an acute awareness of public issues, and an openness to spontaneity and uncertainty, and a willingness to engage in genuine and meaningful conversations with strangers. Through time before and after the public events, these like-minded audiences formed a community known as the 'Dunbar audiences' or 'Dunbar friends', and would share frequent meals, drinks, parties, and trips outside of the venue. Their lives were more or less influenced by experiences in Dunbar, in finding friends, love, work opportunities, improving relationships with families, and more.