Published: January 25th 2008January 25th 2008
A five minute ferry ride from the city of Xiamen, Gulangyu is an island still transitioning from its colonial past. Its a fine example of China's cultural resilience. The look is still European, but the vibe is entirely Chinese.
A Brief Overview of the History of the Concessions
The Opium Wars were a terrible loss for China, not only because it legalized a terrible drug addiction and cemented a bankrupting trade imbalance but it opened China to European concessions. These concessions reflected the social darwinism of the time, as Chinese citizens were not allowed entry. The European architecture stamps the Chinese cities with a near permanent reminder of their brutal loss.
Gulangyu was foreign occupied after the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 and remained so until 1949 with the Chinese Communist victory. The island was abandoned and thus given back to its original people, buildings intact. Some buildings have fared better than others, but now it seems attempts are being made to restore all of them to their former stature.
You see, here is the thing about China. We criticize how it tears down its history in the name of progress. A walk through the
concessions in Tianjin can be really depressing to see the worn buildings being razed rather than restored. But you see, I am amazed how many of them have survived at all considering their significance! I find it a testament to the Chinese spirit...they are survivors, they will use what is left to rebuild their country. They embrace Gulangyu as a museum of European architecture and today understand its economic potential.
In only 50 odd years, the Chinese culture has permeated the European bricks. Walking about Gulangu looks European but feels totally Chinese. In the same way that abandoned farm land returns to its original forest state, China has returned to Gulangyu.
A Labyrinth of Pedestrian Streets
The only motorized vehicles on Gulanyu are golf carts, and the lanes are so narrow as to only allow them to go in one direction. There is no logical grid pattern to the streets, and your best bet if lost is to hook on to the road which traces the circumference of the island. Sunlight Rock in the middle of the island makes a good reference point as well.
We arrived by ferry after dark and had no
I don't know why I was surprised to see that they make the same heart connecting two names, but Chinese graffiti intrigues me.
idea how to get to our hotel. Of course, there were several people eagerly awaiting the chance to guide us by foot. We ended up pulling our weighty luggage (still full of Christmas presents from Hainan) up the winding cobblestone streets. It was a pretty decent 10 minute workout. The island is small, but steep in parts.
A Day of Leisurely Wanderings
The next day we had no real plan for tackling the island. We quickly abandoned the map and just went whichever way seemed interesting. We climbed Sunlight Rock to its peak and enjoyed the view of Xiamen.
We also checked out a museum about Zheng Chenggong. Interestingly, my travel guide described him as a celebrated pirate. However the Chinese choose the word hero instead. You see in 1661 he liberated Taiwan from the Dutch, so its a matter of perspective. The island boasts an impressive statue to the man looking protectively towards mainland China.
Testing our luck once again, we tried the cable car, which was a fun way to see the little yards behind all the houses with their little gardens.
The island also has quite a large aviary which
Pushing Window Panes
These guys were pushing window panes up a hill made of cobblestones. Scary to think if one had let go.
is netted in. As admission was covered by our entry to Sunlight Rock we decided to check it out and it wasn't as depressing as we had anticipated.
Another interesting fact about the island is its musical history. Missionaries had imported pianos to the island and when it was abandoned in 1949, hundreds of pianos were left behind. Many were destroyed by the Red Guards but many survived. The island now has a school for Piano, Performing Arts Centre and Piano Museum. Although on your wanderings you are likely to hear somebody practicing their piano, just in case, the streets are lined with tiny speakers pumping out an instrumental soundtrack for your stroll.
Of course, being China, the streets are also full knock-offs. Polo golf shirts, Gucci Bags, you name it, Gulangyu had it.
What Kind of Meat Would You Like With Your Seafood
Craig and I are not big seafood fans, so we certainly ate our fill these days. Breakfast at the hotel was an assortment of seafood dishes. We thought we had tackled lunch, asking what kind of meat was in the wontons, they replied pork! Great! We just didn't understand they
meant a bit of pork was holding all the shrimp together.
In fact the whole island smells of seafood. The old colonial buildings hold an assortment of Chinese restaurants displaying your possible dinners in buckets and tubs. Rubbermaid totes full of crabs, oysters and fresh fish lined the restaurant entries.
Our last day we ventured into Xiamen. In the morning we visited Nan Putuo. This temple was originally built during the Tang Dynasty, but has been rebuilt several times since. Its an active Buddhist Temple and very busy.
Behind the temple you can take a hike up the mountain. Paths weave between huge inscribed boulders. Stairs are carved right into the mountain. Its a fun little hike and well worth taking your time because little caves along the path are often filled with little Buddhas. It made me feel like a little kid finding these secret places that others missed.
We had lunch at the temple. You have to order a meal set at a ticket booth and bring your receipt to the restaurant. Of course we had no idea what we had ordered, just pointed to the first and cheapest one.
We knew it would be vegetarian so weren't overly concerned. In fact, the food was awesome. Some of the best tofu I've ever had. Amazing mushroom dishes. I'm salivating just thinking about it. We shared a table with a businessman from Gangzhou who was headed to Vancouver for business. He kindly gave us a map of Xiamen with pinyin. We had little to offer him in return but a Canadian Pin, however, he took it happily.
Fun Orienteering Game
Its called get dropped off at a random place in a city you don't know, and try to find your way home. OK, so we were hoping to find an antique market and where we were dropped off was just a rundown section of town, but it was a good starting point. We started weaving our way back to the Gulangyu Ferry Boat.
It seemed to be going too well so we started venturing down little side streets. That's when we found the really amazing food market. I mean this thing was a maze and blocks and blocks huge. Parts of it had cover and was more darkly lit. It was jam packed with people doing
their grocery shopping. I saw things I'd rather not, including a chicken being plucked (it was still moving), and well, chickens being killed, and fish so fresh they were jumping around on the ice. And while that isn't my cup of tea, I knew well enough I was in a more authentic part of China than anywhere my travel guide would direct me to. We got thoroughly turned around and lost. Eventually we found our way out, but it was really interesting if not a little overwhelming.
Eventually we found the ferry by strolling down alleyways we would normally avoid back home. China is very safe, and probably forming bad habits in us.
Fujian province is amazing and deserves more time. Although the fact is, no matter where we go in China we are never dissapointed.
We are presently working for five weeks before Chinese Spring Festival. We are back in full swing with English lessons, volunteering and weekend trips to Beijing. Most recently we purchased packs for our trip to Hunan and my bartering has improved yet again, getting them for 20% of the asking price.
We also checked out
the 798 Art District in Beijing, as the Art Teacher at our school had an exhibit on display at the Sanctuary Gallery. The Art Cafe where we met co-workers for lunch felt really odd, like being thrown back to downtown Toronto with no warning. We hadn't expected it. The only Chinese people were the staff. It was disconcerting, and I worry about the reverse culture shock we will experience when we go home.
Anyway, the next adventure is experiencing Chinese New Year (apparently its going to be very loud!) and backpacking Hunan Province. So stay tuned.
Big Hugs to All Back Home.
There are more photos below