This is a ferry packed with talking, laughing, selfie-taking Chinese tourists, and I am just one of a few hundred passengers waiting to make a short journey from big city to small town. We are headed away from modernity, so to speak, to the Unesco-listed island of Gulangyu — a patch of land just 2km2 in size, located off the coast of Xiamen. If urban China is forward-looking and futuristic, this island is acknowledged to be basking in the past; its narrow, cobbled walkways and old mansions proclaiming its early 20th century heyday as a European settlement. Moreover, it’s regarded by the Chinese as a welcome respite from the fast life, with car-free roads that invite long, leisurely walks down storied neighborhoods and picturesque beaches. The ride takes little more than twenty minutes, and the passengers drift toward the exits as the ferry slowly makes port.
When the gates finally open, I ride the wave of tourists as it flows right into the main street. At half past eight, the neighborhood of San Qiu Tian, on Gulangyu’s northeast side, is already buzzing. This is the island’s downtown; its lanes lined with red-brick-and-concrete buildings housing souvenir shops, eateries and mom-and-pop grocers. It takes a few confusing minutes to navigate this web of walkways, but soon I am at the Blessed Paradise B&B, my home for the next few days and kilometer zero for the daily walks I have planned around the island.
The sun is shy and the weather cool; a perfect time to explore the area. Away from downtown, the crowd is much thinner, allowing me room to breathe and appreciate the surroundings. The sheer number of antique structures is striking, and they hem every alley, twisting walkway and incline. These mansions bear a number of architectural styles, from Victorian to Western classical and a unique “Amoy Deco” mix of Art Deco and traditional Amoy (the old name of the Xiamen area) lines. At Quanzhou Road, I gawk at walls covered in ancient tree roots and cherub bas-reliefs. On Gusheng Road, an English stone lion stares at a villa that seems more suited to the French countryside than the southern Chinese coast. On other lanes, Doric columns, ornate iron grilles and hand-carved calligraphy share equal footing on buildings sporting an octagonal base (a homage to southern Chinese temple design).
In many ways, Gulangyu’s architecture captures an early form of globalization. A number of these buildings were the private homes of rich merchants and the consulates of European governments who were nurturing trade with the Middle Kingdom. At the close of the First Opium War in 1842, a defeated China was forced to offer Gulangyu as a European foothold on the Chinese coast. Because of this, the island attracted traders and representatives from countries like Britain, France, the Netherlands and the United States. Wealthy Chinese businessmen also moved in, perhaps to take advantage of opportunity.
To my surprise, these included Hokkien magnates who headed prominent Chinese-Filipino, or Tsinoy, families in early-20th-century Philippines. Among them was Huang Cimin (or Uy Su Bin to the Chinese Pinoys), who made a fortune selling school supplies in Manila. His former mansion lies on Quanzhou Road — a wood, brick and stone masterpiece laid out over three storeys and 850m2. There was also Huang Xiulang — father of Huang Zuyi, a former Manila Overseas Chinese Commercial Association president — whose old estate on Fujian Road now lives a second life as a lifestyle museum and performance venue.
The Piano Island
This mixing of cultures was by no means limited to architecture. With the foreigners came teachers and missionaries who introduced Christianity and Western music — two gifts that the island later became famous for. These days, many Gulangyu natives remain proud Christians in a country that’s overwhelmingly atheist. They credit the nuns and priests of old for their Westernized education and they still congregate at the island’s venerable churches for the usual Sunday worship. Likewise, their penchant for music is evidenced by the many homegrown classical pianists. Maestros like Fei-Ping Hsu and Yin Chengzong — both musical geniuses who were celebrated on the world stage — are given tribute at the quirky Piano Museum. Located at the sprawling Shuzuang Garden estate on Gulangyu’s south side, this building houses a collection of over a hundred vintage handcrafted pianos.
Roger Chiu, a Gulangyu native who runs the hotel I am staying at, tells me about life in this genteel corner of Xiamen. “Growing up, I remember getting dressed up to attend family musical concerts,” the 38-year-old sommelier says. “One week we’d be watching my clan’s concerto, in other weeks we would watch those of our neighbors.” He also recalls carefree days back when Gulangyu was still undiscovered by tourists. “Everyone knew each other on the island, so our parents left us to do whatever we wanted. Sometimes we’d raid the fruit trees in the next house. The owners never got mad because their kids raided our fruit trees too. Our community was very tightly knit.”
Living with tourists
Roger adds that things began to change for his hometown in the early 2000s, when visitors started turning up. Many neighbors eventually moved out; their grand old houses leased to tourist businesses that were fast moving in. Tourism in Gulangyu snowballed to a point where the island was getting over 100,000 tourists a day. In a populous country like China, such numbers are not too far from the norm. “But still,” he explains, “imagine this little island with so many people. The streets were crowded; we were often trapped in our own homes!”
Thankfully, restrictions were introduced shortly before Gulangyu was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2017. Ferry prices were raised for non-residents to discourage some visitors, and now only 65,000 people are allowed on the island at any given time. It’s an apt compromise, perhaps, for a destination that has precious little space.
The notion of a genteel-but-crowded island is sad indeed, but it seems the authorities are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past decade. Nonetheless, I still get a tiny taste of a tourist-flooded Gulangyu, later in the afternoon when I revisit the main street. Despite its picturesque period buildings, Longtou Road and the nearby corners take on a theme-park-like atmosphere amid a sea of tourists being themselves. I hasten to skip this part of town. But not before joining a long queue for crispy-chewy o-chien (oyster) pancakes and savory meat-filled roasted bread — local snacks that I later devour in quieter, more laid-back surroundings at the nearby Junru beach.
The tourist flood finally subsides after sunset when the day-trippers return to the mainland, and I emerge from my hideout to check out dinner options at the main strip. However, I make a wrong turn along the way, and find myself on a street I don’t recognize, flanked by grandiose gates and crumbling vine-covered walls. In the dim light of dusk, the local residents begin to appear — a pair of old guakong (grandfathers) walking their dogs and chatting animatedly in Hokkien (the local dialect, which differs from the standard Mandarin Chinese); a young fisherman peddling his catch to the neighborhood kitchens; a flock of schoolkids running home, musical instruments strapped to their backs inside dark leather cases. With most tourists gone, the Gulangyu natives quietly reclaim their island — and this neighborhood begins to ooze with the atmosphere of decades past.
Somewhere around me, I hear a piano being played. The notes are faint; I follow the music down the lane, past a Chinese-style entrance and toward the next corner where another old mansion stands. This building looks and feels like a family home. Lines of laundry hang from its ornate balconies, while a vegetable patch grows on what used to be a veranda. Inside one of its hallways, the unseen pianist seems to be playing a full recital. A nine-year-old kid is, I imagine, hard at work on becoming the Piano Island’s next musical prodigy.
I stand on this corner and savor the entire performance, then I find my way back to the main street with its tourists and tourist traps. Gulangyu may now be one of southern China’s top attractions, but it’s good to know that its spirit survives in its local community. As I approach the busy environs of Longtou Road, I remember something that Roger shared earlier about this island he grew up on: “This is our home and our culture — the heart and soul that we belong to. We love this unique and beautiful island no matter how it changes.”
This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Smile magazine.