Fan­tasy is­land

With gi­ant banyan trees shad­ing its grace­ful Euro­pean man­sions, Gu­langyu looks like a Mediter­ranean is­land in the South China Sea. Robin Gold­stein reports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

Gu­langyu looks like a Mediter­ranean jewel

The his­tor­i­cal in­ter­na­tional set­tle­ment of pedes­tri­anonly Gu­langyu Is­land, in the bay of Xi­a­men, was made a UN­ESCO World Cul­tural Her­itage Site at the 41st United Na­tions World Her­itage Com­mit­tee meet­ing in Krakow, Poland on July 8.

I first saw Gu­langyu (known in the lo­cal di­alect as Ku­langsu) through the eyes of my part­ner, Yang Jing, a con­cert vi­olin­ist who grew up on this 1.88 square kilo­me­ters islet. It’s just an islet, of­fi­cially, a small vil­lage of about 4,000 house­holds and 14,000 peo­ple liv­ing on a small is­land in the shadow of the larger, newer is­land of Xi­a­men city.

Yang’s fam­ily has been in Gu­langyu for three generations. Be­fore I set foot on the is­land, I had heard her CD Ku­langsu: Through the Strings of Time — which com­bined clas­si­cal mu­sic with nat­u­ral sounds recorded from around the is­land — and Yang had ex­plained to me that there were no cars or bikes al­lowed on the is­land.

She had told me of the nar­row cob­ble­stone streets that wind through hills and spill out onto trop­i­cal beaches lined with co­conut palms.

She had de­scribed the gi­ant banyan trees shad­ing the grace­ful Euro­pean man­sions, the ro­man­tic cou­ples pos­ing for wed­ding pic­tures, and the 13 his­tor­i­cal con­sulates that made Gu­langyu look like a Mediter­ranean is­land plopped into the South China Sea.

But not even Yang’s tales of beauty and charm could have pre­pared me for the mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of step­ping off the ferry onto Gu­langyu for the first time.

The 10-minute ferry ride from down­town Xi­a­men takes less time than your av­er­age city taxi trip, but it is a ride into an­other world, into a Chi­nese-Western past that you might not even know ex­isted.

Like that of Venice, Gu­langyu’s air is just some­thing that has to be breathed in to be un­der­stood.

Last Novem­ber, in the midst of the fi­nal stages of the UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site in­spec­tion process, Ty­phoon Mer­anti slammed di­rectly into Xi­a­men and Gu­langyu.

“Af­ter eight years of hard work to re­store and pro­tect our her­itage prop­er­ties, the big­gest ty­phoon we’d ever seen hit the is­land three days be­fore the UN­ESCO in­spec­tor was due to ar­rive,” says direc­tor Zheng Yilin of the Gu­langyu Ad­min­is­tra­tive Com­mit­tee.

Xi­a­men gets a few glanc­ing blows each year dur­ing ty­phoon sea­son, but this was the largest storm to hit the city di­rectly in 50 years.

Nine­teen gi­ant an­cient trees fell, and more than 3,000 were dam­aged.

Zheng says that 100 lo­cal fam­i­lies lost their homes, and other lo­cal fam­i­lies took them in.

“More than 300 vol­un­teers came to help,” she says, in­clud­ing many for­eign­ers liv­ing in Xi­a­men who vol­un­teered all day to clean up de­bris from the beaches and roads.

The UN­ESCO in­spec­tion visit was post­poned, but only by a few weeks.

Gu­langyu’s lo­cal gov­ern­ment, its ci­ti­zens, and its vol­un­teers worked day and night haul­ing garbage, clear­ing flood­wa­ters, re-paving streets, and re­con­struct­ing build­ings that had been dam­aged.

A team of plant bi­ol­o­gists trimmed and righted and saved hun­dreds of in­jured trees and planted thou­sands of new ones.

Nine months later, the is­land is as ver­dant as it’s ever been.

Thank­fully, al­most all of the is­land’s 19th-cen­tury Amoy De­costyle man­sions, with their grace­ful arch­ways and red-brick fa­cades that fuse Min­nan (south of Fu­jian prov­ince), or Hokkien, and modernist el­e­ments into one unique ar­chi­tec­tural lan­guage, sur­vived the storm with only mi­nor cos­metic dam­age.

So did the many adorable bou­tique ho­tels, the brightly col­ored sou­venir shops and kitschy bars, the trop­i­cal fruit stands and ca­sual restau­rants, and the brave bare-chested men who roll wheel­bar­rows of cargo and lug­gage across the is­land’s steep hills. (Some things are more chal­leng­ing with­out cars.)

A few days af­ter the storm, the street-food bazaar of Long Tou Road was al­ready bub­bling again with fra­grant casseroles of gin­ger duck, fresh lo­cal clams with gar­lic and chili, and the most canon­i­cal lo­cal speciality: the oys­ter omelette, made with fresh oys­ters, eggs, scal­lions, and sweet-potato flour and served with bright red Xi­a­men-style hot sauce.

Be­fore long, the 580-seat Gu­langyu Con­cert Hall, an acous­ti­conly venue that stages free clas­si­cal con­certs for the pub­lic al­most ev­ery night — from lo­cal stu­dent recitals to vis­it­ing sym­phony or­ches­tras — was also open again.

Gu­langyu is also an is­land of mu­se­ums, home to a new satel­lite branch of the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City as well as what are with­out a doubt the world’s best and most beau­ti­ful pi­ano and or­gan mu­se­ums.

This is no ac­ci­dent: When clas­si­cal mu­sic came to China, it first ar­rived on Gu­langyu, and the is­land has given birth to a long line of great clas­si­cal mu­si­cians, of which Yang is only one of the lat­est.

She still plays and hangs out with her old teach­ers and coaches some of the cur­rent stu­dents of the mu­sic school she first en­tered at age 7.

Per­haps more sur­pris­ing for vis­i­tors whose ex­pec­ta­tions of China are fil­tered through the rhetoric of for­eign me­dia, the is­land is also blessed with tem­ples for be­liev­ers of all de­nom­i­na­tions: Protes­tant churches and Catholic cathe­drals, Ad­ven­tist homes, and a spec­tac­u­lar Bud­dhist tem­ple that lies at the foot of Sun­light Rock, one of the most beau­ti­ful perches in all of China. All of these places are sup­ported and main­tained as his­tor­i­cal monuments as well as be­ing ac­tive places of wor­ship.

If the UN­ESCO in­scrip­tion was a par­tic­u­larly mod­ern mo­ment for Gu­langyu, it was a rare mod­ern mo­ment, for al­though this is a com­mu­nity that has been com­pletely in­ter­na­tional since the mid-1800s, it is also one that turns up­side-down any pre­con­ceived no­tions you might have of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism or moder­nity. It is a place where things are still car­ried around in wheel­bar­rows, an is­land that still op­er­ates at walk­ing speed — an­dante — where the mil­lions of tourists who visit an­nu­ally can wake up each morn­ing to a sym­phony of pi­ano notes and bird­song in­stead of the honk­ing horns and ex­haust fumes of the ci­ties from which they came.

The civil ser­vants now run­ning the is­land see them­selves as noth­ing but the cur­rent guardians of these pre­cious qual­i­ties.

Deputy Direc­tor Zhang Shun­bin of the Gu­langyu Ad­min­is­tra­tive Com­mit­tee says: “Our hard­est chal­lenge is finding a bal­ance between Gu­langyu as a tourist at­trac­tion, a lo­cal com­mu­nity, and a his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ment. We must be care­ful. We must make sure that lo­cal peo­ple can still live nor­mal lives even as the is­land at­tracts more in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, for it is the every­day life of the is­land that also makes it so beau­ti­ful.”


Gu­langyu, the small sea is­land off the coast of Xi­a­men in Fu­jian prov­ince, boasts many 19th-cen­tury build­ings as it was once clus­tered with Western re­li­gious groups, in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions and for­eign con­sulates.

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