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