Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A day in colonial Gulang Yu

Spending the day walking around Gulang Yu was such a treat last Sunday!
Gulang Yu: “the wave which sounds like the beating drum” (gu for drum and lang for wave) – what a nice name!
Gulang Yu is a small island just 5-minute ferry ride from the island of Xiamen.
We wandered all day and we felt like we were back in time at the beginning of the 20th century, but in a place where inhabitants were long gone and had deserted their gorgeous colonial residences.
Indeed a lot of the homes are empty, falling into ruin and covered in ivy, with overgrown gardens of tropical flower bushes. But despite the decay and the abandonment, it is said to be the largest and best-preserved collection of colonial mansions in mainland China. It is difficult to explain the reality of the island and its architecture though without going back to just a little bit of history. From the 16th century to the 19th century, starting with the Portuguese and then the British, the Dutch and the French, Europeans tried unsuccessfully to open trade with China. But the Chinese emperors, who considered every other country as its vassal, was a lot less interested in opening its country to trade than the British were interested by its products, such as its tea. So China resisted for several centuries, forbidding access to its ports, its rivers and its lands and trying to limit the trade to the port of Canton. The British continued to trade illegally though, having found a product of desire which it brought from its Indian colony: opium. As the trade of opium increased rapidly, the emperor of China understood the dangers of its addiction and forbid its trade. It also tried to punish illegal trade by destroying boat loads of opium it would catch. A century of humiliation started for China however in the middle of the 19th century. Humiliation is a word which comes back often in the books you read about that period. China lost two opium wars against the Europeans – British and French – and had to pay heavy fines to reimburse for the destroyed shipments, and to open its ports to trade and to missionaries. Amoy (today’s Xiamen) along with Beijing and Shanghai was one of these ports, which saw the arrival of the Europeans. Amoy officially became a foreign concession in 1903. For more on the subject, you can read an interesting book: The dynasties of China, by Bamber Gascoigne. I grabbed it last year at Shanghai airport!
Today, more than in other former “treaty ports” even Shanghai, Xiamen has kept the signs of its colonial era. It has many nice colonial buildings on its coastal streets and it is said to have the largest and best-preserved collection of colonial-era shop-houses in mainland China as well.
But Gulang Yu has a very special place in the history of the trading port. Most of the foreigners lived on the small island rather than in Xiamen itself.
And by the 1930s, the island counted about 500 resident foreigners and more than 10 consulates. No surprise! The island looks like a tropical paradise, with its hills and its coastlines. It has a nice breeze which I am sure is precious during the tropical summer months.
Today, there are many tourist shops, but also nice beaches, many gardens to visit and many nice narrow streets where you can adventure and discover this colonial heritage. We even visited a museum which was not on the list of tourist places to see on the island, with tons of relics, oil lamps, books, clocks and furniture.
The feeling was strange. It was just an accumulation of objects on tables, as if people had taken everything from the many houses and just dropped them here. Two gold fishes were swimming in a bathtub outdoors… a child’s wooden toy was in the middle of the courtyard. The signs explaining the history let the visitor know in broken English (and mandarin of course) that the local people were not happy at all with the fact the foreigners had taken over the island, and it was time that the island went back to what it used to be.
And there is a lot more to see. It is a place for artists with its school of Arts and Design, and many sculptures in the gardens, its piano museum with over 100 pianos from the 19th century, its piano concerts and much more. We will have to come back!

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