November 24, 2014
Starting at the Victorian treaty port of Xiamen in Fujian, Gabrielle Jaffe island-hops her way to Taiwan, discovering that the archipelago of Kinmen isn't so far from the motherland—in distance or at heart.
Published on Nov 24, 2014
"Gong xi, gong xi!"
I cry out to yet another happy couple. "Congratulations!" She's wearing a red ball gown, he's in a red jacket and bowtie. They're the third bride and groom I've seen today on my stroll through the tiny, barely two-square-kilometer Gulangyu Island.
One of the many happy couples taking wedding photos on Gulangyu.
It's not surprising that this picturesque islet has become China's premier wedding photography spot. A 10-minute ferry ride from the seaside city of Xiamen, Gulangyu is ringed by sandy shores. Its hilly interior is something of an open-air architecture museum, crammed with hundreds of one-time foreign consulates, churches and residences, built in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Xiamen, then Amoy, was a treaty port. Concurrently, island and city both became repositories of the foreign-influenced aesthetic visions of wealthy, peripatetic Chinese.
Somehow, most of Gulangyu's atmospheric architecture survived the Cultural Revolution and more recent modernization. Skyscrapers have risen in Xiamen but the city is one of the greenest and cleanest in China, outlined in some of the country's best beaches. It's becoming increasingly luxe, too, thanks to the recent openings of the Kempinski, Westin and Hotel Indigo, and the spruced-up Zhongshan Road, a pedestrianized shopping street, where stalls selling oyster pancakes and milk tea are signs of Taiwanese influence. In fact, Taiwan is so close you can actually see it. And that's another draw: Taiwan's rustic Kinmen archipelago is easily accessible from here, completing a trifecta of easy-to-hop beach destinations, with a shared history but individual characters.
Historic Zhongshan Road has become a bustling hub.
GULANGYU'S BEACHES and main throughways teem with tourists and competing bridal photographers. But, climbing uphill into the maze of serpentine alleyways in the island's center, I lose the crowds and immerse myself in the crumbling facades and flurry of bright purple bougainvillea. I am transported to other ages and continents. A floral Victorian frieze reminds me of England, a neo-classical portico takes me to Washington, D.C., and as I look down at the rust-colored roof tiles, I could almost be in Tuscany.
It seems fitting that Xiamen's name means a kind of gateway. Xiamen was not just an entry point into China for foreign traders and ideas. For centuries, traffic flowed outwards too. It was from this port that huge numbers of Chinese—as many as 100,000 a year by the end of the 19th century—left their homeland seeking new opportunities in Southeast Asia, Australia and the Americas.
The wealth that some of these emigrants brought back is evident in their ornate residences, still scattered across Gulangyu. After lunching on barbecued giant crab legs at Longtou Snack Street, I continue on my architectural-fusion safari. My favorite building is the Sea & Sky Villa, built in the 1920's for a returnee from the Philippines. Classic European columns prop up a traditional Chinese curved roof, a physical testament to the mixing of cultures its residents must have celebrated. Later, back in Xiamen proper, I explore the ivy-clad campus of Xiamen University, founded in 1921 by Tan Kah-kee, a Xiamen-born, Singaporean businessman.
From there, it's a short walk to Baicheng Beach, a crescent of sand that meets the warm waters of the Taiwan Strait. On shore, yet another couple is taking wedding pictures; out on the calm sea, groups of students are messing around on pedal boats. After dipping my feet in, I briefly consider hiking along the new wooden boardwalk to the next beach, but then I notice a vendor selling sliced, fresh fruit. I buy some mango and plop down on the ground, playing with the warm sand between my toes.
As I gaze out at the rocky outcrops in the sea and the skyscrapers on the edges where the bay curves round, I consider how history has a funny way of repeating itself. After decades of isolation during the Maoist era, Xiamen is once again a gateway between China and the outside world, with the overseas Chinese playing an important bridging role. Designated a Special Economic Zone in 1980, the city has prospered through foreign investment, with much of the billions coming from overseas Chinese communities and the Taiwanese.
Xiamen's serene southeast coast on the Taiwan Strait.
FROM XIAMEN'S HULISHAN FORT, where rusted 19th-century German cannons still stand guard, I see a group of islands administered by Taiwan, the closest of which is a little more than four kilometers away. I'm told that with binoculars, I could spot a large sign, written in traditional Chinese characters, exclaiming "Unify China!" but I decide to take a closer look by hopping the one-hour ferry the next day to the largest of these islands, Kinmen, the eponym for the rest of the archipelago.
Cannons still stand guard at Hulishan Fort, Xiamen
In some ways Kinmen is a continuation of Xiamen. Long sweeps of sand make up the shoreline; similar turn-of-the-century overseas-Chinese residences cluster together, resplendent in their East-meets-West architecture. But this is a much sleepier version, an old, unhurried island, yet to be face-lifted into 2014. Rambling along a deserted, windswept beach, observing the pale outlines of Xiamen's towers on the other side of the water, the contrast is striking. Kinmen is a peaceful collection of low-rise traditional villages; the tallest building I see here is just three stories high.
Kinmen first opened to visitors from mainland China in 2001. Until the 1990's, even Taiwanese civilians weren't allowed to enter as the island was under military rule. For decades invasion seemed a real possibility. At the Guningtou battlefield site, I learn about the intense 1949 fight on Kinmen's beaches between Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists and Communist troops. From the trenches, I peer out at an adjacent, closed-off beach where barnacle-covered tanks and anti-landing spikes still litter the sand.
Later, chatting with some Kinmen residents, I learn that the mainland bombarded the island from 1954 to 1978, dropping some 500,000 shells, maybe 10 times that. Born on on Kinmen in 1943, Mr. Xu recalls with an awkward smile, "Much of my childhood was spent underground, hiding in shelters." Memories from this era still punctuate the landscape too, from bullet-marked buildings to the vast air raid tunnels, now open for the public to tour. A whole tourist industry has been built on the Cold War history.
Memories of the Cold War still pervade Kinmen
But this is just one of the now-serene island's draws. Military men on patrol peacefully rub shoulders with Chinese mainlanders. I join them in inhaling the sea air, meandering the quiet streets of Kincheng town, and dipping into charming boutiques to buy handmade egg rolls and kaoliang liquor. I'm also seduced into purchasing Kinmen's other famous specialty: knives made of artillery shells. It seems no small irony that these weapons of war are being brought by mainlanders back to the motherland. But as I watch a master knife-maker pound them out by hand in his workshop, the appeal is obvious. It's not just their finesse. It's that the slow, artisanal way of making these knives typifies Kinmen's laid-back, traditional way of life. This is a quality I appreciate over and over again during my stay here and, in particular, during my visits to the island's temples, where Buddhists and Taoists light incense with a quiet reverence often missing in China.
A bridge to the mainland, a giant casino and a scheme to make the island a duty-free shopping paradise have been touted as possible tactics to boost tourism numbers. But today at least, Kinmen still seems blissfully untouched.
Back at my hotel, a restored courtyard house called the Qin Inn, I chat with the owner, an artist who moved to Kinmen from Taiwan's main island six years ago for the slower pace and sense of history. "Of course, it's better that relations are improving. It's great that I can pop over to Xiamen to watch a movie or buy art supplies," he says. "But I wonder what effect it will have on Kinmen."
An ancestral shrine in the Qin Inn.
Change has already come to some extent. With the growing rapprochement between China and Taiwan over the last decade, many Kinmenese have grown to see the former enemy as an economic lifeline. I even spot a poster of Chairman Mao at one of the island’s guesthouses, and have to wonder what he and his old foe Chiang Kai-shek would have made of that.
Fly into Xiamen via Dragonair (dragonair.com), Hong Kong Airlines (hongkongairlines.com), Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com), Thai Airways (thaiairways.com), SilkAir (silkair.com) and Xiamen Airlines (xiamenair.com). To reach Kinmen, leave via Wutong port on the east side of Xiamen; ferries take around an hour.
Hotel Indigo In a prime position, with panoramic views of Gulangyu, this boutique blends international luxury with local flavor, with Chinese modern art and black and white photos from Xiamen's concession era. 16 Lujiang Rd., Siming Dist., Xiamen; +86 592 226 1666; hotelindigo.com.
Kempinski Hotel Xiamen Overlooking Yundang Lake, this five-star has a pillow and blanket menu and a spa full of tea-inspired therapies. 98 Hubin Middle Rd., Siming Dist., Xiamen; +86 592 258 8888; kempinski.com.
The Westin Xiamen Pitch-perfect service in the center of modern Wu Yi Plaza. 398 Xianyue Rd., Siming Dist.; +86 592 337 8888; starwoodhotels.com.
Qin Inn Meticulously restored by a Taiwanese artist, this classic Chinese courtyard house was originally built in 1925 by a family who made their fortune in Indonesia. 64 Qian Shuitou, Kinmen; +886 0910 395 565; qininn.tumblr.com.
The Westin Xiamen's exterior at night
Gulangyu Yuanxiangkou Fish Balls A local favorite for its pork-stuffed fish balls served in tasty broth, it has several locations on Gulangyu, including 62 Longtou Road. +86 592 206 4982; yxkyw.com.
Jinshui Restaurant In Shuitou, a village famous for its period overseas Chinese architecture, this much-loved eatery serves traditional treats such as pork rib stew. 48 Shuitou Village, Kinmen.
Overseas Chinese Museum Despite limited English signage, it's worth a visit for the paintings, historic photos and artifacts depicting the lives of Chinese emigrants over time. 493 Siming South Rd., Xiamen; +86 592 208 5345.
Xiamen Botanical Garden One of China's oldest and largest gardens: Winding trails through landscaped nurseries with rare subtropical plants, some of which can be found nowhere else on earth. 25 Huyuan Rd., Xiamen; +86 592 202 4785; xiamenbg.com.
Maestro Wu's Steel Knives From cleavers to pocket knives, instruments expertly crafted with metal from the shells dropped on Kinmen during the Cold War. 21 Mofan St., Kincheng, Kinmen; +886 83 311 168.
Guningtou War Museum The site of fierce fighting between Communist and Nationalist forces in 1949. Walk through trenches and explore the island's war history. Nanshan Rd., Jinning, Kinmen; +886 82 313 274.