In 1983, my family visited my late husband’s hometown in China. We arrived by ship from Hong Kong. After a small kerfuffle about our reservations, we checked into the Hotel for Overseas Chinese in Xiamen. The next morning we boarded a ferry for the seven-minute ride to the small island-city of my husband’s birth: Gulangyu.
The son of a family friend, met us at the ferry landing, and we started toward the house Ah Pok shared with his parents and his son. As we walked through the small commercial area and up a narrow, winding lane, I was charmed by the picturesque, exotic sights of China. (It was my first trip there.) But then, suddenly, as we turned a corner, nothing looked Chinese anymore. We could have been in Italy or France.
Over the years, my husband, Eugene, had related many stories about his childhood. But if he explained the history of Gulangyu to me, it didn’t sink in. “So” I asked, “why all these European-style houses?”
He shrugged. “It used to be an International Settlement.”
Ah Pok pointed to a building with green shutters and white Colonial-style pillars and said something in the Hokkien dialect. “The American Consulate,” Eugene translated. “Now it’s the Ocean Research Center.”
As it turned out, there was more to Gulangyu’s history than we could discuss on a short walk across the island. For centuries Gulangyu and nearby Xiamen (earlier known as Kulangsu and Amoy) had been centers of shipping, sometimes piracy. The same sailing ships that weighed anchor in Papeete, Apia, Manila, Acapulco and Liverpool, used to moor in Amoy and Kulangsu. During the nineteenth century, Amoy was China’s main port for exporting tea.
At about the same time, British merchants began trafficking in opium, large quantities of the drug that they shipped into China from India through the East India Company. The trade allowed them to make a profit on their Indian colony. When the Chinese emperor attempted to stop the trade and confiscate the opium, the British government sent a military force from India. They cared not only for profit, they argued, but for Britain’s “reputation, its honor, and its commitment to global free trade.”
The first Opium War, 1839-42
The Opium War consisted of a series of skirmishes and battles over a period of almost three years. When it was over, the British victors dictated the terms of the treaty, giving themselves permission to once again sell opium. In the Treaty of Nanking, the first of the so-called unequal treaties, the British also took control of Hong Kong and gained access to several “treaty ports”: Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Amoy.
As a treaty port, Amoy attracted British, French, Japanese and American merchants, missionaries and diplomats. Most of them eventually decided to build their homes on the scenic little island of Kulangsu, a short boat ride from Amoy. They must have liked the beaches and fresh air, or perhaps it was the sense of being set apart that attracted them. Before long other foreigners settled there too. Soon there were thirteen consulates on Kulangsu. In 1903 it was officially recognized as an “International Settlement.”
Japanese invasion and occupation of Amoy, 1938-1945
The Japanese invasion of China began in July, 1937. Within months, they had conquered Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Nanjing. On May 10, 1938, they invaded Amoy. Japan wasn’t at war with the Western Powers yet, so they steered clear of the International Settlement on Kulangsu. When my husband was born later that year, Kulangsu was surrounded by occupied territory but wasn’t yet occupied.
Then, on December 7, 1941, soon after his third birthday, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and simultaneously took control of Kulangsu. For the next four years, he and his family lived under occupation.
And that brings us up to 1945, which, I suppose, is enough history for one day.