No Cars Allowed

Chinese island nixes wheeled vehicles.

e & Ah Pok 001No cars, no motorcycles, no buses. Not even bikes are allowed on the little southern Chinese island of Gulangyu.

Not even bikes! When we traveled around China in 1987, it seemed that everyone rode a bike. In other cities, when the traffic light changed, pedestrians dashed for the sidewalks to avoid being mowed down by the throng of bike riders pedaling toward them 8-abreast.

Not on Gulangyu. When we visited my husband’s birthplace, the 20,000 residents of the hilly little island were still traversing its lanes on their own two feet, just as they’d done for as long as anyone could remember. I have no idea why they chose to prohibit the use of wheeled vehicles in a time before smog and vehicular traffic even posed a problem.

If rickshaws had been allowed when my husband’s grandmother was alive, she would have been a frequent rider. Like other women of her generation, her feet were bound and broken when she was a child. Consequently, she could barely walk. If she wanted to oversee her properties or visit a friend or take in an opera, she had to go by sedan-chair. For a time, she hired two sedan-chair carriers on a full-time basis. Then one of them got her maid pregnant and she let both of them go.

A pleasant walking tour

photo courtesy of springm/Marcus Spring

photo courtesy of springm/Marcus Spring

My husband hadn’t been back to his old hometown in 34 years, so he enjoyed walking up and down its old familiar lanes. Each evening we took a ferry back to Xiamen and then a taxi to our hotel. The streets in Xiamen were filled with bicycles and an occasional car or bus. I couldn’t help thinking what a disaster it would be if every one of those bikes turned into a car.


Smog in Beijing, but the air is still clear on Gulangyu.

photo courtesy of papa 1266 and Depositphotos

photo courtesy of papa 1266 and Depositphotos

Well, in China’s major cities, that’s exactly what happened. Last year 13 million cars were sold in China, more than in any other country in the world. The result: horrendous traffic jams and unbreathable air. So why don’t people just go back to riding their bikes? It’s better to drive, they say. The air is too polluted for walking or riding  a bike or the bus.

And Gulangyu, the little island with a quaint rule banning wheeled vehicles, the island that used to be famous only for its beaches and pianos and the view from Sunlight Rock … Now it’s known for its quiet lanes and clean air.

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Next week’s post: An Immigrant Author’s Story

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
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  1. What a charming place to visit. Thanks for the share.

  2. Maureen

    Very interesting Nicki and what irony that the people of Beijing want to ride in cars to avoid the pollution that they cause! crazy!

  3. Bound feet! Wow! I always think that happened centuries ago but obviously not. I can’t even imagine that. The island, however, sounds wonderful! Beaches and clean air.

    • I feel the same way, Kate. I imagined foot binding happened longer ago. But when I started talking about it, I learned than several people I know have parents or grandparents with bound feet. It wasn’t so long ago after all. How quickly the world changes!

  4. Pat Taffera

    Yes how quickly the world is changing…..Some changes definitely better, some are quite unfortunate, like our polluted world.
    I found your story on mother’s milk so interesting that I have forwarded to my nursing daughter in law: ) Thank you, Nicki!

    • Pat, thanks for your interest. I guess there are two sides to most things we generally consider progress. I’m reminded of a frequent warning on the TV program “Once upon a Time.” “Magic always comes with a price,” they say.

  5. Gulangyu sounds like a great place to live or travel to.

    Another reason why people buy cars in bigger Chinese cities (except for the air quality and showing off that they are affluent enough to afford a car) are the big distances. While 30 years ago it might still have been possible to take your bike to work, nowadays it’s not always easy to find an apartment closeby your work place. Another reason might be that the public transport system is overcrowded in the mornings and evenings (somebody recently wrote that Beijing’s rush hour is actually 3 hours each morning and 3 each evening) and you hardly have enough space to breath. Of course, if you have a car, you’ll have to deal with traffic jams (but you have to deal with that too if you take a bus). You can google some photos of the subway in Beijing and you’ll see why people might prefer to buy cars.

    Taking a bike can also be very dangerous in some areas, eg. where we live there are so many motorbikes driving like hell and people walking on the sidewalk that taking a bike can easily end in an accident (even walking down the sidewalk safely can be quite a challenge).

  6. Nicki, your blog looks so much “fresher”!
    Were you inspired by Gulangyu’s fresh air? 😀

  7. Gulangyu must have been a special place to visit – like a place lost in time! It must have been a breath of fresh air (both literally and figuratively)! I remember my first time traveling to the island of Jibei, Penghu (a very small island off the coast of Taiwan) and I was in awe with the lack of cars – only small narrow roads for scooters and one convenience store. I felt like I had escaped reality, even if it was just for a little while!

  8. Strangely enough, in 1983 even the nearby city of Xiamen looked like “a place lost in time.” It must have remained basically unchanged during the forty years before our visit. Now, judging by the photos I’ve seen on-line, it’s been totally transformed.

    I love the experience of traveling to a place so unusual that you feel as though you’ve escaped reality for a little while. Maybe it’s a bit like becoming engrossed in a novel.


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