A Chinese Island Retains Its Old World Charm.

View_of_Urban_Area_of_Amoy_from_Mount_RiguangyanBy そらみみ - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=32001997 Who would have thought that my contractors, a husband and wife team, would have visited Gulangyu on their Asian cruise! After all, they had five or six countries to visit, and the cruise only allowed three stops in China. Surprisingly, one of the stops was at the small island of Gulangyu and its larger island neighbor, Xiamen.

If you haven’t read my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, you’re probably thinking … So? Well, let me explain. The reason I’m so excited about their visit is because Gulangyu (also known as Kulangsu) was my late husband’s birthplace. It was also the setting for my novel.

In recent years, most Chinese cities have grown to look like Xiamen, Gulangyu’s neighbor across the water. At the top of the photo above you can see it, all shiny and tall and new. In contrast, Gulangyu, at the bottom of the photo, is a quiet little backwater.

To give you an idea how much Xiamen has changed, here’s the picture I took of it from our hotel window in 1983.

Xiamen, 1983

Xiamen, 1983

Gulangsu, on the other hand, hasn’t changed much in the past thirty-three years. I don’t think it was ever meant to be a bustling city. It was the pretty suburb to Xiamen’s gritty metropolis.

Everything on Gulangyu Island, is within walking distance, so there’s never been a need for a real road. Long ago, all but the most necessary wheeled vehicles were banned. The quiet, slower pace of life is one reason that Gulangyu has become a favorite destination for domestic tourists. And now also for foreign tourists.

Wheels, but can it be called a vehicle? -- photo by AM, my contractor

Wheels, but can it be called a vehicle? — photo by AM, my contractor, 2016

The buildings on the island are historic, but they’re far from ancient. Many of the consulates, churches, hospitals, schools, police stations, and houses were built by the foreign communities that settled there after the Treaty of Nanking, which was signed in 1942. Like Shanghai, Gulangyu and Xiamen (then known as Amoy) were treaty ports until December 1941 when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor and all the Chinese treaty ports.

European-inspired Gulangyu mansion, 1983

European-inspired Gulangyu mansion, 1983

Gulangyu mansion, 2016 -- photo by AM

Gulangyu mansion, 2016 — photo by AM

The view of Sunlight Rock, the highest point on Gulangyu Island, hasn’t changed much, although these are from different angles.

Sunlight Rock, 1983

Sunlight Rock, 1983

Gulangyu4

Sunlight Rock, 2016

The little fishing boats look about the same.

Jimei, nr. Gulangyu, gathering oysters and seaweed

Jimei, nr. Gulangyu, gathering oysters and seaweed, 1983

2016

2016

The ferry has improved. In 1983, they didn’t bother with seats. Everyone stood. (It is a short ride.)

Gulangyu to Xiamen ferry, 1983

Gulangyu to Xiamen ferry, 1983

Gulangyu-Xiamen ferry, 2016

Gulangyu-Xiamen ferry, 2016

It still amazes to me that Gulangyu and Xiamen have become a regular stop for tourists. When we visited in 1983, Xiamen was putting the finishing touches on its first hotel for Overseas Chinese. They hadn’t even started thinking about having non-Chinese visitors–in Beijing and Shanghai maybe, but not in Xiamen.

Ever since 1949, China had been cut off from the rest of the world. Like the Russians, who lived behind an Iron Curtain, the Chinese remained isolated inside their own Bamboo Curtain. (See: “The Fall of the Bamboo Curtain.”) Nineteen eighty-three was early days for Xiamen. The city didn’t know what to do with me and my daughters. (Read about our lodging adventure in “No Room at the Inn.”)

Now my contractors are back. They have stories to tell about Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, and Korea. A week after their return, though, they were already back to work, ripping up my carpets and moving my furniture. They did an excellent job. Check out last week’s post to see the new hardwood floor.

Before I finish, I’d like to give you a link to Becky Ances’ blog. She’s a cute young American teacher, writer, traveler, and tea drinker living in Xiamen. I think you’ll really enjoy reading what she has to say.

Has your city or town changed a lot since 1983?

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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.

China, Tiger Tail Soup, travel, Visiting Gulangyu , , , , , , , , , ,

31 comments


  1. Wow! What a connection! That’s so cool! Did you know about the connection to Gulangyu when you chose them as contractors?
    Chicago has really changed over the decades. Michigan Avenue has changed a lot!




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    • I already knew the contractors. They did an excellent job on my kitchen remodel a few years ago. Before they left on their trip, AM bought a copy of my novel to give to her sister-in-law, who was traveling with them.

      I looked up old photos of Seattle. In the 1880s it looked similar to that photo I took of Xiamen in 1983. So (at least from photos) it looks like Xiamen changed as much in 33 years as Seattle did in 136 years. Although Seattle did have a period in the late 1800s when it changed dramatically. In the 1870s and ’80s it still looked like a small settlement.




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  2. What a coincidence and it’s great that you have contrasting photos between 1983 and now.




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    • It was fun putting the contrasting photos together. I had more, but I’m still having trouble with photos that turn sideways when viewed on a mobile device. I’m learning that it’s photos taken on an iPhone held vertically.




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  3. Becky is hilarious. 🙂

    Well, since I like slower-paced vacations, I know where we’ll go if we ever go east. (But we’re going in the winter because Becky says it’s nonstop sweat in the summer.) Thanks for the post — enjoyed all the “then and now” pictures.




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    • It’s a similar climate to Taiwan’s. We went in April, and it was rainy and a little bit cold since we were coming from the Philippines and were used to hot weather. We didn’t even have real jackets.

      Becky has a great blog. She has some good posts on her exercise and sports experiences, her outings with friends, and her travels around China, which she usually does alone.




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  4. These are great photos, Nicki. I loved seeing the comparison between past and present. In the eleven years we’ve been in Charlotte, there’s been tremendous growth. Unfortunately, they’re not taking into account the two lane roads out into the suburbs. It’s becoming more like the Washington, D.C. suburbs.




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    • One of my daughters lives in the DC suburb of Rockville. She has only lived there for about five years, and it has already changed tremendously. Being an engineer, she’s aware of the even greater changes in the works. It’s mind-blowing but part of a plan, with huge complexes going up at subway stops.




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  5. It’s a small world . . . and one of almost constant change.




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    • The world used to seem so much larger and farther away, with huge parts of it we couldn’t visit, no internet, and long-distance telephone calls that were too expensive to use except for emergencies.

      Change … it just keeps happening.




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  6. Discovering Kulangsu while reading Tiger Tail Soup was a wonderful experience, Nicki. Your vivid writing made me feel like I was wandering those narrow lanes myself. You created a setting full of charm and intrigue. These photos are great ~ I love the top photo, especially. What a contrast between the two islands!




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    • I love that top photo too. I found it on wikimedia commons. I really appreciate being able to use their free photos.

      Even though I only took about two rolls of film when we visited Kulangsu in 1983, I’m so glad I took the photos and labeled them. They were really useful when I was writing the novel.

      Thank you, Carol, for your kind words.




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  7. It is interesting to hear Gulangyu hasn’t changed that much over the last few decades, and your then-and-now photos attest to that. It must have been a bit of a trip down memory lane for you, going through the small town and seeing what you saw all that while ago. I’m guessing quite a few over there still make a living through the fishing boats and catching fish.

    The city that I currently live in, Melbourne, hasn’t changed much over the last few decades. There have been skyscrapers going up, but a lot of old buildings have maintained their Victorian architecture facade. Even our public transport lines are the same, albeit with a few new stops.




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    • Besides fishing, the people in Gulangyu and Xiamen are big in shipping and trade. A few centuries ago it was a stopping-off point for sailing ships and, according to some accounts, the main port for shipping tea abroad. They were famous for their oolong tea. Now Taiwan might produce more oolong tea.

      I’ve never been to Melbourne, although we did spend a week it Sydney. Such a beautiful city! Architecture from the Victorian period is well worth saving.




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  8. I’d love to visit that island…beautiful.
    We’re just entering a kitchen remodel…gulp…just picked appliances yesterday. What an upheaval. Yours looks great. Mindy




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  9. Wow! How amazing that they would have visited some place so near and dear to your heart. I’m ashamed to say I had actually never heard of it. You’ve given me some great links which I will check out. I had to chuckle about the quality of the pictures even in 1983 was quite a bit different. That was so interesting to see that you could make such a visual comparison to then and now. When I moved to our town, and it was a small kind of rural town in 1973, there was one stop light here. I couldn’t even guess how many there are now. People used to ask me if I had horses or livestock. Now we are just a Suburban/ bedroom community for Los Angeles for those willing to make the 45-90 minute drive. I love it though and it is home for me.




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    • Don’t be ashamed of not having heard of Gulangyu and Xiamen. Last I heard, there were forty cities in China with populations of over 1 million. Most of us are lucky to know 4 or 5 of them. Xiamen has a population of 3.5 million, making it only #26 or so.

      Not only was the quality of pictures different in 1983, but the stores in the Philippines that developed my pictures varied a lot. Over the years, some of my pictures lost much of their color. The heat and humidity in the Philippines was hard on them, and it didn’t help that I saved them in photos albums with plastic covering the photos.

      I can just imagine how much the area east of LA has changed since 1973. I like to watch the old movies about Los Angeles and Hollywood for the scenery. Recently I read West of Sunset, a novel about the later years of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It had some interesting details about his time in and around Hollywood. He stayed in a small home that sounds like it could have been near where you live.




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  10. What a meaningful coincidence. It gave me the goose bumps for you. Your photos of Gulangyu make me want to visit too. Beautiful and I love it that everything is within walking distance.




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    • We’re so lucky to be able to see the world from different perspectives. Looking down from an airplane is so different from riding in a train or driving a car. Riding a bike slows things down even more. And then there’s walking, the most natural experience, limited in scope but the best way to see and feel and smell a place in all its details.




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  11. Chinese cities change at an amazing speed! 25 years ago, Pudong in Shanghai was the countryside, now it is full of skyscrapers! 18 years ago, my neighbourhood in Suzhou was all fields, now it is a huge industrial and residential district. New buildings sprout up every month!

    But I think Gulangyu will remain more or less untouched. It is super popular with Chinese tourists, when I went there in Chinese New Year 2013 it was PACKED!! Too crowded, in fact! The island has a limit for daily visitors but I don’t think they enforce it during the Chinese holidays.




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    • You must have seen so much change since you’ve been in China. Thank you for giving us some of the details. How long have you lived there?

      We experienced some of the same thing when we lived in Makati, Manila’s financial district. Green field after green field turned into skyscrapers within just a few years. But Makati is only one city, not a whole country.

      If anyone wants to visit Gulangyu, I hope they follow your advice and stay away during the Chinese New Year.




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      • Well, I have been here since 2006, so I didn’t really see the big changes like Pudong or my district passing from zero to hero, but I have seen pictures!




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  12. Cool comparisons. The ferry upgraded! Interesting, thanks for the tour.




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  13. My dad is from Xiamen and I lived there briefly when I was very young. I visited there recently. Gulangyu is always a place to go and I have fond memories of it. I am sure my dad have some amazing old pictures of this place. I should go ask him!
    Thanks for sharing!




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    • Yes, you should ask your dad if he has any old pictures. My husband had just one photo album from his early childhood in Gulangyu. People didn’t take many pictures in those days. I don’t think they took any photos during the Japanese occupation.




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  14. Glad your floor’s been fixed and what a coincidence, Nicki! Nice trip into the past for you. 🙂




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    • I’m enjoying the clean simplicity of my new hardwood floors.

      Exploring new places has its appeal, but returning to places we’ve seen before is delightful in another way.




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