For Chinese tourists, the attraction of the eastern coast’s former colonial cities lies in experiencing the feeling of immersion in exotic, foreign customs without leaving the country. Xiamen’s satellite island of Gulangyu — also known as Kulangsu in the local dialect — offers just such an experience, allowing visitors to stroll among Western-style villas reminiscent of a small Mediterranean village, while the banyan and betel nut trees remind them that they are still in eastern China’s Fujian province.
Gulangyu is not thoroughly Westernized, though, with its local Buddhist temples and rocks covered in ancient Chinese inscriptions. There are even temples for worshipping the local guardian deity, Baosheng Dadi, and the traditional deities’ parade passes through the streets every year. Because of its status as a historic international settlement, Gulangyu was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site earlier this month.
With an area of just 2 square kilometers, Gulangyu is truly minuscule. Before the mid-19th century, it was home to a small fishing village. That all changed when the Qing Dynasty signed the Treaty of Nanjing with Britain in 1842, following its defeat in the First Opium War. The treaty stipulated that the Qing government must open up five ports, including Xiamen, to trade. Later, a flood of Westerners converged on the city. Gulangyu presented the ideal residential option for them, given both its proximity to Xiamen and its isolated offshore location away from potentially hostile locals.
Over time, European-inspired consulates, churches, hospitals, schools, post offices, and clubhouses sprang up across the island. Gulangyu’s architecture, however, is not quite the same as that of Europe or America. Many residences on the island are colonial-style bungalows with wide verandas of the sort seen in the hot, humid climates of India, Sri Lanka, and other South Asian former colonies.
In 1903, Gulangyu officially came under the joint management of 13 countries, including Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Japan. It had its own administrative autonomy and consular jurisdiction, but it was not the same as a colony. China had official sovereignty over the island, but foreigners governed at the community level, collecting tax, issuing vendor permits, and policing the streets.
The island’s reputation for being well-run and cosmopolitan attracted a number of Chinese. Rich merchants from southern Fujian, many of whom often traveled to nearby Taiwan for business, built villas on Gulangyu after Japan invaded Taiwan in 1895. Business tycoons continued to buy property on the island, a trend that peaked during the 1920s, when over 1,000 new buildings sprang up in Gulangyu. These villas combined the colonial veranda style with elements of traditional Chinese architecture, an aesthetic fusion that is now called the Amoy Deco style.
The influence of Western lifestyles was not merely reflected in architecture. As an international settlement, Gulangyu spent exactly a century under a Western model of governance, which ended with the Japanese occupation in 1941. On the island, locals and foreigners became neighbors, and their taxes collectively contributed to improving community facilities including new schools.
After the Communists reunified China in 1949, the foreigners on Gulangyu slowly scattered, but the impact of a century’s worth of experience lingered. Locals, for example, had grown fond of the piano, and had long since brought the beloved church instrument into their homes. The famed pianist Yin Chengzong was born in Gulangyu and grew up surrounded by the islanders’ love of music. To this day, Gulangyu’s winding streets, warmed by the sea breeze, are often filled with the tinkling of ivory keys.
Nowadays, however, visitors are also clamoring to experience all that Gulangyu has to offer. At first, the island could handle the modest increase in visitors. But when the bullet train from provincial capital Fuzhou to Xiamen was opened in 2010, the numbers quickly spiraled out of control. More than 11 million people visited in 2012, with 120,000 visitors converging on Gulangyu on Oct. 2, the height of China’s National Week holiday. That’s more than 20 times the number of residents on the island.
Some locals have opened minsu — budget inns for travelers — or have found other ways of profiting off the tourists, but the majority of residents find the crowds, noise, trash, and occasional trespassing unbearable. Even more worryingly, in 2004 the island lost a number of high-quality health care services, leaving the islanders with a shortage of hospitals and medicine. During childbirth or in the event of a sudden illness, people must now make their way down the mountain and take the ferry to Xiamen. The irony is that Gulangyu, once famous for being so livable, now finds its original residents fleeing the island in droves.
At the same time, tourists are far from satisfied. Most visitors come on budget tours or day trips, overlook many of the island’s historic buildings, and flock instead to the seaside barbecue vendors. Businesses catering to higher-end visitors have also suffered losses. The island was once a tranquil weekend haven for high-flying bankers, investors, and artists, who stayed at its historic guesthouses and drank premium coffee on the balconies of these Western-style buildings. They, too, are now heading elsewhere.
Everyone loses in a gamble like this. The value of Gulangyu lies in the history, culture, and architecture it accumulated as an international settlement. But when the link with the local community disappears, the island seemingly becomes nothing more than a dead coral reef. Fortunately, attaining world heritage status might be a turning point.
Gulangyu has focused on the principle of integrated conservation over the past decade. This holistic approach requires authorities to take a macro view of conservation, protecting the whole island from the ravages of tourism as much as any other factor. Yet recent policy changes don’t go far enough — raising the price of a ferry from the mainland to a paltry 35 yuan ($5) is hardly going to deter the seething mass of humanity that floods the island during national holidays. The principle, however, is sound: To win back its diminishing charm — and its fast-fleeing residents — Gulangyu must find ways to reduce tourist numbers and manage the industry in a sustainable way.
Translator: Katherin Tse, editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Tourists stand in front of the former Japanese consulate on Gulangyu Island, Xiamen, Fujian province, Feb. 29, 2008. Chen Hao/VCG)