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Gulangyu Island is luxury travel to past, and present, China

Girls, October 2012, on Gulangyu Island

Here is the face of modern Chinese tourists.  Two young women on Gulangyu island, off Xiamen Island, working their mobile phones. Facebook is not allowed in China but who cares, there is Weibo, which acts as platform for the super-new travel service Trip Store and so much else.  Some use Seadream as their must-have site to learn about and plan their travel.

The fabulous new luxury lifestyle hotel, Hotel Indigo Xiamen Harbour, got 20,000 Weibo followers in its first three months – the hotel runs nearly 90 percent full all the time and has done no traditional marketing at all.

Double-decker boats ply between Xiamen and Gulangyu islands

From most of the hotel’s rooms you look straight out at Xiamen harbour and, 400 yards away, Gulangyu island.  Exit the hotel, walk seven minutes to your right and you get to the ferry pier.  It is first-come first-served and since 125,000 cross over every day it is advisable to be ahead of the game.

Get there early.  You pay an extra 12 cents (US) for ‘First Class’, standing or sitting on the boat’s upper deck, but the crossing is only six minutes anyway.  At the island side, you exit to left or right, with a caged-in area between for those waiting for the return journey.

Three musketeers on Gulangyo Island, George Qiao, in green, and Bruce Ryde (George's hotel, Hotel Indigo Xiamen Harbour, in the distant right)

We arrived, and decided on strategy.  First, guided by tourist advisor Anne, we were going to take an electric buggy in an anti-clockwise direction (no cars or bicycles are allowed on the island).

Starting from Gulangyu Lundu Terminal, on the east of the island, we skirted the shoreline, going around Yanwei Hill and Zhaoha Hill.  At Gusheng Lui beach, there was what looked like a very pleasant resort with a garden, the Gulang Bieshu Hotel.

At Shuzhuang Garden, set up in 1931 by a Taiwanese expat from Fujian, Lin Ejia, we admired the terraces, and the view, and then we went into this extraordinary Piano Museum, the collection of another expat, Huyouyi, who still lives in Sydney.  He has Steinway, and Wertheim, and upright and low-set and baby pianos, and two covered with marquetry of birds in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

A view on Gulangyo Island

Next was a walk to the Highest Heaven mansions, for a puppet show, and a musical soirée showcasing local instruments, which were of the ‘enough is a good as a feast’ variety.  One of the buildings here is a memorial to the old mansions, many of which still exist.

The Tianwei Girls School was established by the Reformed Church of America in 1847.  The residence of the Manager of HSBC was built 1873, a full 36 years before China’s own bank, Ta Ching, was established.

Lin Ejia’s own mansion dates from 1895, and the British consulate, built for Rutherford Alcock, from 1845. Next to this is the 1890 Dutch consulate, once a Gothic seminary, which was set up to recruit labour for the tobacco industry in Sumatra.

A traditional puppet

Now with all these visitors coming on-island every day, the streets of the old town sometimes become flooded with people, but walk a few minutes and you can generally get a bit of peace and quiet.  I see a bride rushing to have her photo taken (Chinese wedding pictures are taken ahead of time, in various poses, various locations, different gear, so that the resulting video can be shown on the happy day).  She is late, and a friend holds her train up high, to keep it clean. A young couple loiter, wondering what to buy next.

A street in Gulangyo Island old town

Yes, you spend money coming to Gulangyu. Give a few coins to entrepreneurs who have dressed up as traditional characters, cousins of those in European capitals who pose motionless for hours while completely sprayed in gold or silver.   Spend money on the kind of knickknacks that break the moment you get them home.

Today, masses of the kids brought over by their parents are wearing baseball caps with animal ears. In years to come, when they are shown old photos, they will feel so silly.

People in 'traditional statue' gear

Also spend money on food, which is what keeps the Chinese economy going.  Whatever the hour, it seems, they are eating.  Noodles here, noodles there.  I am told that all vendors have to be licensed but today, as on all holiday days, officials sometimes turn a blind eye to what is going on.  Nearby there are guys selling fish.  Each species has its own plastic washing-up bowl, set on the ground: water is fed in by a hose-pipe.

Some of the fish struggle as if they know their life is in danger.  (Later, we will have fish on the menu at Shu You seafood restaurant, a fake-Murano and water-down-the-windows affair, on the main Xiamen Island…)

Food time, any time

The fish are merely brought from the waters around Gulangyu.  But, remember, there are 125,000 visitors coming here every day.  Add to that the 13,000 people who live here permanently.  How do their supplies come in?  Back near Gulangyu Lundu Terminal there is a ramp for small boats to come in laden to the gunnels with enormous card boxes.

I am reminded of Khasab, on Oman’s Musandam Peninsula.  When Silver Wind put in there for the day, the highlight was watching dozens of speedboats being loaded up with IT and other supplies, all well labeled on their card boxes, to ply the route across to Iran – but that was a couple of years ago, before the rial was so devalued.

Bringing fresh supplies to the island

Here, the incoming boxes are laden on turquoise rickshaws pulled by skin-and-bones men who run as fast as their legs will carry them, yelling Who-a to make sure you get out of their way.  I watch this, looking across the harbour to Hotel indigo Xiamen Harbour, so perfect for the luxury lifestyle of the new-look Chinese.