A lot has happened since I last set foot on the streets of Gulangyu islet. Most significantly, in summer 2016, the islet and its unique architecture was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. To those of us from new world countries, it’s difficult to get our heads around exactly what UNESCO listing means, and UNESCO themselves don’t make it much easier with their excessively-academic descriptions: “[The islet’s style] shows a transformation of traditional building typology towards new forms, which were later referenced throughout South-East Asia and became popular in the wider region.” But in the case of Gulangyu, a tiny islet off just the coast of Xiamen (China’s ‘capital of cool’ according to CNN Travel this year), UNESCO listing means fortified protection from the rampant demolition and high-rise, high-tech development that’s happening five minutes ferry ride away. It means the late 19th and early 20th century buildings, erected by Xiamen locals, wealthy overseas Chinese, and the occasional European merchant, carpeting the islet’s suburban interior and woven together by its tiny twisting lanes, will be restored instead of replaced. It means many of those properties now have erected wonderfully descriptive plaques, in near-perfect English, detailing their individual histories and their architectural significance. It means strict limits on the number of tourists that can visit the islet – 35,000 per day where once upon a time the islet hosted three times as many. And it means everyone outside China has started referring to the islet not by its Mandarin name “Gulangyu” but by its Hokkien dialect name Kulangsu.
In fact much of the language harks back to the beginning of last century. Kulangsu’s architectural style, which UNESCO tells us originated here and spread to other parts of China, Taiwan and South-East Asia, takes the old Hokkien-European name Amoy Deco. The English language summaries of the islet refer to the adjacent river mouth by its old colonial spelling Chiu-lung River. And the rectangular carpet of grass fringed by palm trees and grey stone buildings at the corner of Huangyan and Zhonghua roads, which 140 years ago began hosting cricket and tennis matches, is generously named the Foreigners Football Field (in Chinese, though, its name is still the regulation proletarian 人民体育场 – “People’s Stadium”). The old colonial terms can be found on the plaques outside the UNESCO inscribed properties, some 50-60 of which are scattered across the six nominal tourist districts on the islet.
The properties are many and varied; as diverse as a Taoist temple, a protestant church, a residential family villa, and the offices of a Shanghai-based Dutch oil company. The text on the plaques is accompanied by historical black and white photographs, architectural elevation diagrams, and cues for the Kulangsu official audio guide. At important crossroads, the visitor can find maps of the district and a summary of its importance in the wider context of Kulangsu’s history, which included traditional fishing settlements long before Xiamen’s 18th-century rise to major trading port status. All of these changes have opened Kulangsu up to the average overseas tourist and transformed the islet. Where once we found a mere quirky curiosity, Kulangsu is now a comprehensible destination that can be placed in the wider context of the multicultural East and South-East Asian trading communities, and of European engagement with Asia. This is important, because outside China little is known of this world where the west and the far east have been interacting for centuries, and increasingly inside China this interaction is portrayed as a shallow and wholly negative experience.
What hasn’t changed on Kulangsu is just as pleasing as what has. There’s the geography. Sunlight Rock, the 92 metre-high stone summit from which Zheng Chenggong surveyed his dominion in the early days of his 17th century resistance, still dominates the more populated southern half of the islet. Beneath the rock, the delightful arrangement of hillside paths, bridges and seaborne stone steps that make up Shuzhuang Garden wend their way through rock gardens, up and down coastal cliffs, across inlets and out into the waves opposite the mainland shore at Zhangzhou Port. The rolling and twisting lanes in the northern portion of the islet, around the Neicuo’ao district, remain leafy, local and relatively free of the tourist trade that dominates the Longtou district in the centre of town. It’s around Neicuo’ao too that the visitor can still get a glimpse of the blackened and aged 20th century buildings unrestored and overgrown, that once proliferated prior to the UNESCO listing. The crowds haven’t changed, either. Despite the reduction in tourist numbers, the Longtou district retains its energy, buzzing into the night thanks to 24 hour ferry services to and from Xiamen, and a vast improvement in the accommodation options on Kulangsu. The bridal couples are still there, around almost every corner, sprawled across church gardens, trailing their dresses, dragging wardrobe suitcases and followed by teams of photographers and make up artists. And inexplicably, the popularity of eccentric desserts continues unabated – where once everyone bought pineapple cake from Miss Zhao, today the tourists lug brightly-coloured bags of tropical fruit tarts made by Durian & Mango Deeds. Thanks to UNESCO, with the unique character of Kulangsu’s 20th century architecture articulated for us, it feels like we’re now freer to be bamboozled by the equally peculiar nature of Kulangsu’s modern Chinese tourism.