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Kulangsu 鼓浪屿 – 2017

DSC05176aA 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.


The backstreets of Kulangsu’s Longtou district

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 lakes of Shuzhuang Garden, with Sunlight Rock towering to the north

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.


DSC05245bWhat 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.


Life in the Longtou district of Kulangsu



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The Kizil Caves

One morning in early July, our bellies full of fresh lamb samosas, my taxi driver Mehmet and I found ourselves in the vast Xinjiang countryside. We were more than an hour from home, bound for the Kizil Caves, a collection of Buddhist grottoes dating back 2000 years, the likes of which are surprisingly common in Xinjiang. These majestic tourist attractions are dotted around the Silk Road oases of the province. But they’re rarely close to the cities, or each other, so long highway journeys are in order for the visitor, through often barren and rocky expanses. By some rotten luck I had yet to step inside a cave this trip, so I was desperate to see the Kizil Caves, outside the oil and gas city of Kuche, a sparkling and strangely empty new town wedged beside a down-at-heel historical old village. But now, I was standing beside a highway, next to a soldier armed with a QBZ-95 machine gun. And Mehmet was nowhere to be found.

Rewind to the previous day. Baby-faced Mehmet (he looked like a younger, less-annoying Gilbert Gottfried) wasn’t “my” taxi driver. He was one of Kuche’s many local cabbies, who just happened to be passing by when I emerged from the hotel looking for a lift to the city’s Grand Mosque. I flagged him down and he promptly dropped me at the mosque, down a dusty street in the old town. Instead of driving off, Mehmet offered to wait outside while I visited. He must have been well aware that the building lacked any of the grand-ness in its title, and that I’d need a lift somewhere else fairly soon. I paid my fee at the booth before entering and lingering, alone but for a pair of curious toddlers, about the mosque’s courtyard in contemplation. I wondered how I would fob Mehmet off and instead explore the streets of Kuche’s old town on foot, searching for my first meal of the last day of Ramadan. That idea withered and died, however, when I exited the grounds and saw five armed policemen, all ethnic Uyghurs, had assembled outside the mosque, playing with the local children and casting occasional glances my way as I passed through the heavy gate. As I settled back into Mehmet’s taxi, the policemen stood up as one, and wandered off, shooting warm welcoming smiles at me through the window. Paranoid that I might be the only foreigner in the old town and receiving unnecessarily close attention, I took the opportunity to ask Mehmet to take me straight to breakfast – to his choice of restaurant for polo, a typically central Asian dish of rice, vegetables and lamb. His face lit up at the suggestion, and off we went, to a new-build place comfortably back in the soulless broad boulevards of Kuche’s new town. The restaurant was full, so I was shown to the last remaining table, crammed near the kitchen. There I was joined by two more Uyghur policemen, who smiled at me before tucking into their bowls of laghman, Xinjiang’s famous, and ubiquitous, noodle soup. As I paid for my meal, Mehmet was waiting, and together we agreed that my afternoon visit would be the 1600-year-old ruins of a city 23km out of town called Subash. By the time we returned to Kuche that evening, together we’d planned the Kizil Caves trip and agreed a time for Mehmet to be pick me up next morning.

The next morning was Eid – the end of Ramadan, roughly the Muslim equivalent of Christmas. But Mehmet’s dedication to his faith (and indeed his family) can’t have been above his business, because he’d already given his whole day over to driving me around the countryside. After buying roadside samosas to eat in the car, we stopped to get gas. In Xinjiang, all passengers must wait at the entry to the gas station while the driver refuels, so I stood there by the highway in my dusty hiking shoes and faded shorts, next to families dressed their best for the day’s festivities. Women wore bright reds, yellows and orange colours, their shiny high heels digging into the sandy road shoulder. Men sported crisp dark suits and combed mustaches, and children in pressed trousers and flowery dresses cavorted around and between their parents’ legs.


The Kizil Caves – no photos are allowed once inside

After about an hour of highway driving, we came upon what appeared to be some kind of toll booth. About twenty cars were lined in single file and Mehmet coasted our taxi to a stop. Several Uyghur policemen with shotguns and heavy flashlights approached. I was asked to get out and walk the next fifty meters, through a security checkpoint. One policeman smiled and asked to see my passport, which fell open on the arabesque swirls of my Iranian visa.
More background: The Uyghur language, which all young Uyghurs can speak and read, is written in the Arabic script. (This wasn’t always the case – the Chinese government has switched from Cyrillic to Latin and again to Arabic in the 67 years since 1949.) So Uyghur policemen can’t read our passport pages, and often they struggle with the Chinese on our tourist documents and their very own passports.
But the young man had little trouble extracting my information from the 2013 visa issued by the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Allah!” he read aloud, looking at me with incredulity. The joy written across his face told me I was the most interesting thing to happen to him this shift, on this most festive of days. He led me into the security check and I was whisked through the metal detector and ahead of the patient queuing Chinese foot traffic like some kind of VIP. Several other Uyghur staff gathered round the ID check window where my passport was handed across a desk. One looked up at me and said “Assalamualeikum” to which I instinctively smiled and replied “Waaleikumassalam” They all thought I was a fellow muslim! “What do you do for a job?” they asked in Chinese. Was I married? Where was I from? “Aodaliya! (Australia!)” I spat out hastily. “Oooh Antalya!” they cried in chorus, realising I must be from Turkey. “No, Aodaliya” I corrected them. “Yidali ma? (Italy?)” they asked. My Chinese wasn’t having a good day. Before I could ask for my passport back, to show them the kangaroo on the coat of arms, the whole joyous spectacle had attracted the attention of their superior, a tall, broad, square-jawed Han Chinese who appeared over my shoulder. The playful air was sucked out of the road-side security hut immediately. He rifled through the pages of my passport to find my valid Chinese visa. The question of where I was from returned, in the form of a serious interrogation. What was my occupation? Why was I in Xinjiang? Where was I staying? Mehmet reappeared, helping me answer the superior’s questions as best he could. And when the superior was satisfied, he handed my passport back, and said goodbye. The young policemen continued to chat to Mehmet and they asked me whether I liked Xinjiang, where I was going and where I’d come from, and then bid us a warm farewell as we departed. When we reached the car, Mehmet told me to stay out, and that he’d be back in five minutes. And then he drove off. I stood in the July sun, beside the stern-looking soldier in an armoured vest, carrying the standard-issue QBZ-95 Chinese military machine gun.

Mehmet took longer than five minutes. All up it must have been twenty or thirty, but it felt like an eternity. I’d been unnerved by the exchange at the checkpoint, worried that the several Chinese visas in my passport, combined with the Iran visas, might have been too peculiar for the tall, humourless Han superior. I felt guilty that Mehmet might have been subjected to more searches than he otherwise might have, all because of me. Underneath all of the informal warmth of Xinjiang, there’s still the very serious matter of security. And anything out of the ordinary demands closer scrutiny. Probably hundreds of people like me pass through that checkpoint every year with funny names, strange passports and exotic visas. But they’ve got to check. There’s a process to follow. No need to worry.

One of the frescoes from the Kizil Caves

An example of the Kizil Cave frescoes (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Kizil Caves were worth all the time and effort. Their collective story is remarkable: 236 cubby holes hewn by holy men into a barren hillside overlooking the Weigan River plain; peaceful places of worship overcome by the desert and 2000 years of regional power shifts, in parts plundered and vandalised, and now protected by Beijing in one of Xinjiang’s few truly positive national initiatives. Their “discovery” by the European powers was a coveted prize in the bitter contest between Great Game rivals Albert von le Coq and Aurel Stein at the turn of the 20th century. The soft blues and pinks in the wall paintings came from India and Afghanistan and the frescoes’ artistic style, like the very people of Xinjiang themselves, descends not from China but from the Indian, Turkic and Greco-Persian cultures of central and south Asia. At dusk, before I returned to the hotel, we tucked into laghman and Turkish tea in a Kuche chaykhaneh – the Persian word for “teahouse” that is understood all the way to Europe. There we were accompanied only by curious waiters and cheery families – paranoia subsided and not a policeman in sight.


I feel I must note that in the last year or so there have been horrifying revelations of mass incarcerations in Xinjiang broadcast on major news outlets like the BBC and the New York Times. One should always be wary of stories that confuse the PRC’s brutal campaign against Uighur separatism, one with roots much deeper than those of the PRC itself, for a campaign against Muslims in general. And journalism in the West has a track record of sometimes being too heavily influenced by pro-independence elements in the diaspora – in this case the Uighur and Turkic diaspora. But after all I’ve read, I have no doubt that the highway checkpoint in my story is an element in the security infrastructure that is being used to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of innocent people for the diabolical purpose of “re-education.” At that checkpoint there was a process to follow, and for me there was indeed no need to worry. But that wasn’t the case for Mehmet or his fellow Uighurs in that security hut. They might have worried for family or friends that had already disappeared, or for the very real prospect of themselves being taken away at a moment’s notice to be imprisoned for an indefinite time, under spurious pretences.

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Xinjiang Gallery

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6 Things That Are Obvious In China (But Not in Australia)

Kashgar in far west Xinjiang, China, has had a fresh injection of investment and its old town spruced up

1. China’s bigger and more diverse than we can imagine. And it works surprisingly well.

The 400km Karakoram Highway, ancient silk route, resembles one vast construction site, with investment from all over China

2. Facebook is small fry compared to China’s WeChat, and is forced to follow them. Chinese tech companies are in the ascendancy, and the likes of Apple and Google know it.

WeChat is how most people in China chat, share and, increasingly, WeChat Money is how they buy and sell things

3. The runaway economy in China’s east may have slowed to a steady jog, but the boom in the west is just beginning: the riches on the coast are being invested inland. And it will carry countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan with it.

Evening crowds in front of Kashgar’s Id Kah Mosque

4. Whatever concerns we might have with corrupt governments in China, Central Asia and the Middle East, they’ve probably got a bright future ahead, and we’ll have to adjust.

A tourist in the shiny new part of Turpan, an ancient Silk Road city

5. The benefits that we once enjoyed just for speaking English, or for having a western education, are becoming less and less. Our children can’t afford to ignore Asia’s languages and cultures, to be as complacent as we were.

After dark snacks and juices in Kashgar’s freshly-renovated old town

6. Electing leaders who are clueless about and dismissive of the Middle, Near and Far East will not make anyone great again. It will only accelerate our decline.

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Throwing Rocks at 13000ft

At around 4200m above sea level, perched on a rocky slope and huddled in layers in the shade, I hurled my last stone into the rushing torrent below. It had been a motif on this trek, throwing stones, shifting slopes, the clinking sound of small rockfalls and the unpredictable splashes when they hit water. Instead of chucking the things I decided to copy the local shepherds, engage in a more constructive exercise and stack a small cairn while we rested on our descent of Muztagh Ata – the ‘Father of Ice Mountain’ in China’s far western Xinjiang province.

We got here via the Karakoram Highway, a road route from the city of Kashgar and on to Pakistan, over the imposing Khunjerab Pass, that encompasses much of the ancient Silk Road route. Until the latest collosal construction project is complete (late 2016), the route is a bumpy off-road experience, taking roughly 7 hours to complete the barely 200km between Kashgar and our first stop, by the western shore of Karakul Lake. Along the way, army green trucks flying the PRC flag stalk the highway in convoys, transporting coal and iron ore. These commodities are the sole property of the government 4000km away in Beijing. The Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Tajik urban and nomadic communities of the area, in their ‘autonomous counties’ have no stake in the riches beneath their feet. Construction on the highway is carried out by companies from across the PRC, from faraway places like Shandong and Guangxi. A new dam and hydroelectric power station has been built beneath the imposing Kongur mountain, creating a new lake and sinking the winter pastures of the local Kyrgyz villagers, and a part of the old Silk Road. Just like the housing developments in Xinjiang’s cities, financed by municipal goverments like Shanghai and Shenzhen, these projects that flow on from the discovery of western mineral wealth are eastern ventures, and the locals of the west will have to take advantage where they can, or be damned.

They are doing just that, as evidenced by our very presence, renting Kyrgyz villagers’ homes as part of an organised tour. The villagers are also by the roadside hawking jewellery and traditional headwear when the Han Chinese spill from their enormous tour buses for photos by the lakes. These are resilient communities that have seen their fair share of cataclysmic changes and tyrannical rule, and the belated arrival of the full force of the PRC juggernaut is just the latest.

For our first day’s trek we set off clockwise around Karakul Lake, as if traversing an ancient Buddhist circuit. The skies are clear and the views of white capped mountains in almost every direction are breathtaking. We pass through Kyrgyz winter villages, deserted except for the odd curious family. The children usually stare wide-eyed at us strangers until we wave to them, then they crack a smile and hide behind their mother or each other. The clear skies prevail, and the daunting peak of 7500m Muztagh Ata, our purpose, watches over us to the east throughout the day. We pass the odd local on a motorbike, plying the dirt trails between villages. Our guide and donkey driver greet them warmly and uniformly: a smile, the right hand placed on the heart, ‘assalamaleikum (waleikumassalam)’ a firm shake of the right hand, and it returns to to the chest, as inquisitive conversation begins. It’s repeated all over Xinjiang, but here in the mountains there is that warm, rural, genuine concern that inhabits the countryside the world over.

Walking the eastern edge of Karakul Lake, the ink black water is so calm, the stratified tan foothills of the Pamir reflect so clearly that peering over the edge feels like staring into an abyss, the sky deep beneath our feet. We leave the lake behind us, swing around a small hill and across a valley of grassland to a house in the village of Idara – a collection of stone houses with a modest mazar (cemetery) on the western side. The almost 18km walk is exhausting. We’ve barely gained 50m in altitude, but there’s extra effort in even the simplest of tasks at 3700m. Idara is a winter village, but in mid July the family are there to host us for the night, to return to their cattle higher up the slopes as soon as we are gone. To our east, the day’s last rays of sunlight glint off the western glaciers of Muztagh Ata, and the clouds clear for a cold, starlit night.

The next day it’s an 8km walk, 400m up to the busy summer village of Qaltamuk, full of lounging juvenile yaks and energetic children on their summer holidays. We cross a vast pebbled riverbed. The streams running through it are high enough that at one point we are forced into our first effort at rock-throwing: establishing a series of stepping stones to traverse the bubbling waters. Across the grasslands beside the riverbed rust-coloured marmots chirp their warning signs to each other, keeping their distance and stood so still they resemble the rocks that dot the hills. We have a brief lunch in Qaltamuk in the early afternoon before attempting to reach the glacier on Muztagh Ata. The ascent is slow and conversation scarce. Marmots chirp somewhere nearby. We cross a herd of bolshy yaks grazing the upper slopes. Between sips of water and gulps of thin air, we snack on Albeni bars – a kind of Turkish Twix. When the grass slopes end we scuttle over the rocks that the retreating glacier has long since left lie, towards its crumbling ice fringes. We reach 4500m. That’s as high as we’ll get. Rain and hail begin to fall, and the mountain is obscured by clouds except for the white wall lower reaches of the glacier. We hang out at the glacier, grinning for photos beside giant blocks of ice and topping up our bottles with crisp, fresh glacier melt. The weather eases and we begin our difficult descent along the moraine, following the path of the ice. Climbing was tiring, but simple and repetitive. Descending loose rocks requires concentration. We rest often, and throw, or stack, rocks in contemplation. The sun comes out. The cavernous sound of rushing water echoes beneath the glacier, and silvery trickles drip from the melting ice to our right. These drips become the waters that divert through the summer village where we will sleep and fill the pebbled valleys far below. They paint green the grasslands where marmots burrow and horses graze and each ever so slightly lifts the level of Karakul Lake. Unlike where I come from, water is plentiful here and electricity is not.

We return to Qaltamuk just before sunset and slump by the warm stone house stove, spent. Our Uyghur guide and Kyrgyz donkey driver roll out their rugs and pray with the hosts, as they have done each evening, night and morning throughout the trek. They whisper Bismillah before our meal of white rice and fried vegetables, and offer thanks with Alhamdulillah after, placing their palms up and then covering their face before clearing the plates. These Sufi traditions sit comfortably alongside the more ancient superstitions that attribute a divine nature to the mountain, and respect for the countryside and the food on their table – echoes of the region’s Buddhist, and pre-Buddhist, past.

Our appetites shot by altitude, we’re grateful too for the mouthfuls that we managed. And for our descent next morning, back across the river via another rocky crossing. Then further down the highway and into the next valley, where the weather is warmer and the air is thicker. As the stone house lights go out and rain falls on the roof, I wonder how long my little stack of 6 rocks will last, so close to the water’s edge, and with winter not far away. Will the shepherds acknowledge it? I’ll never know.

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Flight CZ6888 CAN-URC

Most flights pass by with little incident, each one predictable, indistinguishable from the next. My flight from Guangzhou to Ürümqi in Xinjiang was not one of those.

The first thing that struck me was protruding from the seat pocket in front of me – on the pamphlet of safety instructions, the usual Chinese and English characters were joined by the Arabic script. Xinjiang is the only part of China where Arabic is used, for the Uyghur language, spoken by more than 40% of the province.


China Southern’s Safety Instructions – in Uyghur, Chinese & English

This was the first time I thought I’d noticed an air marshall on a plane. Tall, with close-cropped hair and a deep crease bisecting the back of his head, the man one row in front would periodically strut the cabin and un-selfconsciously eye the passengers with a mixture of boredom and suspicion. I knew what he was for sure when he abruptly ordered the cabin crew to tell me to turn off my “shou ji”, my mobile phone. They and I fell into line without reply.

About 2 hours into the 5 hour flight, looking out the window offered a birds-eye view of a moonscape. Parallel to the plane ran a spine of desolate brown crags, their tops scattered in the summer with snowdrift. Perpendicular to these peaks, long winding ridges of rock fell away, twisting into the distance like the backs of giant alligators. They dwindled to shallow bumps and eventually into dark ripples of sand dunes. As far as the eye could see, there was no sign of life; no road, no river, no farm, no village. Desolate China; her own big, broad Badlands.


Naan bread for sale in the streets of Turpan, near Urumqi

Before our descent, an African man with a francophone accent, dressed in jeans and t shirt and wearing a silver crucifix, sat next to me briefly. He told me was on his way back to Kyrgyzstan, having missed his transit to the Philippines in Guangzhou. It seemed an unlikely story, so I politely declined his request for help, assuming he’d manage okay.

The long approach to Urumqi Airport passed over a flat expanse of bland urbanisation, dominated by an ugly, orderly collection of asbestos blue warehouse roofs. At some distance, through the industrial haze shone the snowcapped Tianshan, the “Heavenly Mountains” of Central Asia, which Xinjiang shares with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.


Late night kebabs in Urumqi

As we disembarked, we passed the air marshall in the jetway where he was placing the African man in handcuffs. Behind them in the west set a toxic orange sun. Less than an hour later I would be ordering lamb kebab and ayran after iftar in a bustling Uyghur cafe across from my hotel – a late night snack and a welcome to Xinjiang fittingly following such a peculiar flight.

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Melakan Meals

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Fresh fish barbecued to order at Seri Muara Alai in Melaka on peninsular Malaysia’s west coast

Tired and hungry, with very little time left before making for the airport and our flight back to Australia, my friend and I decided reluctantly to plump for dinner at a shiny new restaurant, smack bang in the middle of Melaka’s tourist district. We would usually have little hope of a good meal in such a dire situation; with a greasy burger or watery curry at the airport the only other option, we chose the lesser evil – an untested potential tourist-trap two doors down from an Irish Bar. We pushed the heavy, silent door ajar, felt the rush of impossibly cool air-conditioned air, and took our chances.
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A mural for the Chinese year of the Horse in 2014 adorning a building in the heritage area near Jonker Walk

I am not a food tourist, and I hate the term “foodie,” but wherever I go, I do like to experience whatever a country does well. And Malaysia does its food very, very well. Not in that pretentious, haute-cuisine, Michelin-star-celebrity-chef way, but in a plastic-tables-and-chairs, cheap-bottled-beers and use-your-fingers kind of way. Melaka is a port city that once stood beside Venice and Alexandria among the great trading cities of its time, with a native Malay fishing culture that rubbed shoulders for centuries with urban Indian and Chinese trading societies and a European colonial ruling class. When I last visited in 2004, I found a relaxed and unhurried place, on the eastern shore of a down-at-heel riverfront and only a small number of Malay cultural attractions and European colonial museums. The food, however, was worth coming back for.
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Incense for the Lunar New Year at Melaka’s Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Cut to 2016 and I, like most Australians who have been periodically passing through the nearby Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, had been completely oblivious to the transformation Melaka has undergone. In 2008, the city was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, igniting a series of gentrification projects that have transformed the city. Varying in scope and levels of success (the large-scale coastal land reclamation and a curious 80m high spinning tower are amusing at best,) the finest of these is the restoration of the Chinese district centred on Heeren Street (Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock) and Jonker Walk (Jalan Hang Jebat,) on the west side of the Melaka River. Before Singapore and Penang joined the fray, Melaka was at the centre of Southeast Asian trade, the capital of a Sultanate that spanned and gave its name to what is still the busiest shipping lane the world: the Straits of Malacca.
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A detail of the Chinese-style tiling at Kampung Kling Mosque in Melaka’s heritage area

The first Chinese arrived there in the 1400s with the famed explorer Zheng He (Cheng Ho) and many more migrated throughout the period of European rule from the 1500s to mid last century, mostly from the southern coastal provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan. As in Singapore and Penang, the migrants mixed with the local Malays, maintaining many of their Chinese customs, and a Straits Chinese Peranakan culture all its own was born. The area around Heeren Street and Jonker Walk is dominated by the Chinese townhouses and shops, with their columns adorned with auspicious characters and the Chinese signs of ancient clan associations, many of which have been restored to an exceptional standard and turned into hotels and museums. To avoid a tax on street frontage, the homes were built narrow and long, with living rooms at the front, kitchens at the back and sunny open courtyards surrounding water wells midway through the house, and it’s in these spaces where visitors can now stay in boutique hotels. The Baba & Nyonya Museum on Heeren Street is a private museum run by the descendants of the original Peranakan owners (from the Xiamen district of Tong’an) that offers an outstanding introduction to the lavish trappings and private lives of the wealthy Straits Chinese. Two streets over, the oldest temple in Malaysia is the Cheng Hoon Teng Buddhist Temple, dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, and a centre of Melaka’s South Fujianese Hokkien community since the 17th century. A few doors down from the temple, Kampung Kling Mosque is a beautifully understated place of worship, combining elements of European architecture, Chinese tiling and a very open and airy Malayan use of space. In recent years mainland Chinese tourists have found Melaka, and the rejuvenated Jonker Walk explodes to life on Friday, Saturday and Sunday with a night market that sees Chinese tour groups souvenir hunting, wedged shoulder-to-shoulder with European backpackers shuffling past the art shops and street food carts. Despite the touristic feel, much of the food on offer, like Hainanese chicken rice balls, a dessert called durian puffs, the red bean sweet drink called cendol, and the curious combination of satay sticks and Chinese steamboat known as satay celup, is all genuinely Melakan, and good.
Melaka (137 of 137)

Melaka’s heritage-listed Heeren Street townhouses at dusk

Across the river, just outside the spruced-up UNESCO heritage area, is Little India. There, off the path beaten by the tour groups, modest open air restaurants can be found serving some of the best roti canai, murtabak and south Indian banana leaf cuisine you’ll ever have. Sometimes the signs are fading or falling down, the restaurants aren’t licensed, and none of them has free wifi, but if a place is busy, it is well worth finding a table, sitting down and ordering what everyone else is having. The Malay fishing village life is a little way out of the city, so a modest cab ride down the coast finds rows of seaside fish restaurants under market roofs like Seri Muara Alai, where locals crowd tables piled with fresh barbecued seafood (ikan bakar) and ice cold glasses of teh tarik, to the competing sounds of the adhan from nearby mosques.
Melaka (36a of 137)

The Jonker Walk night market during Lunar New Year celebrations

And so my friend and I found ourselves reluctantly ordering at a brand new restaurant in the tourist district, with the uninspiring title of Nyonya Kitchen, just to avoid an airport meal. But it turns out we had nothing to fear: the Nyonya chicken curry and ayam rendang were as good as any food we had eaten in Melaka. The coconut and turmeric flavours were distinctive, the chicken pulled right off the bone and the lime juice was fresh and tart. So I realised that even the touristic restaurants in Melaka serve tastier food than any I can get back in Australia. It’s only 1.5hrs drive from Kuala Lumpur’s airport and, myself not being much of a shopper, Melaka’s history, the quality of its food, and the ease of getting around all makes me wonder if I’d bother staying in Kuala Lumpur again.

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Xiamen – The Camphor City Guide

Xiamen - The Camphor City Guide

Xiamen – The Camphor City Guide

2 November 2015
Barely a week ago I was treading the streets of my youth in Singapore, with my sister and her friends and young family. Not yet worn down by the incessant blanket of haze that’s shrouded the city for the last few months, the patient 8 of them indulged me when I suggested we visit a little museum for the afternoon, in a city hardly known for such things. The Peranakan Museum is part-cultural propaganda tool and part-historical gem, preserving the specific culture that emerged when Chinese migrants settled in the straits and the spice islands of Southeast Asia and mixed with the native Malay and other cultures around. Those migrants made their homes in Singapore, but also in Penang, Melaka, Jakarta, Makassar and Ipoh. And as the museum attests, their descendants are still there, making up today’s Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians. Some Peranakans made it back to China too – it was Peranakan houses that I stumbled across on the Fujianese island of Jinmen when I visited there one February. My visit to the museum was on a hunch that, although the Peranakans descended from Malays, Indians, Europeans and Chinese, and had settled in different places in Southeast Asia, one city would play a central role – Xiamen. And so it was, that the illustrative map in the first room showed Xiamen (Amoy) as the only origin for the departure of Chinese migrants (though it wasn’t – many sailed from Shantou and other ports). Of those famous Peranakans not born in the straits, the majority were born in Xiamen. And the names of the people, and the cultural artifacts were romanised, not in Mandarin but in Hokkien – the Minnanhua dialect of Xiamen (Feng Shui, for example, is Hong Swee). By the end of it, I had felt some smug self-satisfaction, we all learned something new, and we got to see the actual barrister’s wig belonging to the late Lee Kuan Yew.

The Peranakan Museum, on Armenian Street in Singapore

The statue outside the Peranakan Museum, on Armenian Street in Singapore

Which is a very roundabout way of getting to the point that today my travel guide to Xiamen – The Camphor City Guide has been published in ebook format. It’s involved a lot of work by people in several countries on three continents. It’s by far the best guide to a wonderful city that has given so much to the region and the world, and helps those new to Xiamen, Kulangsu (Gulangyu) and the People’s Republic of China get down to the daily street life of the city’s inhabitants and make the most of her hugely popular tourist attractions.

Xiamen – The Camphor City Guide is available for a very-affordable $5.99 in epub and mobi via the Camphor Press Website and on Amazon. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the Kindle App on your phone, iPad or PC.

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MorningCalm Article on Xiamen

Korean Air Title I wrote a special destination article and three feature sections for the August edition of Korean Air’s in-flight magazine, MorningCalm, about Xiamen, Quanzhou & the Hakka villages of south Fujian (requires Adobe Flash.) The accompanying photographs are by Boaz Rottem of Boazimages.

MorningCalm is perhaps the most beautiful in-flight mag I’ve come across; the preceding article on Bukhara and its stunning photographs by Marc Dozier are well worth a look, too. Korean Air Cover

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Old Anping, Taiwan


Taiwan’s position in the world is a difficult one for a visitor to reconcile. Once upon a time recognised as the free and open repository for all of Chinese history and culture in the face of the PRC’s cultural scorched earth policy on the mainland, the 1970s saw that recognition fade, with this complex and diverse island gaining a kind of utilitarian workshop image. In the 1980s “Made in Taiwan” was far more common than “Made in China”. But it doesn’t pay to lament the loss of Taiwan’s “Free China” image too much, as this over-simplification doesn’t do justice to the island’s true Chinese and non-Chinese past: Austronesian indigenous people are the longest continuous residents of Taiwan, the most recent influx were indeed post-war political refugees from right across the mainland Chinese territories, and the relatively short reign of the Japanese in the early 1900s left a significant mark on the island’s architecture. But the dominant Chinese culture in Taiwan is and always has been, since the first Chinese and European contact with the island, a Fujianese one. This is no more true than in the southern village of Anping, the island’s first Chinese capital.


Walls and a window in Anping’s old streets

Anping is the site of a 17th century event dear to the hearts of all Chinese – the defeat of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) at their Fort Zeelandia base in southern Taiwan by the Fujianese forces of one Zheng Chenggong (or Koxinga), a man upon whose legendary status even the Japanese can agree. It marked the first Chinese victory over a European power, and the first time Taiwan could be considered Chinese. But the fort and even Taiwan itself were not the real object of Zheng’s desires – the victory and subsequent founding of Anping was meant to be but one step in the re-taking of China itself back from the Manchurian Qing, who had conquered all of the mainland except for a pocket of southern Fujian that included Xiamen and Jinmen islands. Ultimately, the Qing prevailed, but not before Anping in Taiwan and that pocket of southern Fujian had formed a brief but fruitful marriage that continued in one way or another throughout the 300+ year reign of the Qing dynasty.


The sword lion above the door of a ruin at 44 Zhongxing St in Old Anping

So there’s a Fujianese solidarity that drips from Old Anping’s walls and spills onto her criss-cross of narrow lanes. It’s shaded by overgrown red brick and grey stone, stoops through six foot high doorways flanked by vertical painted words and inside it’s greeted by a softly-lit ancestral shrine. They built villages across the seas, these refugees, so that once you fall into their warren of streets, you’re transported back to Fujian. Their mansions in miniature and the claustrophobic arteries that carry the visitor have survived poverty, disaster, dynasties and civil war – not because they didn’t get destroyed, but because they kept getting built. These days they’re no longer being built, but they are being restored, to a wonderful standard in Old Anping, and belatedly in parts of the PRC like the Zengcuo’an area of Xiamen. And even in Tainan, the 20th century city that Anping now forms a part of, the residents still walk a warren of streets, and at night you can still spot in the front rooms of the relatively modern accommodations, through the glass, a traditional family shrine cast in dim red light.


The Zheng Chenggong statue at Fort Zeelandia, and just one of the windows of the Anping Tree House – a former warehouse for the British merchants Tait & Co that has been overcome by banyan trees

But it’s Old Anping that has preserved her history so delightfully – antique painted ceramic ‘sword lions’ hang over the doors to protect those inside, and they adorn public signs and the municipal letterboxes around the town. Deep in the old town is Haishan Hostel – a base where Qing troops from Fujian were stationed during the three centuries of Taiwan’s rule by Beijing. High on a hill, the site of the old Dutch Fort Zeelandia remains and much has been reconstructed to give a feeling of what was once there. An unassuming overgrown brick wall is the oldest preserved part of the complex that includes a new watchtower that was swarming with schoolchildren the very same day that I had Anping’s old streets, a stone’s throw away, nearly completely to myself. The crowds were also in number at the nearby Anping Tree House, a disused British merchants’ warehouse that was neglected for so long that it sprouted a forest of banyans inside and out, becoming a strange attraction all its own, while the old Fujianese streets nearby remained sleepy. European colonial history is interesting, for sure, but in Anping it really is trumped by the Chinese world that grew up around and after it.

The re-built watchtower at Fort Zeelandia, and the oldest remaining wall in the fort

The re-built watchtower at Fort Zeelandia, and the oldest remaining wall in the fort

The Taiwanese often look to Tainan and Anping in their south as the repository for their own history – not Chinese history, but Taiwanese history – the very particular experience of an island in the Pacific settled by Fujianese migrants in search of a better life. Unburdened by the grand designs of a nationalist government lamenting communist cultural annihilation on the mainland, they succeed in capturing the Chinese home-away-from-home feeling much better than their shiny new northern capital Taipei. And if Taiwan is to continue forging its own identity outside of China, Anping will continue to keep and protect much of what they hold dear.


A working tricycle in front of a Fujianese house in Old Anping


More on Anping & Tainan:
An Online Tainan City Guide
The Bradt Guide to Taiwan, by Steven Crook

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