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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
In the last couple of decades, the popular image of China, at least outside China itself, has become a very modern one. Much in the same way that Japan’s rapid modernisation subsumed an ancient “shoguns and ninjas” image and replaced it with a hi-tech, futuristic one of robots and intelligent lavatories, China’s recent boom has brought some rather more unsightly stereotypes to the fore – smog, factories and endless apartment block developments among them. When we visit the big-ticket tourist cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an, we often see one or all of these, but we do it for some small and carefully-preserved piece of China’s history – Old Shanghai, the Imperial Palace Museum, or the Terracotta Army. After those fascinating exhibits, the cities around them feel like a strange mix of luxury stores, grey cookie-cutter apartment blocks and ultra-modern, ambitious and sometimes ridiculous new construction. In the People’s Republic’s rush to create a communist utopia, and the resulting u-turn and plunge into a market economy, Chinese life has changed, seemingly completely. So, one begins to wonder, where is a living version of old China? One that pre-dates the Cultural Revolution and isn’t cluttered with tourist shops and ticket booths? One answer to that question is a little town in remote Shanxi province, called Pingyao.
Pingyao has a long history. Situated roughly halfway between Beijing and Xi’an, it has been in the company of the centres of Chinese civilisation for over 2000 years, and held a position at the eastern end of the trans-continental Silk Route. But it was more recently, during the last throes of the Qing dynasty, that the city amassed much of its riches. It was in Pingyao in 1823, as wealth in the form of silver moved across the vast empire to finance development and occupations, that China’s first bank emerged. Business boomed and Pingyao spawned several banks, with branches across the empire and as far away as India. It all went well until the fall of the Qing in 1911, by which time the wealthy banking families of the city had built impressive homes and amassed enviable art collections. The 20th century was unkind to Pingyao as the business centres shifted to the coast, industries were nationalised, and Shanxi’s national role was reduced to the extraction of coking coal. The upshot of Pingyao’s descent to the fringes, however, seems to have been its protection from modern China’s relentless development and the preservation of the city’s precious heritage.
Pingyao has been surrounded by a city wall for over 2000 years, but the wall in its current form has been in place since the Ming dynasty in the 14th century. Its 6km length encloses and overlooks a criss-cross of tiny lanes, marshalled by 2 perpendicular main arteries. The southern half of the north-south artery, South Street (Nán Dà Jiē), is the most heavily-touristed, straddled by an ornate gate and lined with shops selling tourist nicknacks, eclectic collections of antiques, and restaurants and cafes. South Street also finds itself among the bulk of the tourist attractions and guest houses in the city, heavily trod by large Chinese tour groups and a smaller crowd of foreigners. There are two temples and four bank museums in the southern half of the city, as well as two double-entendred “escort agency” museums. Some of the attractions date from over a millennium ago, and each reveals a precious piece of China’s history, chief among them the pioneering Rishengchang Draft Bank Museum, with a room full of treasures dating back to the Song Dynasty. The Rishengchang Museum is part of a city-wide entry ticket of 120RMB that includes a number of attractions and is valid for three days. But the beauty of Pingyao is not only in the draft banks and temples, but also in walking its sometimes-restored, sometimes-rubble-strewn dead straight lanes.
Turning off the main streets, the touristic nature of the lanes quickly dwindles, but the ancient village architecture never does. Dark brick façades rise either side of you and the sky forms a thin strip over your head, the horizon in front obstructed by an ornate gate in the near distance, or one of the watchtowers on the city wall. The occasional electric bike creeps up behind and rushes silently past, while elderly locals rest outside their houses, watching Pingyao life go by. At night the lanes are strung up with red lanterns to light the way – until they’re not, and the path is pitch black, haunting bike lights in the distance mixing with the faint smell of heating coal and the cool night air to give an otherworldly feeling to your evening stroll. The outskirts are dotted with construction as new buildings are being built with similar materials in a similar manner to the old, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between ancient and new. But there are a number of hotels and guest houses, such as the Yide Hotel in the city’s western half, set in courtyard complexes from the city’s golden era, whose success will likely be the guarantee of the preservation of much of the city’s wonderful heritage. And the city wall itself can be walked the entire perimeter, as part of the city-wide entry ticket, offering a rooftop perspective over an ancient Chinese city, still living, and finding its place in the new China without wholesale demolition and high-rise construction.
In the headlong rush to enrich a nation of 1.5bn and reach economic superpower status, heritage has been the least of China’s worries. But now that large numbers of Chinese are beginning to travel, and faraway parts of the country are accessible with airports and fast trains, it’s likely they will want to see what’s left of their precious ancient heritage preserved, that now they can afford not bulldoze the old and replace it with something new, but find the value in what’s there. We outside China can help too, by seeking out the genuine “old China”, by looking further afield than the big cities and digging deeper into a country that’s so much more than just smog, factories and high-rise glass-and-steel.
More about Pingyao:
Directly to the west of the city of Xiamen in southern Fujian, near the border with Guangdong province, nestled among rolling green hills of tea, rice and tobacco plantations are the villages of China’s Hakka ethnic minority. These migrants from the far north made their move as long ago as 300 AD, escaping poverty and persecution, and made a new home in the hilly Fujian countryside above the fertile river deltas. Initially unwelcome in this southern land, they housed themselves in imposing round multi-storey rammed-earth houses, impregnable and self-contained, a combination of family home and fortress. Little-known outside of the Chinese societies of east and south-east Asia, the Hakka have had a disproportionate impact on their part of the world since their arrival in the south, counting the revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, the former Chinese premier Deng Xiao Ping and Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore among their number. But it is these curious giant mud houses, called tulou and ranging in age from 70 to 700 years old, that attract tourists to the villages around Yongding and Nanjing in Fujian in their busloads to learn about the culture of a people whose name “Hakka” literally means “guest”.
The Fujianese island of Xiamen in China, including areas like Haicang on the mainland and the Gulang Yu islet, is a place full of day trips. There are enough places to see and things to do, and to see again and do again, that it could occupy a casual traveller for a very long time. But talk to enough people and you soon learn about another day trip – Jinmen. “What’s Jinmen?” goes the typical conversation.
“It’s a Taiwanese island you can get to by ferry”
“You can get the ferry to Taiwan???”
“Well, Taiwan is a long way away, but Jinmen is an island nearby that’s controlled by Taiwan”.
You see, back in the years following WWII there was a battle for China’s soul. Put simply, it was a civil war between the nationalist Kuo Min Tang and Mao Ze Dong’s communist Red Army. It was a titanic struggle and today, we still don’t have a result. The nationalists, who still claim to be China’s rightful government, were eventually pushed off the Chinese mainland and set up their capital in Taipei, 300km away on the island of Taiwan (as a side note, this explains why Taiwan competes in the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei”). With ambitions to re-take the mainland, they called their country the “Republic of China” (ROC), but most people simply call it “Taiwan”. Mao and the communists called their country the “People’s Republic of China” (PRC) and it is that which we now commonly call China.
But as well as the island province of Taiwan, the nationalists managed to keep hold of a few outcrops in the Taiwan Strait, Jinmen and its little brother Lesser Jinmen, officially belonging to Fujian province, being the closest of those to the mainland.
The ferry ride from Xiamen’s Wu Tong terminal to the Shuitou port on Jinmen is a sharp 30 minutes, but enjoys all the formalities of international travel – immigration, customs and duty free stores at either end and a fresh stamp in the passport upon emerging from the rather dilapidated facility in Shuitou. The line of taxis waiting outside belies the sleepy, countryside nature of the island. Either side of the quiet single lane main roads, rocky hills, partly forested sit behind semi-rural vistas of rice paddies and scattered houses.
On the north eastern tip of the island lies Mount Lion, a fortress-come-museum tunnelled deep into a mountain with a 32km range Howitzer cannon pointing out to sea and the PRC. Thirty-two kilometres takes its shells well into enemy territory and so it’s a weapon of which they are rightly proud. The tunnels hewn into the rock are decked out with posters promoting Jinmen tourism and the exhibits along the way to the cannon offer the visitor imitation experiences of the theatre of war. It’s all very theatrical. I passed a mocked up war room where only a grandmother and her grandson sat colouring pictures. The lady, who was from Taichung on Taiwan island, greeted me and we chatted about her time in Australia briefly and then bid each other good day. Continuing up the passage, occasionally I passed a section of the tunnel that was walled off behind which I could hear mysterious voices chattering away.
The cannon is on the seaside of the mountain, dug in behind a lookout and accompanied by a noisy and patriotic video presentation reminding visitors of the times, as recent as the 1970s when the PRC engaged in regular shelling of the island, that Jinmen was the frontline in the battle for China’s identity. In fact it still very much is at the frontline, and it was there I concluded that the walled off sections of tunnel I noticed were for defence purposes and the voices coming from them must have been those of real soldiers. All over the sleepy island of Jinmen there are reminders of how close it has come to invasion and bombardment – the traffic roundabouts have concrete camouflaged pillboxes installed in preparation for invasion, the ports are scattered with sandbags and sea defences, and little Taiwanese toy soldiers are the most popular tourist souvenir.
Descending the tunnels again, the cacophonous cannon presentation fading in my ears, I heard an arresting female voice barking orders coming up ahead and strained to tell if it wasn’t just another recording in one of the war history exhibits. When it became frighteningly loud, around the corner came about 12 uniformed troops marching towards me in formation. Hastily I put my camera away, abandoned the path down one of the long side tunnels and waited for them to pass. When I emerged from my self-imposed exile, the soldiers had stopped in formation a little way up the tunnel, facing back towards me standing alone in the tunnel. They began repeating another aggressive volley of chants as I retreated. Well aware that photographs of the military aren’t usually approved souvenirs, I dared not retrieve my camera and continued calmly towards the fortress entrance, allowing myself one furtive glance back at them as I descended. The tunnels were otherwise empty, as was the war room where I had chatted to the friendly locals, their paper and crayons hastily put away. I wondered if an invasion was under way.
The mystery was solved as I waited outside in the museum cafe for a cab to take me the 6km into the principal town of Jincheng. The friendly grandmother walked in saying “Hi! You missed the demonstration firing of the cannon!”. Distracted and unnerved by the ambiguous nature of the museum & fort, I’d missed the main event, the daily ceremonial firing of the Howitzer cannon.
The eastern side of Shuitou town, near the departure port for Xiamen and the PRC, has a collection of houses built in the Peranakan style, by a Jinmen businessman who migrated to Indonesia and made his fortune in the early 20th century. Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, culture developed in what is now Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore as more and more Chinese migrated from Southern China and settled in South East Asia before, during and after the explosion of European trade in what was then known as the ‘East Indies’. There the Chinese, a great many from Fujian province, opened businesses in trading ports like Penang, Singapore and Jakarta, cities that were ‘melting pots’ centuries before the term came into common use. They formed large communities and kept their customs and dialects, but a culture all its own emerged under the influence of the Arab, Indian, European and native Malay trading society around them.
Many returned with their riches and built complexes for their families back home like the eighteen-house cluster in Shuitou. These particular Peranakan houses now form a low-key museum that celebrates the South East Asian, particularly Indonesian, Chinese culture. Peranakan dresses hang where the wardrobes would have been and the upstairs dining table is laid out with models of ‘baba nyonya’ dishes, the distinctive cuisine of the Straits Chinese. After the more confined and garishly-adorned local Fujian houses, walking into those airy hardwood spaces felt to me like slipping into a familiar pair of slippers. The furniture made of dark polished hardwood with intricate inlaid pearl designs, the high ceilings and dishes with the words “sambal” and “satay” recall a more laidback, tropical world than wintry, windswept Fujian in February.
The Peranakan houses, these curious South East Asian artefacts transplanted to Fujian by an unwitting pioneer of globalisation, are fascinating to the smattering of mainland Chinese tourists who manage to make it over to Jinmen. And it was these tourists who joined me in the departure hall at Shuitou port, and on the comfortable, half-full ferry back to the PRC and Xiamen. There’s an irony in the truth that Jinmen, this bitterly-contested outcrop on the eastern edge of Fujian, has preserved its precious heritage through the wars and bombardments, while relatively peaceful cities like Xiamen and those on the Taiwanese coast have had much of their heritage erased, not by conflict, but by development. So Jinmen* makes a refreshing way to spend a day away from the the crowds and traffic of Xiamen. It opens the eyes to a world that has stayed quietly hidden away, sedate and unchanged behind the rapid pace of the Chinese economic miracle that has in some way affected every one of us over the last couple of decades.
*Once on the island it’s almost exclusively called “Kinmen”, which is only an alternative way of sounding the first syllable, the Chinese word for “gold” (金 jin/kin)
The 44m high West Pagoda, one of two at Quanzhou’s Kaiyuan Temple complex, a Buddhist temple first constructed in the year 686 AD. The temple stands at the west end of Xi Jie (West Street), a bustling thoroughfare recalling the China of the past, of tiny ramshackle businesses, chaotic congested streets, honking buses and outdoor food stalls.
A monk trains a young boy in the yard at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou.
Door handles on the East Pagoda at Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou.
A doorway on Quanzhou’s Xi Jie. The city seems to be awakening from a tourist slumber, cleaning up the old parts of the town and erecting plaques in English and Chinese explaining the history of the area.
An egret on Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.
A family walking along the western edge of Xiamen’s Yundang Inner Lake.
The food markets near Xiamen’s pedestrian shopping street, Zhongshan Lu.
Seafood cooked in its shell in the streets around Zhongshan Lu. Xiamen is famous in the rest of China for its seafood.
Xiamen’s south-west shore in the distance, as seen from the highest point on the nearby island of Gu Lang Yu. Gu Lang Yu has historically been the preserve of foreigners, working in embassies and living in ostentatious villas, giving the island a colonial European atmosphere that helps make it a top-3 destination for Chinese domestic tourism.
Workers unloading construction materials from boats on Gu Lang Yu, an island that is practically free of vehicles.
This means that bricks and sand and cement and everything else gets pulled by men using handcarts like these.
A dapper man in a suit jacket on a sampan sorts his catch for the day on the eastern shore of Gu Lang Yu.
Because of its quaint architecture and scenic locations, the island is hugely popular with local newlyweds, who often eschew the black-and-white traditions we’re used to and go for colourful dresses and hipster vests.
Back on Xiamen itself, a tour group prepares for a photo in front of the 280mm German-built cannon at Huli Shan Fortress on the island’s southern shore.
The fortress occupies 13,000 square metres and has a collection of cannons, of which the 280mm, with its 7km accurate range, is the largest. It claimed a Japanese destroyer in 1941 and has a large feature about that event. More recent hostilities have been with the nationalist-controlled Taiwanese island of Jinmen, to the east of Xiamen. Whether those events are less important, or just that they don’t fit neatly into the Chinese national myth perhaps time will tell.