A trip to Xiamen is not complete if one has not been to Gulangyu. Gulangyu at the height of its glory was like modern Singapore, filled with people from all around the world bringing their architecture and cultural impressions to this tiny island. The people have left but the buildings are still there for everyone to see.
Gulangyu 鼓浪屿, Gulang Island or Kulangsu is a pedestrian-only island off the coast of Xiamen. A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, the island is about 2 km2 (0.77 sq mi) in area, and is reachable by an 8-minute ferry ride from downtown Xiamen.
Gu in Chinese means drum and Lang literally means waves. Gulangyu vividly describes when the waves pound the reef, it creates sounds similar to the beating of a drum.
World Expo of Architectures
Because of its unique position in history, Gulangyu was described as the World Expo of Architecture 万国建筑博览会. The 931 historical buildings on the island have their own characteristics, fully embodying the blending of cultural values and traditions of Chinese, Southeast Asian and European architecture.
Xiamen became a treaty port resulting from China’s loss in the First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, 13 nations set up their embassies on Gulangyu. The original German embassy was set up in 1870 and was only closed when Germany was defeated in the first World War.
And opposite the German embassy on the hill was the original Japanese embassy. It was setup in 1879 and closed after the Marco Polo Bridge incident when Japan invaded Manchuria, setting the stage for the Sino-Japanese war which only ended when Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II. The embassy was also the HQ for the Kempeitei during the Japanese occupancy of Xiamen.
The first sight when one get off the ferry terminal that greeted the visitor is the former British Consulate (1844), which today houses government offices and the Gulangyu History and Culture Exhibition Hall. The original was burnt down in 1980, this is a replica of the original built in 1998.
All these embassies and old architectures have been repurposed for new uses. Like the old Spanish embassy, it is now a private museum for the She (pronounced as ‘cher’) tribe 畲族; the German embassy is now a bakery.
The Civic District
Right in the middle of the island on a hilltop is what I reckoned to be the old Civic Centre of the island. The area was the religious and administrative hub of the island. Besides old buildings, the next most visible sight was the numerous brides and grooms taking their wedding shots here.
Union Church, Gulangyu’s earliest church, was built in 1863. The church was named as “The International Church”in the beginning and renamed as “Union Church” in 1875. Its construction was funded by believers from three denominations, the American Reformed Church, London Missionary Society, and English Presbyterian Mission. The Union Church was rebuilt again in 1911.
The Christ the King Church was founded and built by a Spanish Dominican Bishop Manuel Prat Pujoldevall in 1917. As early as the end of the Ming Dynasty, the Catholic Church entered Xiamen and the preacher Li Koro even became Zheng Chenggong’s successful “foreign envoy.” But the real development is still in the modern period. In 1842, Dominic Lin Francis preached in Gulangyu. He was the first Catholic missionary to enter Xiamen in modern times.
The windows are engraved with the following words in Chinese “God’s Church” and the Latin words “ECCLESIA CATHOLICA” (meaning “Catholic Church”). It is the only surviving Gothic church in Xiamen, and is also the cathedral of Xiamen diocese.
Anglo-Chinese College Football Club
Anglo-Chinese College on Gulangyu was established in 1898, and was one of the earliest school in China to have its own football club.
The old ACC football field is called 番仔球圃 (“foreigner’s ball pitch”) by the locals. Many of its alumni are now overseas but have maintained contact with their alma mater. One of them even became the head coach for the Philippines national football (U23) team.
At the Xiamen Airport, there’s a bronze sculpture that commemorated the achievements of this glorious football club. And the alumni formed the ACC Football Club, and the team has participated in the Asian Evergreen Cup competitions since its inception in 1989.
A Sad History
Towards the end of the 19th century, Amoy was the centre of the coolie trade in China. Many coolies were sold and sent overseas from the harbours of Amoy. Between 1841-1853, over 12,000 coolies were exported from Amoy, and this was just those that were recorded. There were many others not recorded.
Among them, British “firms” like Tait 德记洋行 (part of the British East India Company) and Syme, Muir & Co 合记洋行 originated in Amoy and had setup trading posts on Gulangyu. The company’s barracoon was just in front of the ruins, near the San Qiu Tian ferry terminal. Tait is still in operations today in Taiwan as a distributor for import pharmaceutical products.
I left the island with a heavy heart. While this island demonstrated the wealth of the overseas Chinese, it also had a dark and sinister history of Chinese slavery and diaspora.
Date Visited : Jun 2021