The Old Journalist and the Sea

Travelling the Silicon RoadXIAMEN, China — One thing always happens to me on every extensive trip — and sometimes the quick ones — to places I haven’t been before: I find some spot to which I’m instantly ready to move.

On this month-long trip, that moment, the first one, anyway, came in Xiamen.

Now if there is one thing I’ve learned about traveling and moving relatively frequently, being a somewhat restless soul, it’s that falling in love with people and places share the same pitfalls — and I’ve been known to fall at the drop of a hat. Just because you fall in love with a person/place initially, the relationship may not have what it takes to keep you happy in the long term. Just because you had fun on vacation, or the place you arrive at/person you meet is unexpectedly charming and beautiful, doesn’t mean you will like living there/with them.

Sedona, Ariz., taught me that, in more ways that one. But that’s another two or three stories for some other time.

Xiamen, in its own way, is just as Chinese as the other cities I’ve been to so far: Beijing, Shenyang and Shanghai. It has an important place in Chinese history, plays a current role in its nascent technology industry, has a thriving university culture, and was a key part of its Western colonial era. Like seemingly every other urban area in China, there is a ridiculous amount of construction, and traffic scares the living bejesus out of me.

And yet Xiamen is something different. It’s China, yes, but it certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype.

I could say that about the other three cities I’ve been too in China, of course. But Xiamen really is not what Westerners frequently associate with China, at least not the ones I know, and as such, is a pleasant surprise. This coastal island city that sits across from Taiwan, amidst other surrounding islands, at first glance reminds one of either Southern California or South Florida, or perhaps the Gulf Coast of the United States.

There are the palm trees and the sand, the balmy near-tropical climate (welcome after Shenyang’s chilly autumn days), and clean air (welcome after Beijing’s and Shanghai’s dreadful smog). And then there are the fishing boats and seaside shops — not only can you pick your own lobster here, but your own crab, fish, shrimp and sea life that I couldn’t begin to identify. Then there are all manner of places designed to separate cash from tourists, from upscale, trendy clothiers to vendors of cheap flashy trinkets, and all of them seemingly inundated with trendy, well-dressed hipster kids.

And my interpreter and I agree; Xiamen girls seem to be the prettiest of our travels so far in China. All afternoon I kept singing that annoying Beach Boys tune in my head, only I would change the words to “Wish they all could be Xiamen, China girls … ”

The Great American Novel Awaits on Gulangyu Islet

But really I think Xiamen is more akin to the south of France, perhaps, or somewhere else on the Mediterranean, given the European architecture scattered throughout the city, particularly the closer one gets to the water.

In fact, there is a neighboring island, Gulangyu Islet, that seems more akin to some South Pacific volcanic island, or perhaps the Caribbean, rather than coastal mainland China; it’s narrow, windy streets (cars are apparently not allowed and certainly not needed) and historical architecture reflect the many European powers that made attempts to colonize this port city in the past — some successful, some not.

And in temperament, Xiamen definitely seems to be more laid back; the pace of life is slower here. Rush hour traffic is nothing like Shanghai or Beijing, but then it’s a small Chinese city, if indeed it can be said there is such a thing, with only 1.24 million people here.

Particularly on Gulangyu Islet, life is lived at a leisurely, island pace.

Even though the sea to the south is clogged with cargo and tanker traffic — there is an oil refinery on a nearby island — on Gulangyu, musicians play traditional instruments in public squares, their instrument cases open for the yuan of appreciative passersby. Since there are no automobiles here, everything from garbage to construction supplies to the day’s catch is hauled in big wheelbarrows around the island. Tourists stroll the narrow boulevards, and the shop keepers hawk their wares, and the three island policemen tool around in electric carts.

Everywhere you look is colonial-era architecture, some of it well maintained, others crumbling with age. These buildings are interspersed with new ones that sometimes mesh well with the old neighborhoods around them, such as the Xiamen University college dedicated to the arts, and some new apartment buildings that hopelessly clash with their older and more dignified neighbors.

Stairs climb through thickets of bamboo and around ancient trees, winding through hillside neighborhoods that must surely once have housed colonial administrators. From some vantage points on the island you can see the skyscrapers of Xiamen, about half a kilometer from Gulangyu. And yet when you are on this little islet they might as well be miles and years away — you can just smell the history here, mingled with the odors of cooking seafood, sea breezes and the fragrance of tropical fauna.

It is here that I could see setting down for awhile, enjoying a slow-paced, island lifestyle. The crumbling old European buildings call to a hopeless romantic like myself; it would be easy on Gulangyu to pick up where Hemingway left off, typing away in some dusty old room, while ocean sea breezes flutter the curtains at the open window, where the cries of the island’s elementary school children can be heard, mingled with the occasional foghorn.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaPerhaps someday my travels will bring me back to Gulangyu; perhaps I will take a job as a correspondent in China, and I’ll be able to settle here for awhile, until I grow restless once more.

But in the meantime, alas, I’m ensconced on the sixth floor of the generic, hygienic Crowne Plaza hotel, and tomorrow I will not be contemplating the themes of man vs. man or man and nature for a forthcoming novel, but meeting with members of China’s optoelectronics industry.

What the hell, I never really liked Hemingway anyway.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 10/25/2005 7:18:07 AM, Paul said:

Something for you to contemplate as you admire the old houses on Gulangyu; Until the Cultural Revolution most of those beautiful old builds were single family homes. Sadly, during the revolution they were carved up into 3 meter square family apartments. In this case the beauty truly is only skin deep, as the insides of these building now are mostly a mess.

at 10/25/2005 1:25:23 PM, Bob said: And just when I was looking for the idyllic place to settle down. Perhaps I’ll have to go and see but one day the missiles flying over-head to and fro Taiwan might upset this tranquil picture you paint.

at 10/25/2005 10:45:23 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

Despite the public political bluster and military bravado, I honestly think the Chinese are much too practical to get into an armed conflict with Taiwan; the island is quickly becoming an economic ally, and Chinese government officials look at its rapid development as a model for China. In fact, the recently retired leader of the Kuomintang government in Taiwan was just here in China on a state visit — he was touring the Forbidden City in Shenyang at the same time we were, a week before last.

at 10/25/2005 10:51:10 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

As for what happened to the houses on Gulangyu during the Cultural Revolution, yes, it is indeed a shame. But then it is an important aspect of history, if not a happy one. And it’s no justification, but “progress” is often the fate of many old and beautiful buildings everywhere, not just China; such is life. But then the real attraction for me to this islet is its geography, climate and its people and their culture — and the seafood — not the buildings.

at 10/26/2005 11:21:17 AM, Goose Hosage said: Jeff, road warriors such as yourself need to get more sleep. When you find yourself rambling with multiple paragraphs regarding a topic, which in fact should have been covered in a few sentences, readers really begin to wonder. “Wildly Inarticulate Ponderinngs of The Jet Lagged” perhaps would have been a better title.

at 10/27/2005 4:24:40 AM, Jeff Chappell said: LOL, Goose, dude … it’s a blog, not my entry for this year’s Pulitzer. Get over it. And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: folks, what’s with the dis’n me, as the kids say, and not putting your real name to it? C’mon … if I’m not afraid to put my raw and un-copyedited emotional ponderings out there for all the world to see, at least have the decency to use your real name. I do, after all. And it’s not like I’m going to hunt you down or anything. I’ll just laugh and say at least I can spell “pondering.” Of course, if your name really is Goose Hosage, I look pretty stupid right about now. 😉

at 10/29/2005 11:57:28 PM, fred in seattle said:

everyone is a critic…too bad most dont have anything positive to say. Jeff, Thank you for your insight into a city I love. Maybe others with narrow views will stay at home and watch the latest reality show with their microwave dinners as we travel the world…zaijian

at 10/30/2005 11:02:20 PM, Jon said: Hi. I’m an American who has been living in Xiamen for three years and am now married with a 2 year old. This is a great place to live! And my wife and I are going to set up tours and give relocation help to people who want to come here. My life has progressed in every aspect in the 3 years here on this comfortable island in China than the last 30 years in the States. Welcome to Xiamen! jon@jonruby.com

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