Xiamen Garden at Sea
Xiamen (275 kilometers northeast of Fuzhou and 75 kilometers northeast of Quanzhou in southern Fujian) is a hilly, pleasant, tourist-friendly coastal town with a large military presence. Much of the military force on the frontline against Taiwan is stationed in the area. Xiamen was the home of Koxinga, a famous 17th century pirate and resistance fighter who fought against the Machu dynasty, and the focus of a US$6 billion smuggling and brothel scandal in the 1990s.

The beautiful old buildings in Xiamen, which mostly date back to the 1920s and 1930s, are well preserved. In his book “Riding the Iron Rooster,” Paul Theroux wrote "Xiamen has the noblest houses, the grandest villas, the most elaborate walls and gardens...It had a reputation for being the richest city in China, for having the best houses and the happiest people. It also had the largest proportion of families with relatives living abroad."

Xiamen lies on an island by the same name off the Fujian coast near Taiwan. It is a fairly large city and port, with about 3.8 million people in the city, 4.3 million in the metro area. The Xiamen area consists of Xiamen Island, Gulangyu Island and four coastal districts, Haicang, Jimei, Tong'an and Xiang'an.

Formerly known as Amoy, Xiamen was coopted by the British in the Opium War of 1841 and was the site of hostilities between China and Taiwan. For a long time its beaches were strew with mines and barriers to prevent a military sea landing. Under Deng Xiaoping Xiamen was selected as one the places to experiment with free-market reforms. One of China's first Special Economic Zones (SEZ) — which launched the Deng Xiaoping economic reforms in the 1980s— was set up Xiamen in 1979 along with SEZs in Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou in Guangdong. In the 1990s Xiamen boomed but became a hotbed of shady schemes and corruption.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; Maps of Xiamen: chinamaps.org ; Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Xiamen is accessible by air, train and bus and a few boats. Travel China Guide Travel China Guide

Xiamen Transportation

Xiamen Metro consisted of one line (Line 1) in 2019. According to Xiamen's rail traffic planning approved by the central government, the city is slated to have three metro lines by 2020 and will also accelerate the construction of Metro Line 4 and 6, with a total length of 198 kilometers. Xiamen Subway Map: Urban Rail urbanrail.net

Xiamen BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) began operation in 2008. It is bus-only closed road system with stations and ticketing system similar to light rail. Most of the 115-kilometer BRT network consists of bus lanes along expressways and elevated BRT viaducts on Xiamen Island. BRT routes have no traffic lights and travel speed is limited by design to 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph). Nine BRT routes are currently in service, including BRT-1 Route, BRT-2 Route, Huandao Avenue BRT Route, Chenggong Avenue BRT Route and Connecting BRT Route. The fare is 0.6 RMB per km for the air-conditioned buses. The BRT is supplemented by 20 shuttle bus services that connect nearby places to the BRT stations. The shuttle bus service has a flat rate of 0.5 RMB. Fare discount is available when pre-paid e-card is used.

According to ASIRT: “Taxis are readily available. Many residents commute by bike, especially on Xiamen Island. Most public transport is provided by local buses and BRT corridors. Fuzhou-Xiamen and Zhangzhou-Xiamen Expressways link city with main road network in Fujian Province and neighboring provinces. Gaoji (Gaoqi-Jimei) Causeway and Haicang Bridge link Xiamen Island with mainland. Motorcycles, mopeds and use of vehicle horns are banned in Xiamen. Cars are banned on Gulangyu Island. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2011]

Getting to Xiamen

Xiamen is accessible by air, train and bus and a few boats. It is served by the high-speed Fuzhou–Xiamen Railway, part of the Hangzhou–Fuzhou–Shenzhen High-Speed Railway. Xiamen's centrally-located airport is well connected to all major Chinese cities. There are also regular flights to Hong Kong and destinations in Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea.

Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport is on the northern side of Xiamen Island. Airport shuttle buses provide transport between airport and city center. Tickets available in the Domestic Arrivals Hall. There us Bus station is near the airport. Service is provided to Ferry and Train Stations and main cities in neighboring districts.Can transfer to inter-city buses at Long-Distance Passenger Transport Stations. Taxis are available at the taxi queue outside Arrival Hall. Drivers charge a 50 percent surcharge for trips longer than 8 kilometers (4.9 miles). Taxies to outlying districts of Xiamen, Quanzhou, Shishi and other nearby cities are available at the West Ground-level Car Park.

Boats to Kiamen, Taiwan: Reuters reported: “Get up early for a boat trip to the Taiwanese-held island of Kinmen. When defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949, they managed to hold on to a smattering of islands just off the Chinese coast. Kinmen is one of these, and a journey to see it a step back in time to the height of the Cold War. The boat actually hovers just off Ta-Tan, an islet that's part of the Kinmen group, and tourists happily snap at the Taiwanese flags and propaganda signs etched in the rock face. Linger too long though, and the Taiwanese military has been known to come and chase the Chinese sightseers away. These days however, with a warming of ties between China and Taiwan, you can actually take a ferry all the way over to Kinmen proper. From there, should you wish, you can take a domestic flight to Taiwan.” [Source: Reuters, February 27, 2009]

Food and Shopping in Xiamen

According to Reuters: “Being a seaside city, Xiamen has some great seafood. Wander round to the Gulang Villa Hotel, also on Gulangyu, and you'll see three rather down-at-heel looking seafood restaurants right next to each other. Don't be put off, as the fish is so fresh it's alive right up to you choosing it from large plastic buckets filled with water at the front.” [Source: Reuters, February 27, 2009]

“On the southwest corner of Gulangyu is a pretty beach, but avoid the plethora of food stalls and head straight to Le Petit Café. The food is Western, and excellent, and carefully overseen by boss David Buckley, a New Yorker who is happy to sit down with his customers and chat to them about life on the island. The decor is comfortable and stylish. There is also a bar and a café. If you want, you can stay at the nine-room hotel attached to the restaurant.

“While the hordes of tourists can be offputting on this part of the island, the street food and boutiques of local products like delicious pastries stuffed with lychees more than make up for it. Fish ball soup is a Gulangyu specialty, and the fried fishcakes stuffed with sweet chili sauce and coriander are mouthwatering...Pre-dinner drinks on Gulangyu. The choices are wide and varied. Some bars and coffee shops are in lovingly restored colonial mansions and others are just shacks by the beach with a few stools outside.

“Zhongshan Road is one of Xiamen's main shopping areas, and home to yet more buildings from the colonial era, though they are generally very run-down. The shops are worth a peek, especially for clothes and shoes...A final dinner at the Huang Zehe Peanut Soup Shop. It may be a dingy place, but the traditionally Fujian-style food is a treat. A must-try are the oyster pancakes, a dish familiar to anyone who has been to a night market in Taiwan.” Other restaurants :Xiamen Kaiyuan District Ginger Chicken Restaurant (Datong Rd.); Xiamen New Nanxuan Restaurant (Siming South Rd., Xiamen)

Sights in Xiamen

Nanhu was visited by Marco Polo (1254-1324) on his historic trip to China. There is a spring here, and in Marco Polo's time a mud-brick town that today is largely covered by sand. Among the museums worth are look are the Xiamen Overseas Chinese Museum (493 Siming South Rd.) and the Zheng He Historical Facts Museum (Tashan Park, Wuhang Town, Changle).

According to Reuters: “Jump into a taxi to the Nanputuo Temple. Set against a lush hillside, the temple itself is nothing special. What sets it apart are the winding little paths that go up the hill, to grottos and secret shrines nestled in the rock. The vegetarian restaurant gets good reviews too, and makes a nice place for lunch.A stone's throw from the temple is Xiamen University. The grounds are spacious and leafy, and tourists are welcome to walk around. [Source: Reuters, February 27, 2009]

Xiamen University is regarded as one of the most beautiful universities in China. It was the first university in China to be founded by an overseas Chinese businessman. Located at the foot of green mountains and facing the blue ocean, the University is justly famous for its rolling green campus, which includes the beautiful Furong (Lotus) Lake. Nearby the campus is the Nan Putuo monastery which was established in the Tang Dynasty and is now a major training center for Buddhist monks.

Red Mansion and Corruption in Xiamen

In the 1990s hundreds of officials were believed to be involved in US$6 billion oil, car, firearms and cigarette smuggling operation that worked out of the port city of Xiamen in southern China. Many of the smuggled goods came in from Taiwan and Hong Kong by ships using import licenses obtained from party officials given huge bribes. When smuggled goods were accidently seized by customs the bribed officials jumped in and retrieved the goods and beat up the customs officers.

The mastermind of the smuggling operation was Lai Changsheng, a well-connected trading magnate who built up an empire called the Yuanhua Group. The Xiamen-based firm was involved in real estate, imports and exports, electronics and storage and even owned a soccer team and a popular seven-story luxury brothel called the Red Mansion, where Lai kept his office and entertained high level officials and military officers with girls he called “Miss Temporary’s”. There were rumors that he and Chinese President Jiang Zemin shared a mistress.

Lai bribed hundred of officials and ensured their silence by setting them up with prostitutes and secretly videotaping them together and the Red Mansion and blackmailing them if they threatened to squeal. He reportedly tried to bribe Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji which infuriated the premier and increased his resolve to bring Lai to justice. When the scandal broke Lai was in the middle of building a huge mansion and had just broken ground on an 88-floor skyscraper. Today the mansion is half finished, the skyscraper site is occupied only by a hole in the ground.

Lai named his brothel the Red Mansion after a classic Chinese novel. It contained rooms with marble jacuzzis and extra-wide double beds After Lai was prosecuted it was turned into an anti-corruption museum but it became so popular that it was closed down and later turned into training center for migrant workers.

Lai Changsheng, the Man Behind the Red Mansion

For a time Lai Changxing was China's richest man. He was regarded as a Robin Hood to some and Chinese Gatsby to others. “Rich like Lai” is still considered a complement in the Xiamen area. Lai was an illiterate farmer and blacksmith when he arrived in Xiamen to make his fortune. He came to Xiamen because it had been selected by Deng Xiaoping as a place to experiment with free-market reforms. Lai first made a living making auto parts but it wasn't long before he was involved in importing cars — avoiding duties by bribing officials — smuggling cigarettes and oil and speculating on real estate and building apartments. Within a few years he was worth over US$1 billion.

Lai insisted that when he arrived in Xiamen as a blacksmith he sought to make his way honestly but was forced to adopt corrupt practices because of officials who demanded bribes for licences. He said when he refused the officials abducted his sister.

Lai fled mainland China to Hong Kong after being informed he was going to arrested. In August 1999 he arrived Vancouver, British Columbia. In November 2000, he was arrested outside a casino in Niagra Falls, Ontario. His wife was also arrested. Both filed applications to remain in Canada as refugees. Later a court ordered his deportation. Lai presence in Canada set off a diplomatic crisis. Beijing has repeatedly tried to get Lai extradited and even promised not to give him a death sentence. Worries that Lai's human rights would not be respected in China keep him from being sent back to China.

In 2007, Lai was under house arrest in Vancouver while appealing his deportation order. He appeared at his trial in Vancouver dressed in a tuxedo, and treated the security guards like member of his entourage. Lai was finally extradited to China and imprisoned. Book: “ Inside the Red Mansion” by Oliver August (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) a book about Lai Changxing



Gulangyu (southwest of Xiamen City) is a small, beautiful island located on the estuary of Chiu-lung River facing the city of Xiamen across the 600-meter-wide Lujiang Strait. Nicknamed the "Garden on the Sea" and covering an area of 1.87 square kilometers, it is filled with green trees and lovely flowers. Among the many scenic spots on the island, the most attractive ones are the Sunlight Rock and Shuzhuang Garden.

Gulangyu (also spelled Kulangsu) is home to a delightful Mediterranean-style town with red-brick homes, tiled roofs, verandas, colonnades, churches and trees. It was occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch, English, Germans and finally the Japanese before the end of World War II. According to regulations no building higher than three stories can be built and no wheeled vehicles are allowed on the island, even bicycles. Only about 17,000 fulltime residents live on the island and many of them are old. Young people have migrated to Xiamen and elsewhere, looking for work and action.

Kulangsu (Gulangyu) Historic International Settlement was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017 According to UNESCO: “ Kulangsu is a tiny island located on the estuary of the Chiu-lung River, facing the city of Xiamen. With the opening of a commercial port at Xiamen in 1843, and the establishment of the island as an international settlement in 1903, this island off the southern coast of the Chinese empire suddenly became an important window for Sino-foreign exchanges. Kulangsu is an exceptional example of the cultural fusion that emerged from these exchanges, which remain legible in its urban fabric. There is a mixture of different architectural styles including Traditional Southern Fujian Style, Western Classical Revival Style and Veranda Colonial Style. The most exceptional testimony of the fusion of various stylistic influences is a new architectural movement, the Amoy Deco Style, which is a synthesis of the Modernist style of the early 20th century and Art Deco.” [Source: UNESCO]

Gulangyu is home to about 20,000 permanent residents. No cars are allowed on the island. Only electric-powered vehicles are permitted so the environment is free from the noise and pollution of car engines. A great deal of time and money has been used to restore the old villas and convert them into hotels and guesthouses. The local residents are known for their love of classical music. Some people call it Piano Island, Cradle of Musicians or the Island of Music. It has the highest piano per capita ratio of anywhere in China. The commercial area near the ferry landing is shaped like a piano. Embossed music notes cover some of the sidewalks. Admission: 100 yuan (US$15.73) per person

History of Gulangyu

Gulangyu (meaning Drum Wave Islet) was previously called Yuanshazhou Island and got its present name during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), because when the tide comes in, the waves pound the reef which sounds like the beating of a drum. Gulangyu became a popular retreat for Europeans after the first Opium War in 1852. It was beautiful and was free of the disease and poverty that ravaged the mainland. Nations established consulates here and foreign diplomats, missionaries and merchants had elaborate villas built with wrought-iron gates, delightful gardens and art deco stonework.

According to UNESCO: “With the opening of Xiamen as a commercial port in 1843, and Kulangsu as an international settlement in 1903, the island of the southern coastal areas of the Chinese empire suddenly became an important window for Sino-foreign exchanges. Its heritage reflects the composite nature of a modern settlement composed of 931 historical buildings of a variety of local and international architectural styles, natural sceneries, a historic network of roads and historic gardens.Through the concerted endeavour of local Chinese, returned overseas Chinese, and foreign residents from many countries, Kulangsu developed into an international settlement with outstanding cultural diversity and modern living quality. It also became an ideal dwelling place for the overseas Chinese and elites who were active in East Asia and Southeastern Asia as well as an embodiment of modern habitat concepts of the period between mid-19th and mid-20th century.” [Source: UNESCO]

As Gulangyu earned a reputation for being the Asian Riviera, Chinese merchants moved in and built homes just as lavish as their European counterparts. Missionaries brought in the first pianos and over time the island developed a reputation for producing skilled musicians. After World War II many of the villa-owners — wealthy Chinese with connections with the Kuomingtan and foreign capitalists and not well liked much by the Communists — fled. Some of the villas remained empty for decades. Others were made into apartment buildings for ordinary Chinese. During the Cultural Revolution, many buildings were defaced by Red Guards and families destroyed their pianos and music collections out of fear of being persecuted for having sympathies for the imperialist West.

In the 1980s effort was made to restore the old buildings. Richard Nixon visited Gulangyu in 1984 and met with Deng Xiaoping and described the island as one of most beautiful places he ever visited. In the 1990s, real estate developers, attracted by the island's charm and taking advantage of the liberalized economic environment, moved in and raised appalling, sterile-looking, concrete apartment blocks in front of a slope occupied by lovely villas. After a smuggling ring, that had poured millions into the development, was broken up money disappeared and many of the apartments were never finished.

Visiting Gulangyu Island

A reporter for Reuters wrote: “Tourism in Xiamen is really all about one thing — Gulangyu. A 10-minute ferry ride, or five on a speedboat, the island is full of beautiful old houses, some of which date back to the declining years of the last emperor. The building styles are an eclectic mix of neo-classical and art deco, and many were built when the island was autonomously run as a foreign concession prior to World War Two. [Source: Reuters, February 27, 2009]

“English guidebooks can be picked up at the Xinhua bookstore in the rather tacky center of town, and the island is small enough that you can wander around its hidden lanes in around an hour. But take your time, for Gulangyu's full beauty cannot be experienced in a rush. Listen carefully, and you can hear piano music coming out from behind the wooden shutters of some of the houses, as the island is home to a renowned music school.

“Climb up the hill which dominates Gulangyu to Sunlight Rock and take the cable car across to the other side of the park. The ride is short, but gives magnificent views all over the island. At one end is a large aviary. Then walk back down the hill, past yet more stunning old buildings, to the town center.

See Food and Shopping Above

Gulangyu: UNESCO World Heritage Site

According to UNESCO: Kulangsu is an exceptional example of the cultural fusion, which emerged from these exchanges, which remain legible in an organic urban fabric formed over decades constantly integrating more diverse cultural references. Most exceptional testimony of the fusion of various stylistic influences is a genuinely new architectural movement the Amoy Deco Style, which emerged from the island. [Source: UNESCO]

The site is special because: 1) Kulangsu Island exhibits in its architectural features and styles the interchange of Chinese, South East Asian and European architectural and cultural values and traditions produced in this variety by foreign residents or returned overseas Chinese who settled on the island. The settlement created did not only mirror the various influences settlers brought with them from their places of origin or previous residence but it synthesized a new hybrid style — the so-called Amoy Deco Style, which developed in Kulangsu and exerted influences over a far wider region in Southeast Asian coastal areas and beyond. In this, the settlement illustrates the encounters, interactions and fusion of diverse values during an early Asian globalization stage.

2) “Kulangsu is the origin and best representation of the Amoy Deco Style. Named after Xiamen’s local Hokkien dialect name Amoy, Amoy Deco Style refers to an architectural style and typology, which first occurred in Kulangsu and illustrates the fusion of inspirations drawn from local building traditions, early western and in particular modernist influences as well as the southern Fujian Migrant culture. Based on these the Amoy Deco Style shows a transformation of traditional building typology towards new forms, which were later referenced throughout Southeast Asia and became popular in the wider region.

“The integrity of the historic landscape has been maintained, primarily as result of consistent conservation of historic architectural structures and effective development controls regarding height, volume and form of new buildings. The historic relationship of built up and green spaces also contributes to the overall landscape integrity which includes the preserved natural sceneries of cliffs and rocks and the historic gardens, both affiliated courtyard and independent private gardens.

“The completeness of the property is demonstrated in the delimitation of the entire island including its surrounding coastal water until the edge of the reef, which underpins that the built structures and the natural setting of the island form one harmonious whole. The early recognition of the harmony has prevented extensive development in the waters surrounding the island, which can be witnesses on other islands or the nearby mainland. Essential for the recognition of the value of the island is that it was never connected to Xiamen via traffic infrastructure and remains solely accessible by ferry. Today, this restriction constitutes and essential element of visitor management processes ensuring the continued intactness of the island.

“Tourism pressures are a concern that could affect the integrity of the island and hence require strict controls. A maximum number of 35,000 visitors per day will be allowed to access Kulangsu, a number that will require close monitoring to ensure it suffices to prevent negative impacts of large visitor flows.

Near Xiamen

Peitian (100 kilometers north of Xiamen) is well-preserved ancient Hakka (Kejia in Chinese) village nestled in the deep mountains of western Fujian Province. Formed between the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), the town has a long history of 800 years. But after hundreds years, the area is still undisturbed and retains its original appearance. With a population of just over 1,400, the ancient architectural complex consists of 30 grand mansions, 21 ancient ancestral temples, six ancient Chinese schools, two memorial arches and a 1000-meter-long ancient street of cobblestones. Travelers can not only experience the unique local customs, but also enjoy a quiet and peaceful lifestyle. photo gallery Admission: free Getting There: You can travel by bus from Guanzhishan Railway Station to Peitian.

Zhaojiabao (40 kilometers southwest of Xiamen) was built in 1600 during the Ming Dynasty by descendants of the Zhao imperial family of the Song Dynasty (960AD-1279), a copy of the structure of Bianjing City, the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty. Surrounded by two city walls, Zhaojiabao has four gates facing four different directions. The city is divided into three sections: living section, etiquette section and garden section, with temples, pavilions, ponds, bridges and other public buildings inside.

There are five mansion houses at the center of the city, with 150 rooms in total. The three-story Wanbi House is the main architecture of Zhaojiabao, covering an area of over 400 square meters. It is now the Museum of Song History, exhibiting the portraits of 18 emperors from the Song Dynasty and related materials from the period. With the nickname of “an imperial city without emperor,” Zhaojiabao maintains its original look. Zhao family's descendants, 600 people from 100 families, are still living in Zhaojiabao, which is a miracle in the history of humankind.

Anxi: Birthplace of Oolong Tea

Anxi (40 kilometers north of Xiamen) is a mountainous county in southeast Fujian Province that has been called the tea capital of China and is regarded as the birthplace of oolong tea. According to CRI: “The word you will hear most often in Anxi is probably Tie Guan Yin, the name of a premium variety of Oolong tea... Here, Tie Guan Yin has infiltrated everyday life-tea sets for brewing it can be found in most households, restaurants and hotel rooms; many locals work in Tie Guan Yin enterprises; and many farming families process the tea every day. [Source: CRI August 28, 2009]

“Seeking evidence of how hot the tea market in Anxi is, we headed for the China Tea Capital, a trading complex located not far from downtown. The market opened in 2001 and is equipped with tea evaluation and consultation services. The market, claiming to be the largest of its kind in China, holds 1,800 storefronts and 3,000 or more stalls for individual sellers. Tea farmers from nearby villages pay a small rental fee and can sell their Tie Guan Yin directly to customers from all over China. The market also attracts big buyers from more than 60 other countries and regions in Asia, America and Europe.

“Trade volume here is astonishing. Statistics provided by market officials show that 15,500 tons of tea have been sold from here so far this year, generating incomes of nearly 1.6 billion yuan, or 234 million US dollars. It was a bustling scene when we arrived at the market at around nine in the morning. A steady stream of farmers carried in large bags of their tea. Zheng Xiaoqin, a farmer living 30 kilometers from downtown Anxi, told me that she comes every morning at five and sometimes sells out by the afternoon. Other farmers said they could earn up to 8,000 yuan, or about 1,170 US dollars, a month, close to a middle class salary in China.

“After the market we visited a showcase center of Wei Yin, one of the best-known Tie Guan Yin brands. According to the president Wei Yuede, the processing craft has been passed down by the Wei family since his ancestor, Wei Yin, discovered the first Tie Guan Yin tree in 1723. Today, Wei Yuede, a ninth-generation descendant, runs a Tie Guan Yin conglomerate and has been named a national inheritor of Tie Guan Yin craftsmanship by intangible cultural heritage protection authorities.

At Wei's showcase center, which he calls "Garden of Tie Guan Yin Culture," we learned the basic process of making Tie Guan Yin and watched a tea ceremony before tasting different types of the tea. The most impressive type was called "tan bei," or wood coal-baked, whose tea leaves had been baked with wood coal for almost a day. It tasted a little stronger than other types, and amazingly, had a coffee-like smell. Even more amazing, despite its strong taste, "tan bei" tea is particularly good for a weak stomach.Having found the perfect type of tea for me, I went back to the hotel with three big boxes of "tan bei" Tie Guan Yin.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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