All year I’ve been bombarded with tales of how amazing Xiamen is – mainly that it’s a gorgeous island with a plethora of great food. After spending a day and half in this city, I can say that they were right! In the short amount of time I was here, Xiamen has become one of my favorite cities in China.
Xiamen (厦门), meaning “door to the house,” has long been a gateway to the China’s mainland. Back in the late 1300s, it served as a barrier against piracy. During the 1650s it was under control of Taiwan’s Koxinga (Zheng Chengong), the only Chinese commander (or pirate depending on the storyteller) to win a decisive battle against a major Western power for forcibly removing the Dutch from Taiwan. At that time, the Xiamen was known to the English and the Dutch traders as Amoy before China restricted maritime trade with “Western barbarians” strictly to Guangzhou (Canton) in 1757. In the 1680s the Qing overtook Xiamen and made it the headquarters of the Quan Zhou naval defense force. A chilling note, among the cargo traded in Xiamen such as local teas and silks, were “pigs and poison”- poorly-treated indentured laborers and opium. This opium would help the British to gain a foothold on Chinese soil and ultimately gain control of Canton.
Following the Opium Wars (1839-42), China was forced to re-open Xiamen as one of five ports for foreign trade and residency. Xiamen’s Gulangyu Island was soon after developed as a main foreign settlement. Much missionary activity took place in the region during the 19th and 20th centuries. China’s oldest Protestant church, the Xinjie Church, is located in Xiamen’s downtown. During WW2, Xiamen was occupied by the Japanese military and was a point of contention between the KMT and the CPC during China’s subsequential civil war. In the 1980s, Xiamen was designated as one of China’s first Special Economic Zones and has developed into highly prosperous city ever since.
Xiamen is easily accessible by plane, boat, and train. My friend Carol and I opted to travel by train as it’s convenient and fairly cheap. Right out of the train station, Xiamen was beautiful albeit slightly humid. Bright sunshine and wide palm tree-lined streets met us outside the gates. Catching a taxi was easy, and the ride through the island had lots of interesting architecture to look at– European colonial construction blending with both modern and traditional Chinese designs.
Overseas Chinese Museum
We stumbled upon this beautiful museum entirely by accident. Located right next to our hotel, I assumed it was a temple as all we could see of the building was its curved roof with painted eaves rising above a tall stone wall. Finding out that it was the Overseas Chinese Museum was a lovely surprise!
Many people of Chinese descent from around the world, especially in the US and the Philippines, can trace their ancestry back to Fujian Province. Somewhere in that story is a distant connection to my mother’s family in the Philippines. Founded by overseas Chinese businessman Tan Kah Kee, who also built the Xiamen University, this museum is free and open to the public.
The exhibits document the experience of the Chinese diaspora through photos, artifacts and some walk-through displays. I appreciated how the exhibits didn’t hold back from describing negative aspects of early migrant life. For example, there were statues portraying the crowded dirty conditions of travelers endured within the hulls of ships. Another corner talked about the hardships that Chinese immigrants to the USA faced with racism and toiling long hours under dangerous conditions for little pay as laborers on the transcontinental railroad. Other exhibits additionally highlighted many contributions overseas Chinese have made to both China and their adoptive nations.
On a random note, there were quite a few private collections on display that seemed a bit out of place in the museum. There was one on ancient Chinese artifacts, and there was an entire wing dedicated to taxidermied animals (some way better than others).
Nanputuo Temple (南普陀寺)
This active temple was originally founded during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), but has been rebuilt quite a few times. The current structure dates to the 1980s after the previous temple’s was torn down during the Cultural Revolution. It was crowded when we went, having to dodge not only chanting monks and kowtowing incense wielding worshipers, but throngs of other tourists.
Located up the road from the Overseas Chinese Museum is a quirky little side street filled with cat-themed shops and décor. Painted murals of cats and plastic cat statues lined Meow Street.
Sadly, there weren’t droves of free-roaming cats around like I had hoped, but there was one crowded store that had a holding area filled with cats that you could pay to play with. However, it seemed that most people inside were more concerned with taking pictures of the cats rather than actually interacting with them.
Following the “Zhongshan Walking Street” down to the water was a pleasant stroll. We passed by many western-style malls and fancy shops. At the end of the street lies the harbor where one can spy Gulangyu Island across the strait. This small island was decreed a Unesco World Heritage site in July of last year and houses numerous old embassies and historic western-style homes: 1,000 villas and 13 consulates to be exact. Sadly, all the ferry tickets to visit the island were sold out for the weekend, but I will definitely make it back to see it in the future.
Kaihe Lu Fish Market
The sights and smells of this fish market hit you from the get-go as the loud bartering of vendors and their clients fill your ears. Navigating through the market was an intense sensory experience. We were glad we happened upon this place while wandering off the main roads. It was just so interesting!
This fish market had a huge variety of sea creatures and fresh fruit vendors. It vaguely reminded me of going to the fish markets in Japan with my mom when I was younger. I recognized some of the sea life here from the foods I’d eaten in Lishui, but couldn’t tell you what they were for the life of me.
A Japanese Gentlemen’s Club??
Xiamen’s nightlife, on first glance, isn’t as flashy or loud as it is in other cities that cater to foreigners. There was a distinct lack in the usual flashing lights or neon signs in other Chinese cities come twilight. One could imagine Xiamen as the more chill, laidback cousin to Shanghai’s lavish hyperactivity.
Looking for somewhere relatively quiet to have a drink and hangout, Carol, Alexis (another American English teacher friend), and I asked our friendly didi driver, named James, for some recommendations. He told us he could bring us to a great bar with lots of loud music and people. We vetoed that one. He persisted in saying we’d have a great time dancing there, but we were adament that we were tired from walking all day. James then told us he knew of two good places right next to each other that were quieter. We thought, why not?
The first bar lived up to our driver’s description as there were literally no customers there. We found the bartender hiding under the bar playing on his phone. The décor was pretty eclectic with lots of wood sculptures, Hawaiian leis draped around and last year’s Christmas decorations hanging on the walls. The music was pretty good though – lots of 90s alt rock – and the drinks were decent, albeit a little hard to decipher with their chinglish menu. After a couple drinks we headed out to try bar number two, which James had told us was only a few stores down.
Once we were sure we found the place, I pulled open the double doors. Expecting another “normal” Chinese bar, we were met at the door by a line of about six women in ball gowns. Hilarity ensued as we confusedly looked at them and they stared back confusedly at us. One older woman broke away to ask us how many were coming as the rest of the women gathered their skirts and squeezed into a booth by the door.
Shocked, the three of us were ushered into our own booth while a blue-gowned elegant young lady, named Coco, delivered a menu and warm face towels to us. I noted the dimly lit pink walls and lone karaoke stand at the other side of the room. Two ancient screens on opposing walls played Japanese pop songs. Other dark booths in the room housed their own ball gown girls and seedy patrons. Looking at the menu, we had a selection of Japanese beers and liquors to choose from. I wish I had thought to take pictures, but I blame it on the shock and weirdness of the place James recommended.
Coco was a very sweet girl. She delivered a platter of fruit and tomatoes to us along with a bowl of wasabi bar snacks. She positioned herself kneeling down at the end of our booth’s table. I asked if we were different than her normal clientele, and she mentioned that she was surprised when we walked in. In between pouring our drinks, she mentioned how she usually entertains Japanese businessmen, proudly noting that she was fluent in Japanese, Chinese and English. I like to imagine she enjoyed having us there as a break from having middle-aged men paw at her.
We spent a decent chunk of time here. As strange as the setting was, it wasn’t a bad place to be able to just hangout and talk. It was a bit amusing , though, that every time we ventured out to the restroom, we had to go up these elaborate stairs. Coco would follow each one of us up and wait outside the restroom door with our face towels held out on a platter for us to use.
Overall, this coastal city was a lot of fun to visit.
I love that Xiamen is the perfect getaway for wearing maxi-dresses with straw hats and going for long leisurely walks by the beach. Even the Chinese women here surprised us by how much more skin they showed than we were used to up in Zhejiang Province. The city was just Western enough without losing its Chinese identity. I just wish I had more time to stay here! I definitely want to come back to further explore the sites I missed on this short trip.
P.S. The dimsum here is amaaazing