Joined to the mainland by a 5km-long causeway XIAMEN (厦门, xiàmén), an island city traditionally known in the West as Amoy, is more focussed, prettier and more prosperous than the provincial capital Fuzhou. It also offers more to see, its preserved streets and buildings, shopping arcades and bustling seafront giving a nineteenth-century flavour alongside its twenty-first century skyscrapers. One of China’s most tourist-friendly cities, Xiamen is, in addition, the cleanest and, perhaps, most tastefully renovated city you’ll see anywhere in the country, giving it the feel of a holiday resort. Compounding the resort atmosphere is the little island of Gulangyu (鼓浪屿, gŭlàng yŭ), a ten-minute ferry ride to the southwest, the old colonial home of Europeans and Japanese, whose mansions still line the island’s traffic-free streets – staying here is highly recommended.
Founded in the mid-fourteenth century, Xiamen grew in stature under the Ming dynasty, becoming a thriving port by the seventeenth century, influenced by a steady succession of Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch fortune-hunters. When invading Manchu armies poured down from the north in the seventeenth century, driving out the Ming, Xiamen became a centre of resistance for the old regime. The pirate and self-styled Prince Koxinga (also known as Zheng Chenggong) led the resistance before being driven out to set up his last stronghold in Taiwan – incidentally, deposing the Dutch traders who were based there – where he eventually died before Taiwan, too, was taken by the Manchus. Koxinga’s exploits have been heavily romanticized and reinterpreted over the years, and today his recapturing of Taiwan from unfriendly forces is used both to justify China’s claims on its neighbour, and also to provide an example of how to pursue those claims.
A couple of hundred years later, the British arrived, increasing trade and establishing their nerve centre on Gulangyu; the manoeuvre was formalized with the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. By the start of the twentieth century, Xiamen, with its offshore foreigners, had become a prosperous community, supported by a steady turnover in trade and the trickling back of wealth from the city’s emigrants who, over the centuries, continued to swell in numbers. This happy state of affairs continued until the Japanese invasion at the beginning of World War II.
The end of the war did not bring with it a return to the good old days, however. The arrival of the Communists in 1949, and the final escape to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek with the remains of his Nationalist armies, saw total chaos around Xiamen, with thousands of people streaming across the straits to escape the Communist advance. In the following years, the threat of war was constant, as mainland armies manoeuvred in preparation for the final assault on Taiwan, and, more immediately, on the smaller islands of Jinmen (金门, jīnmén) and Mazu (马祖, măzŭ), which lie within sight of Xiamen.
Today the wheel of history has come full circle. Although Jinmen and Mazu are still Taiwanese territory, the threat of conflict has receded as the mutual economic gains brought by closer cooperation have increased. In the early 1980s, Xiamen was declared one of China’s first Special Economic Zones and, like Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong, the city is still reaping the benefits. It has a booming economy and ambitious workers flock from all over China – including from already prosperous towns and cities along the coast – in search of a better life. Indeed, Xiamen’s pleasant climate, healthy economy and relatively sympathetic urban development mean it is recognized as having among the best standards of living of any city in China.
Gulangyu Islet was Xiamen’s foreign concession until World War II, and remains more-or-less architecturally intact. In summer and at weekends, the island is packed with tour groups, but the atmosphere remains generally restful – battery-powered golf-buggies, for example, are the only vehicles allowed here. The narrow tangle of streets can be confusing, but the island’s size (it’s less than two square kilometres) means you can’t go very far wrong. Though it’s not worth walking a complete circuit – the northwest is exposed and empty – a stroll through the streets will uncover plenty of attractions, especially along Fuzhou Lu (福州路, fúzhōulù) and Guxin Lu (鼓新路, gŭxīnlù), overhung with flowers and blossom throughout the year.