QUANZHOU, a small, prosperous and sympathetically preserved town 150km southwest of Fuzhou on the coastal highway to Xiamen, was for centuries a great port. Sitting astride trade routes that reached southeast to Indonesian Maluku, and west to Africa and Europe, the city became uniquely cosmopolitan, with tens of thousands of Arabs and Persians settling here, some of them to make colossal fortunes – the Arabs of Quanzhou are also believed responsible for introducing to the West the Chinese inventions of the compass, gunpowder and printing.
The Song dynasty saw the peak of Quanzhou’s fortunes, when the old Silk Road through northwestern China into Central Asia was falling prey to banditry and war, deflecting trade seawards along the Maritime Silk Road. Marco Polo visited Quanzhou around this time; the Italian Andrew Perugia, Quanzhou’s third Catholic bishop, died here in 1332, having supervised the building of a cathedral; and fourteen years later the great Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta saw the port bustling with large junks. But by the Qing era, the city was suffering from overcrowding and a decaying harbour, and an enormous exodus began, with people seeking new homes across Southeast Asia.