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City Places for City People
China's Carfree Town: Gulangyu

by Brian Dearle

Gulangyu EveningOnly a tiny fraction of the world's settled places today ban motor vehicles, and only a small fraction of those, it seems, do so without it being an integral part of a tourist-development strategy. For the admirer of carfree towns, it is refreshing to encounter a place that has both no cars and a tourist industry that has not overwhelmed the city's daily life. One such place is Gulang Island, in the city of Xiamen, China.

Xiamen is one of the economic powerhouses of Fujian Province, in the subtropical southeast, directly opposite Taiwan. An early beneficiary of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, and a gateway to trade with its estranged relative across the Formosa Strait, Xiamen has few equals among the many Chinese cities experiencing breakneck development. The city sprouts new high-rises, concrete, traffic, and smog in a headlong sprawl, as if to atone for the centuries of economic privation and emigration that formerly characterized Fujian Province.

Xiamen was one of the first victims of the European conquests in China in the mid-19th century opium wars. It evolved that by the end of the century, the foreign trade legations were isolated on the "Drum Waves Island," or Gu Lang Yu, 500 meters off the Chinese-administered city of Xiamen, formerly known as "Amoy." There, segregated and under their own sovereignty, the few hundred European and American traders prospered and built their mansions, living a presumably enviable bourgeois life. This faded following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911 and turned to nightmare during the Japanese occupation. It's remarkable that the mansions survived the Cultural Revolution at all.

Mao Zedong has been gone now for as many years as he ruled China, and were he to come back today I image he would scarcely recognize the place. While Mao's face is still on the currency, it is Deng Xiaoping's exhortation, "to get rich is glorious," that has taken over modern China. Its economy roars ahead at a rapid pace, the new overwhelming the old in almost reckless fashion in the new economic zones, of which Xiamen is one.

Gulangyu Street CornerOn Gulangyu, though, one finds an astonishing and unique exception to this. There are no high-rises, no steel-and-glass edifices, no motor vehicles (with just a handful of exceptions), and, most uncommon of all for China, not even a bicycle. The small hilly community is about one kilometer wide and just under two long, and the population of 20,000 gets about almost entirely on foot. Its freight moves by simple hand carts. Citizens carry personal cargo on small wagons, balanced on poles over the shoulder, or just in bags in their hands. Its population seems balanced between young and old, its economy a mix of both locally and tourist-oriented businesses.

While Gulangyu seems to be a playground for residents of Xiamen, it seems as yet an undiscovered destination for visitors from elsewhere in China or beyond. As a result, tourist-oriented businesses have not yet displaced the workaday feel of a normal functioning town that just happens to get by without cars. In a three day stay there I saw all of four Caucasian visitors, and every one of the Chinese to whom I mentioned our visit, even those in the travel business, looked puzzled for a moment and then universally asked, "Ah, you must have gone to Xiamen on business?" I had to explain to each the attractions of Gulang Island.

One key reason why Gulangyu has not been besieged by Chinese visitors is geography. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides, so train and road connections to the populous and prosperous cities to its east and south, such as Guangdong and Hong Kong, are very slow. Direct connections to the north exist but its still nearly a 24-hour ordeal by rail to Shanghai. Air connections are swift and convenient, but still out of reasonable economic reach for the vast majority.

Also, the culture in China has long been that, for those achieving enough prosperity to travel, the traditional destinations are famous natural scenery and temples. Formerly foreign enclaves with heavy reminders of an unpleasant colonial past are high on few people's lists. An absence of cars is associated in many people's minds with the poverty and privation of a communist era still fresh in memory.

To the rare foreign visitor, Gulangyu is astonishingly reminiscent of an amalgam of other places far away:

Put this all in a Chinese setting, and you have Gulangyu.

This all makes for a rather romantic and charming setting, unsullied by the roar, clutter, or smell of traffic. Street life thrives as it can when only people occupy the roads. As in other Chinese cites nowadays, considerable attention is paid to keeping the streets swept, vagrancy is kept to a minimum, and street crime is rare, so pedestrians are spared these assaults.

To be sure, there are considerable visitor-oriented activities on the island. Arriving at the ferry dock one may be hounded by touts and vendors, and confront signs warning against unlicensed tour guides. An aquarium theme park glares over the waterfront, and innumerable shops peddle trinkets and jewelry to visitors up and down the lanes. The seafood restaurants may charge substantially more than in less special locales. But there are only a handful of hotels in the town proper, all small and unimposing, and one does not get the sense that tourism has pushed the locals away.

Old HouseIts once-grand European houses are almost all clearly in need of major maintenance, and some are abandoned and condemned. It seems plausible that the generally forlorn state of many of the older mansions in the town may be in part due to the difficulty and expense of moving construction materials to and from the sites. Yet most are occupied, and one of the primary claims of the tourist literature--that Gulang is the "piano island", with hundreds if not thousands of keyboards still filling the narrow lanes with the music of far-off cultures--is happily quite true.

A short visit by a foreigner illiterate in the local tongue is hardly a reliable way to gauge the livability of a place, but nonetheless some observations can be made. The obvious positive one is the absence of all the irritations of motor traffic. The town area has high enough density for car-free living to be practical, but without the huge high-rises and massive housing estates that characterize the biggest of cities. The aging houses of the historic foreign enclave add an interesting flavor to their small district but hardly define the town. The artistic focus of the community, and especially the pianos, enhance the charm of the place, but it would seem just as serene without them. An analogy might be that while the beautiful architecture and charming canals are the tourist's vision of Venice, it would still be a delightful place if it had none of those.

Gulangyu is a thoroughly delightful place, but not without its unsettling bits: the bars seen on a great many of the windows strongly imply that the place has a burglar problem. This raises questions yet to be answered, such as how recent or pernicious it is, or whether it is localized or a spillover from problems in the larger community of Xiamen. Crime has risen in China along with economic growth and inequality, but one doesn't notice the burglar bars in other Chinese cities.

Freight moves about Gulangyu for the most part in simple wooden hand carts. Exceptions can be seen in the occasional truck hauling dirt or heavy supplies along one of the few roads wide enough, but in the narrow hilly lanes only the handcarts can navigate. A moderate load being moved uphill requires the strenuous efforts of at least two, pushing and pulling.

Carts and HillMoving very heavy cargo, such as building materials, up those hills exacts an appalling toll on those straining against the load. Here is where introduction of some kind of electric wagon, such as those used in the mountain towns in Switzerland, would be a welcome improvement. There is another reason to modernize the old-fashioned carts. The only observable hazard for pedestrians in Gulangyu is when these carts are being negotiated downhill under load. Lacking mechanical brakes, they rely on their human handlers for control. The blissful stroller receives but a second or two of warning from the rumbling of a near-runaway cart before it careens past, its handler's legs straining to keep it from crashing into something or someone. Accidents must be frequent.

While most of the population lives near the town and its ferry docks, habitations are spread across the island. Those living or working further out must walk to their destinations as there is no viable public transit on the island. The distances are exacerbated by the hills and by the humid heat that bathes the region much of the year. There are electric carts that circle the island, but these are ridiculously expensive and aimed squarely at the tourist trade. A 30-minute ride around the island costs 50 Yuan ($6 US), far beyond practical range for local use. There are several tunnels, some quite long and even housing shops, that cut down on hot sweaty climbs over hills.

That the older housing withstood the Japanese occupation is surprising; that it survived the Mao era and especially the Cultural Revolution is amazing. Visible disrepair is the norm with these structures today, though at least those that are not condemned are still occupied. The great majority of dwellings are of more recent vintage and domestic style, and while modest seem in decent repair. An effort was made to open the housing market in Xiamen to foreign buyers, in hopes of luring investment from Taiwanese desirous of owning a piece of the ancestral country. The result, however, seems to have been merely that speculators bid up the prices of new high-rises, without providing any broad benefit to housing development. While the aging beauties of Gulangyu might attract frenzied interest and restoration investment were they located elsewhere, so far a reversal of their slow decline is still to be seen.

Gulangyu NightThere is no obvious new large-scale business or industry on the island, other than that aimed at visitors. An aquarium and aerial tram system are examples of new investment. One key tourist business not in much evidence on Gulangyu is hotels. In the immediate vicinity of the ferry to Xiamen, there is but one modest lodging with all of 20 rooms. Others in the town are also small and simple or in poor repair. The one upscale hotel is on the far side of the island and has its own ferry dock. Opposite Gulangyu however, numerous large hotels, new and old, extend up and down the Xiamen waterfront. The bulk of new hotel development in city has been in the town center, though, well away from the water and aimed at business travelers.

Large numbers of day trippers come and go from Xiamen, but after dark the crowds thin considerably. Strolling only a kilometer or so from the docks one experiences something rare and a mite unsettling in a Chinese city--one is alone. Without transit or attractions, the streets of the quieter neighborhoods can be empty in the evenings. A visitor feels compelled to return to the main square, where the crowds while away the time on benches watching the gaudy lights of the island and the city across the channel, the ferries shuttling back and forth, the couples strolling. And the carts, their handlers still pushing them into the night.

Brian Dearle