Gulangyu - The Piano Island

Updated: 2007-08-30
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With a colonial past, Gulangyu off Xiamen in China's Fujian Province has inspired many tales of romance and music since ancient times


Exploring the mystical past of Gulangyu Island, a short boat ride from the city of Xiamen in Fujian Province, is memorable, and more so if combined with a sense of adventure.


As one of China's major ports since ancient times, Xiamen is blessed with a wide gulf and deep water free of silt. The exciting part about any trip is to find something unexpected and Gulangyu, with its attractive seascapes and colonial history offers plenty.


Gulangyu _ located southwest of Xiamen_ is on China's list of National Scenic Spots and also ranks on top of the list of 10 most-scenic areas in Fujian. It is renowned for its delicate natural beauty, ancient relics and varied architecture.


Tour guide Liao Xi welcomed us to Xiamen with bottles of drinking water and paper fans. ''It's a very hot and humid day so drink lots of water,'' she enthused as our bus wound its way through light traffic to a point where we were to board a ferry that in 10 minutes would deliver us to Gulangyu. ''Many great musicians have hailed from Gulangyu which is also home to China's largest piano museum.''


Liao explained that the island's name has musical roots as Gulang means ''drum waves'', so-called because of the sound generated by the ocean waves hitting the reefs, while yu means an ''island''.


Boarding the ferry, the bottom deck was packed with sweaty local visitors, hot and it didn't present a decent view, but the top deck had seats and tables that were taken up by the early birds and presented a great sweep of the island.


The first thing I noticed stepping off the ferry at the island's pier _ designed in the shape of a piano was a battery of tour groups conspicuous by their baseball caps and megaphone-wielding tour leaders.


According to Liao, the population of the island has been capped at 20,000 to fend off overdevelopment.


I didn't have to walk far to realise how commercialised Gulangyu had become. Liao said only bicycles and electric-powered vehicles are allowed to ply the road to safeguard the environment.


Walking is the best way to get a feel of the island's charm. Gulangyu is known as the piano island because people here love the instrument.


If you listen attentively, the sound of piano music can be heard throughout the market place. As early as 1913, students at schools run by foreigners started learning the piano, noted Liao. The enthusiasm for music later spread to ordinary people. Many ''piano families'' have since produced accomplished musicians.


With the sun beating down, we set off for Shuzhuang Garden _ an exquisitely designed area on the Yangtze delta. On the way we saw beautiful edifices mostly from the colonial era.


The oldest building dates to 1896, although most were built around the 1920s and '30s. Some are nicely preserved, while others stand in various stages of ruin. They were after all real homes and not sanitised historical museums. Ficus trees lining the alleys lent the area an even older feel. Despite the humidity, it was a leisurely and pleasant walk around the town square, thanks to the clear road signs that pointed visitors to points of interest on the island. Along the way, we saw the former British and Japanese consulates and Xiamen's legendary music school, among a string of other historic buildings.


As you walk around, you'll arrive at the island's concert hall. Its architecture, although modern but based on an old theme, is at odds with its surroundings. Tourist shops line the streets selling souvenirs and handicrafts typical of coastal towns and cities.


Alongside the business district, we spotted budding musical talents strumming guitars. There is even a restaurant where locals can eat on credit _ which I found highly amusing. The Wax Museum is worth a visit as it houses about a hundred wax statues of famous politicians, entertainers and the rich and famous. A puppet show _ unfortunately only available in Chinese _ completed the museum tour.


After a hearty lunch, we reached Shuzhuang Garden, which was originally a private villa owned by a wealthy Taiwan businessman named Lin Erjia. It was turned into a park in the 1950s. Due to high demand, its sprawling grounds have many newly-built facilities and its size has been expanded.


In particular, the point where visitors go to hear the sound produced by ocean waves has been transformed into a ''piano museum'' that showcases the collection of Hu Youyi who is from Gulangyu but now lives in Australia, said Liao........ Full Article


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