The Blue Danube on Gulangyu Islet

Update:13 May 2007

Taking a ferry boat out on the sea from Xiamen, a southeast port of the Fujian Province of China, we passed the rock on top of which stands the statue of Zhen Chengong, a distinguished general who drove away Dutch invaders and recaptured Taiwan for the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Along the way, tourists on board could also see Jinmen, a small island which at its closest point lies only 2,310 meters from Xiamen. ¡°So close, and yet so far,¡± said Dr. Bill Brown in his guidebook ¡°Amoy Magic,¡± ¡°because at present it lies under the control of Taiwan Province.¡± On a clear day, you can see with a telescope a big sign on Jinmen saying ¡°Three Principles of the People to reunify China;¡± similarly in Xiamen, along the highway opposite Jinmen, there is also a big sign proclaiming ¡°One Country, Two Systems to reunify China.¡± The two signs have been staring at each other quietly and passionately for more than a decade, trying to express the heartfelt feelings of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, just like a long-separated couple not being able to see each other face to face. But nobody knows when the people who sent out these messages across the turbulent ocean waves throughout stormy days and thunderous nights could eventually find a restful nest to not only let their minds meet, but also their arms meet.

Within about 10 minutes, our boat arrived in the early afternoon at a small island to the southwest of Xiamen called Gulangyu Islet. Among the many passengers, those who reside on the islet quickly got off first and rushed home after a morning outing across the water. Then the others began to disembark and tried to find their separate ways. Having no knowledge about this place, people like us who were tourists from other areas of China or other parts of the world started to feel a bit anxious to see Gulangyu. We wondered what kind of inspirations this new journey might bring into our life.

This was a gentle November afternoon; the southern China sea-breeze blowing across the Strait was pleasingly comfortable and the morning haziness had just disappeared without any hint. But as we strolled along the paved narrow streets that looked like narrow alleys in medieval European towns and when we noticed the many red tile-roofed houses in Mediterranean style, my head started to feel a little dizzy and my footsteps became heavier and slower. Perhaps it was due to a delayed sea-sickness lingering from the waves still lashing against the docked boat; or perhaps more likely it was a time warp that had just sucked me away and brought me back to the sad colonial past of this small place when it was under the control of a slew of foreign invaders from Japan, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and America, etc.

No car was in sight on this automobile-free island and the gentle up-hill village road seemingly sensed our melancholy, quietly absorbed our weights and heavy footsteps painstakingly without any complaints. Then, several young saleswomen smiled cordially at us, gradually warming our hearts. They uttered some less-than-fluent English words, eagerly showered us with merchandise held in their hands or stacked on shelves inside their stores and anxiously waited for our buying decision. Yes, many ¡°Made in China¡± products attracted us and cheered up our mood. You can buy a decent real pearl necklace starting at an amazingly low price, and the storekeepers patiently and enthusiastically serviced us by exposing many glowing pearl jewelries for our viewing. There were also stores selling other goods like beautifully wrapped tea packages from Taiwan or Fujian¡¯s northern Wuyi Mountain, corals collected from the nearby sea, or other kinds of tourist souvenirs. Our official free tourist guide was a young Gulangyu girl who spoke only limited English, but she endeavored to point out a few large grayish office buildings with red tile roofs telling us that they used to be foreign consulates. Most of these buildings looked old and poorly maintained, and it seemed that the imprint of this Islet¡¯s colonial past had largely faded away.

Nonetheless, she added, the people in Gulangyu still keep up a unique hobby inherited from their past Western rulers: they love to play piano and appreciate Western classical music, a passion which has become a solid part of their present-day culture heritage.

Toward the end of the Islet tour, we were brought to a piano museum, in which were housed many dozens of modern and antique pianos donated by a wealthy overseas Australian Chinese, Mr. Hu. A narrator was already waiting by the door when we approached the exhibition room. Soon she guided us among these well-kept fine musical instruments; each had a memorable story.

Our last stop in the museum was upstairs by the side of a big window facing the ocean. The glow of the setting sun had just painted the entire room as if ten thousand roses were blossoming nearby and our faces were as red as the Burgundy just being taken out of the wine cellar. As we admired silently and half drunken, the narrator stopped talking, walked towards a piano bench and sat down gently in front of a black grand Steinway; then, from her waving arms and nimble fingers came the unexpected rhythm of Strauss¡¯ Blue Danube. And I, for a short unspeakable second, could feel the water of the Danube flow to my feet as many young women along the river bank were giggling while washing and pounding their clothes on their wooden washboards¡­and, I am quite sure now, that was also the unspeakable second, I thought, when most of us seemed to have given up our sanity to the flowing river water and forgotten our whereabouts momentarily.


BY Sheng-Wei Wang

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