The Old Journalist and the Sea

Update:20 May 2007

XIAMEN, China ¨C One thing always happens to me on every extensive trip ¨C and sometimes the quick ones ¨C to places I haven¡¯t been before: I find some spot to which I¡¯m instantly ready to move.

On this month-long trip, that moment, the first one, anyway, came in Xiamen.

Now if there is one thing I¡¯ve learned about traveling and moving relatively frequently, being a somewhat restless soul, it¡¯s that falling in love with people and places share the same pitfalls ¨C and I¡¯ve been known to fall at the drop of a hat. Just because you fall in love with a person/place initially, the relationship may not have what it takes to keep you happy in the long term. Just because you had fun on vacation, or the place you arrive at/person you meet is unexpectedly charming and beautiful, doesn¡¯t mean you will like living there/with them.

Sedona, Ariz., taught me that, in more ways that one. But that¡¯s another two or three stories for some other time.

Xiamen, in its own way, is just as Chinese as the other cities I¡¯ve been to so far: Beijing, Shenyang and Shanghai. It has an important place in Chinese history, plays a current role in its nascent technology industry, has a thriving university culture, and was a key part of its Western colonial era. Like seemingly every other urban area in China, there is a ridiculous amount of construction, and traffic scares the living bejesus out of me.

And yet Xiamen is something different. It¡¯s China, yes, but it certainly doesn¡¯t fit the stereotype.

I could say that about the other three cities I¡¯ve been too in China, of course. But Xiamen really is not what Westerners frequently associate with China, at least not the ones I know, and as such, is a pleasant surprise. This coastal island city that sits across from Taiwan, amidst other surrounding islands, at first glance reminds one of either Southern California or South Florida, or perhaps the Gulf Coast of the United States.

There are the palm trees and the sand, the balmy near-tropical climate (welcome after Shenyang¡¯s chilly autumn days), and clean air (welcome after Beijing¡¯s and Shanghai¡¯s dreadful smog). And then there are the fishing boats and seaside shops ¨C not only can you pick your own lobster here, but your own crab, fish, shrimp and sea life that I couldn¡¯t begin to identify. Then there are all manner of places designed to separate cash from tourists, from upscale, trendy clothiers to vendors of cheap flashy trinkets, and all of them seemingly inundated with trendy, well-dressed hipster kids.

And my interpreter and I agree; Xiamen girls seem to be the prettiest of our travels so far in China. All afternoon I kept singing that annoying Beach Boys tune in my head, only I would change the words to ¡°Wish they all could be Xiamen, China girls ¡­ ¡°

The Great American Novel Awaits on Gulangyu Islet

But really I think Xiamen is more akin to the south of France, perhaps, or somewhere else on the Mediterranean, given the European architecture scattered throughout the city, particularly the closer one gets to the water.

In fact, there is a neighboring island, Gulangyu Islet, that seems more akin to some South Pacific volcanic island, or perhaps the Caribbean, rather than coastal mainland China; it¡¯s narrow, windy streets (cars are apparently not allowed and certainly not needed) and historical architecture reflect the many European powers that made attempts to colonize this port city in the past ¨C some successful, some not.

And in temperament, Xiamen definitely seems to be more laidback; the pace of life is slower here. Rush hour traffic is nothing like Shanghai or Beijing, but then it¡¯s a small Chinese city, if indeed it can be said there is such a thing, with only 1.24 million people here.

Particularly on Gulangyu Islet, life is lived at a leisurely, island pace.

Even though the sea to the south is clogged with cargo and tanker traffic ¨C there is an oil refinery on a nearby island -- on Gulangyu, musicians play traditional instruments in public squares, their instrument cases open for the yuan of appreciative passersby. Since there are no automobiles here, everything from garbage to construction supplies to the day¡¯s catch is hauled in big wheelbarrows around the island. Tourists stroll the narrow boulevards, and the shop keepers hawk their wares, and the three island policemen tool around in electric carts.

Everywhere you look is colonial-era architecture, some of it well maintained, others crumbling with age. These buildings are interspersed with new ones that sometimes mesh well with the old neighborhoods around them, such as the Xiamen University college dedicated to the arts, and some new apartment buildings that hopelessly clash with their older and more dignified neighbors.

Stairs climb through thickets of bamboo and around ancient trees, winding through hillside neighborhoods that must surely once have housed colonial administrators. From some vantage points on the island you can see the skyscrapers of Xiamen, about half a kilometer from Gulangyu. And yet when you are on this little islet they might as well be miles and years away -- you can just smell the history here, mingled with the odors of cooking seafood, sea breezes and fragrance of tropical fauna.

It is here that I could see setting down for awhile, enjoying a slow-paced, island lifestyle. The crumbling old European buildings call to a hopeless romantic like myself; it would be easy on Gulangyu to pick up where Hemingway left off, typing away in some dusty old room, while ocean sea breezes flutter the curtains at the open window, where the cries of the island¡¯s elementary school children can be heard, mingled with the occasional foghorn.

Perhaps someday my travels will bring me back to Gulangyu; perhaps I will take a job as a correspondent in China, and I¡¯ll be able to settle here for awhile, until I grow restless once more.

But in the meantime, alas, I¡¯m ensconced on the sixth floor of the generic, hygienic Crowne Plaza hotel, and tomorrow I will not be contemplating the themes of man vs. man or man and nature for a forthcoming novel, but meeting with members of China¡¯s optoelectronics industry.

What the hell, I never really liked Hemingway anyway.

SOURCE: Jeff Chappell

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