BLOG: In my great-grandfather's house

Xiamen Travel Blog

 › entry 12 of 15 › view all entries

We flew to Xiamen, sister city to Wellington (New Zealand) yesterday and were greeted with a certain welcoming familiarity. As we grew to know the place more, it even became more familiar or likeable:

  • it had a distinct air of South East Asia rather than China, with covered footpaths along open shopfronts selling familiar goods (like dried cuttlefish, liquoriced-olives, etc. rather than the unfamiliar strange Northern / Eastern stuff).

  • for the first time in nearly two weeks we were among people who weren't always taller than us.

  • spitting is almost unseen and unheard of. We did hear a couple of "hoiks" from one person on the street and many surrounding pedestrians (including us) turned round to see who it was.

  • streets are COMPLETELY litter-free in some stretches, earning the city the reputation of being the cleanest in the country.

  • I can understand all the swearing at the internet cafe that we're now in.

Between my half-baked Mandarin and my Hokkien I'm getting myself understood 95% rather than 80% in the Shanghai area. Actually, there Hokkien is quite different from mine, but I try to speak like my Singaporean aunt who speaks "properly".

The city of Xiamen is on an island joined to the mainland by a bridge, and also just across from Taiwan. The dusty haze here is better than in Hangzhou but the countryside seemed quite dry and barren ... very unexpected as I was looking forward to seeing something like the lush greenery of Taiwan (outside Taipei of course).

Our hotel room overlooks the island of Gulangyu. The view reminds Kim of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. During the day we see old nearly-Mediterranean and European houses, and by night the island waterfront is lit up. This morning, we went over to explore the quiet streets (cars and bicycles are forbidden there) and admire the many old red brick villas built by Dutch, Portuguese, English etc.

The were in various states of restoration and disrepair. In their poorer condition, they reminded me of pictures of Cuba.

Xiamen, Shanghai and many coastal cities were Treaty Ports in the 1800s (?) These came about because China had a closed-door no-trade policy. Many European nations wanted to trade silk and tea quite badly and traffic-ed opium to the locals to get their ways. This kind of culminated in the Opium War which saw some coastal cities (or just land in those days) being handed over. So, some highly respected international companies in existence to day have their roots in drug traffic-ing!

One of the reasons of visiting Xiamen is the fact that my maternal grandparents are from the area. We met up with my great-grandfather's granddaughter yesterday ... ie her grandfather and mine were brothers. We had a good chat and it is amazing how certain life-changing moments are not known at the time the actions are taken. She was born here and grew up in Singapore. Little did she know at age 12 that by boarding the ship to Xiamen, she'd end up seeing her family home here confisicated and be sent to the rural areas to work. We didn't ask exactly what the work entailed (admin, factory, farm ...). It is easy to read about these things and think that it is quite sad, but it doesn't hit you until you talk to someone face-to-face about it. We're off to see my great-grandfather's house tommorow.

So that was the news ... now for the observations and analysis for some of you with specific interests. I thought I'd draw some differences between the Shanghai / Yangtze Delta region and the South here:

  • In the Shanghai area and Northern areas, some people tend to wear suits for everything ... cycling in the dusty traffic, painting, building a high rise, cleaning the toilet, relaxing on the Bund. There seems to be no "appropriate attire for appropriate activity". My theory is that it is a carry over from the Mao-style jacket for everyone which suited every purpose. This isn't the case in Xiamen, mainly because of the weather.

  • Food in the Shanghai area is yuk. The cooking style is different and oily.  But to make it worse there are raw material differences. As discussed over lunch today with our Indonesian restauranteur ... I couldn't believe how we agreed on every point about how the Shanghai raw ingredients are different.

    Their rice is roundish-short grain (yuk), their kway-teow and dumpling skins are floury in texture, their noodles are not firm-to-bite. Excuse me, some of my friends reading this email will appreciate this analysis greatly.

  • Architecture here is more familiar than in Shanghai. Here you have the red, green and gold or black and gold ... intricately carved. In the Shanghai area, mainly dark mahogany lattice work.

So, this is the end of another adventure. I'm glad it has gone so well despite world events.  If this had been our 1998 China trip, it would have been over in the first week as Xinjiang province (above Pakistan) is closed to foreigners due to fear of Muslim separatist activities. At this stage our proposed trip to Beirut, Damascus and Tehran next April seems unlikely.


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photo by: westwind57