The narrow streets of the old quarter, which has the mainland's largest and best-preserved area of treaty port-era shop-houses in a labyrinth of curling streets and narrow lanes, is bounded to the north by Xiahe Lu and to the south by Zhongshan Lu, which leads to the ferry docks.
Amoy, as Xiamen was then known, was one of the first five treaty ports to be opened to foreign residence and trade after the First Opium War, and a British consulate was opened in 1843. The first foreign settlements were on Amoy proper, but the town was then famously noisome, its alleys, some too narrow to allow the opening of an umbrella, funneling an extravagant palette of aromas from sewers inadequately concealed beneath the pavements. Xiamen was then reputed to be the filthiest city in China. (Now, it is touted as being one of the least polluted cities, and in the spring there a few days when the sky is almost blue. Even so, the high concentration of electronics factories in this area, with their heavy use of lead, cadmium, and chromium, to say nothing of the new benzene plant make the untested, invisible threats something to think about.)
The foreign community therefore moved to the 1.7-sq.-km (3/4-sq.-mile) Gulang Yu but grew slowly (37 residents in 1836), although in 1852 the site became the first of the "concessions" -- areas of land formally set aside for foreign residence, then parceled out to British citizens. By 1880, the now multinational foreign population was around 300 and sustained a daily English newspaper, an ice factory, a club, and tiger shooting (25 were bagged at the beginning of the 1890s alone). Amoy's main export was workers, the British having forced the Qing to permit Chinese emigration, and between 1883 and 1897 an estimated 167,000 left for labor overseas, founding Chinatowns around Asia and North America.
More recently, the population of this island has dropped to about 15,000 from 25,000 as the government returns houses to original owners. Its houses are being transformed into multistoried resorts and apartments.
In treaty port days all transport was on foot, and no wheeled vehicles were allowed -- a rule still enforced with the exception of some quiet electric carts used sometimes to take tourists on a circuit round the island (¥50) but mostly to quietly sneak up and scare the bejeesus out of them.
First impressions of the island are not very favorable. The ferry disembarkation area consists of huge sliding steel gates that would be more at home on Alcatraz rather than a tourist hot spot. As you alight from the ferry, an office straight ahead as you dock offers a ¥80 ticket giving entrance to a variety of tawdry modern entertainments such as a fun fair and a laser show, so turn left instead to where the electric cars are parked. Proceed uphill straight to the area of finest mansions, on serpentine Fujian Lu and Lujiao Lu. The best examples are signposted, yet marked with unhelpful plaques giving construction dates and little more information; the former Japanese consulate is marked, however. Look out for the Catholic church of 1917 at Lujiao Lu 34. Some sources claim that 30% of the island's 20,000 residents are still practicing Christians. It's also a tradition that there are more pianos here than anywhere else in China, and tourism promoters claim that Gulang Yu is known as "Piano Island." Directly opposite Sunlight Rock is Asia's largest Piano Museum, testimony to the island's long love affair with the piano. There are over 70 historic pianos including the world's first square piano. A selection of them is used at the two major piano competitions held on the island, Gulang Yu Piano Festival and the National Competition for Young Pianists. Bach and Clementi can often be heard being hammered out rhythmically if unimaginatively, but that is only because the local high school uses concerto snippets instead of the usual school bells.
Fujian Lu 32 is particularly impressive -- a vast porticoed mansion built in 1928 by a Vietnamese-Chinese real estate tycoon; the mansion later served as a hospital during the Japanese occupation of World War II, and today is the Art Vocation University of Xiamen. Dozens of families now occupy a range of such mansions and have bricked up entrances, walled in balconies to add floor space, and left gardens to turn wild. Pretty winding paths between mansions are now overgrown with hawthorn, but despite the sometimes dismaying crush on the ferry, the island has generous amounts of what China generally lacks -- peace and quiet.
Farther on, clockwise around the island, is the Jinquan Qianbi Bowuguan, a museum of ancient coins housed in the handsome British consulate, originally built in 1843 and the earliest foreign building on the island. Recently opened, its hours and entrance fee seem not yet set, but beyond the building is one of the best lookout points back to Xiamen.
Follow signs down to the beach below. Chinese now paddle where foreigners once held bathing parties that inexplicably involved eating ginger cookies and drinking cherry brandy. Just past the beach are shady benches beneath the trees, beyond which a short tunnel takes you through to the next beach. Immediately after that on the left, steps lead up the hillside through gardens to Riguang Yan (Sunlight Rock), a lookout point perhaps used by pirate and Ming loyalist Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), also known as Kongxia, a Dutch corruption of a title awarded him by the expiring Ming. He's an official state hero for being the first Han to invade Taiwan, which he did mainly for its silk and sugar, but is idolized for having kicked the Dutch off Taiwan in 1624. A dull museum to his memory is laced with the usual propaganda about how Taiwan has always been "an inseparable part of the motherland." It's a stiff climb (although there's a cable car alternative) and the entrance fee is a hefty ¥60. The view is very overrated, just a busy shipping lane and some ugly container-handling facilities over on the opposite island. Unfortunately the world's biggest amplifier is not visible this far away.
Past the beach, a right turn before a farther tunnel leads you into a maze of old mansions, but signs will direct you to the Xiamen Shi Bowuguan (City Museum) at Guxin Lu 43 (8:30am-5pm; ¥10). The museum is located in possibly the grandest of all the mansions, the swaggering, three-story, cupola-topped Bagua Lou or Eight Trigrams Building of 1907, designed by an American for a Taiwanese businessman. The ground floor has early examples of the Min Nan region (Quanzhou/Zhengzhou/Xiamen) specialty ware, blanc de chine, mostly Qing. There's other material on the Opium War and the Japanese occupation, as well as on the Communist forces' drive to Xiamen, which forced the Nationalists to Taiwan. The small matter of Jinmen Island, which sits uncaptured less than 2km (1 1/4 miles) from the mainland (despite being the subject of two major offensives and the fact that the Chinese shelled the island nonstop for 44 days back in '58), receives no comment. The museum is dusty, echoing, forgotten, and rarely visited, but there are good views from upper balconies (hung with the attendants' washing) for a fraction of the cost of views from Sunlight Rock. A new building to one side has well-presented displays on fishing, local customs, and tea.
Southeast of the center, a series of sites make a pleasant excursion when seen together. Start by taking a taxi or bus no. 2 or 22 from Siming Lu to the Huli Shan Paotai, a platform (8:30am-5pm; ¥25) with a vast Krupp 280-millimeter cannon overlooking the island-dotted ocean and offering a different kind of seashell. The huge gun, one of two originally sited here in 1893, sits on a vast rotating chain-driven mechanism and is credited with sinking a Japanese warship in 1937. When it was first fired, several nearby houses collapsed, too. The other gun emplacement now houses a tacky souvenir shop. There are plenty of descriptions in English but they include the usual nationalist claptrap about "British aggressors" and "brave Chinese soldiers." The surrounding sunken barracks area has been turned over to the exhibition of peculiar stones and ancient weaponry that includes a rusty pistol said to have belonged to Opium warrior Lin Zexu. A boat at the pier below offers 1-hour trips to see Jinmen and Little Jinmen islands for ¥96; call tel. 0592/208-3759 for information.
Cross the road opposite the cannon and turn left until you find the gate to the university, Xiamen Daxue. Even the footbridge here is worth a closer look as this innovative tension structure is millennia ahead of almost any other construction in China. Street furniture is very interesting, with a huge musical stave decorating the center of the road and with oversize sculpted computer mice down on the beach.
This is one of China's older and most pleasant campuses, founded around 90 years ago and heavily funded by donations from Chinese overseas. Wander straight on past substantial brick buildings to a major left turn to the main gate -- students will point you in the right direction if you look lost.
The recently completed island ring road begins at Bai Cheng Beach outside the gates to Xiamen University and incorporates a substantial lane purely for cyclists, runners, and strollers. Bicycles can be rented from several outlets along Huang Dao Lu (the ocean ring road) but like everything else in Xiamen prices are high and rentals begin at ¥30 per hour.
Just outside the campus, on the right, is Nan Putuo Si (3am-6:30pm; ¥30). It's a temple of little antiquity but fully functional as a place of worship, with the devout on their knees reading scriptures and surely nearly asphyxiated by all the incense smoke. Monks bustle about, and wooden blocks are tossed to obtain the answers to important questions. There are also rock-cut calligraphy, modern stupas containing the remains of recently interred monks, 18 particularly animated luohan statues, a "thousand-armed" Guanyin, and an excellent vegetarian restaurant. On the cable car ride from the gardens over the South Putuo Temple, you will be treated to a stunning panoramic view over Xiamen, Gulang Yu, and the surrounding waters.
Tip: On Gulang Yu look out for a delicious local specialty known as ye shi ma ci. These are deliciously sweet pockets of pounded sticky rice with a coating of black sesame powder.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.