Gulangyu, a car-free harbor island off Xiamen, China, has been reborn as a resort destination, with hotels, museums, gardens and, facing you as you walk from the ferry, KFC and McDonalds.
Gulangyu is known as "Piano Island" because of its role in saving classical music during the Cultural Revolution of the last century, when violins and pianos came under attack as unwanted Western influences.
In 1967, a musician from the island journeyed to Tiananmen Square and, for three days, played odes on a piano to Chairman Mao and the revolution. His aim was to demonstrate that the classical form, and the instrument, could serve the party as well as the bourgeoisie. His mission succeeded.
It was no coincidence that the musician had come from Gulangyu. Following the Opium Wars with Great Britain in the mid-19th century, the island had become a diplomatic enclave. That special status ended at the beginning of the 20th century, but the Chinese residents of the island continued to embrace the musical forms imported by foreign diplomats.
The island has special protected status, and the colonial-style buildings have, for the most part, been preserved.
Western visitors are generally few and far between.
The winding brick road that leads from the ferry dock to the Shuzhuang Gardens is lined primarily with souvenir and jewelry stores, tea and cake shops and seafood restaurants whose inventory is in red washtubs along the street. Everything from eels to rays to octopi to shellfish to crabs to small sharks are on display, with diners choosing what they want prepared from the tubs. Stores selling dried seafood also are very popular.
The garden is in a beautiful seaside setting, and it features two wonderful museums. One displays hundreds of pianos, many of them quite old. One fascinating instrument was designed to be put in a corner, and split at a right angle in the middle.
The second interesting museum is a branch of Guanfu, the first private museum allowed in China. It has a small but very well-curated and -presented collection of ancient chairs, boxes and vases, with detailed descriptions in English.
Next to the garden and museums is a stretch of beach.
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