August in China: Xiamen’s Gulangyu

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I flew from Xian in the central north to Xiamen at the southern coast. The weather immediately became much more humid like at home. Even the people on the streets looked a lot more like Chinese Singaporeans, not surprising seeing as a majority of Chinese Singaporeans are from the Fujian area.

My first stop was at Gulangyu, an islet famous for its pretty colonial architecture. I crossed over in the evening by ferry. Not sure why, but it was free in the evenings. A local guy told me not to bother paying so I paid by admiring the view.

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The dusk view was rather pretty as there was a nice contrast between the colonial houses on Gulangyu…

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… and the bright neon lights of the office buildings opposite in Xiamen itself.

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I had a bit of a problem getting a bed initially as the most popular place on the island was fully booked. There was a bit of a red herring moment when a “friendly local” showed me a dingy room and wanted to charge way over my budget for it. Thankfully I found another less popular but still clean and decent place that fit my budget nicely. Lesson learned: always google accommodation beforehand and get the phone number of the place, it’s not always easy to find a place from its address alone. The locals aren’t always the most informative and building numbers can be jumbled.

The next morning I had a little wander around the island. There was lots of pretty though not particularly memorable architecture…

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… and a glimpse of the most famous site on the island.

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Domestic tourists like to trek up to the top of the rock where on a clear day one can see Taiwan, or more accurately, the Jinmen Islands. It had been especially popular in the past when no one at all from the mainland could set foot on Taiwan. Having lived in Taipei for two years, of course I didn’t want to crowd with the rest of the people and was content to watch from afar.

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After a little sojourn around the islet, I headed for the famous Gulangyu fishballs stuffed with minced pork. It was a little anti-climactic though, the fishball wasn’t bouncy and the meat not very flavourful. I much preferred the Singaporean version. I think us immigrants did far better at improving on the recipe. Oh well.

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November in China: The Wrong Side of the River

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I visit Shanghai once a year. Each time I’ll stay with my parents who live on the wrong side of the Huangpu river.  Real Shanghainese only like being on the Puxi side. The irony is that these “real Shanghainese” people are invariably migrants from the rural Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, and those who’ve lived on Shanghai land for centuries are the farmers from Pudong. Many of the original Shanghainese of vintage cheong sam and period films had largely fled the country when the Communists took over.

With its ever-competing skyscrapers built one after another in a Babel-esque race to the heavens, Pudong is hardly a louche part of town. As Jin Mao Tower and the IFC Building tower over their competition, it’s hard to believe that the other buildings are already taller than your average skyscraper.

On an unusually fine day, I went across the river to Puxi and returned by the incredibly cheap ¥0.50 ferry from Dongmen Lu on the Puxi side to Dongchang Lu at Pudong. It was perfect weather to take a panaroma or two of the buildings, just that a bit of patience was needed to wait for the advertising ferry to pass. These ferries go up and down the river at all hours showcasing brightly lit advertisements to both sides of the river.

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Mum calls the Jin Mao Tower the “bottle” and the IFC Building the “bottle opener.” The Pearl Tower is now relegated to one corner of the skyline. You can just about spot its spire in the extreme left hand side of the photo below.

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As we drew closer to shore, the Pearl Tower came into view. Sadly or not, depending on your views on ghastly architecture, this Shanghai icon is slowly being literally obscured by the new buildings coming up around it. It is gradually being replaced by the IFC Building as the prime destination for tour group visits.

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Dodging motorbikes and bicycles, I scrambled off the ferry and headed over to what was once the tallest building in the world. At the moment  I visited in November 2008, Taipei 101 was the tallest. As I write, the Burj Dubai has already caught up. Looks like the race will continue wherever the new money is. Look carefully at the top of the IFC Building and you’ll see the bottle opener part of it. Legend goes that the rectangular hole was supposed to be a perfect circle. It was changed to the current design because of fengshui reasons. Another legend goes that it was designed by the Japanese and the shape of the building is meant to be a katana in the heart of the business district. A circle at the top of the building would allow the sun to shine directly through, far too reminiscent of the Japanese rising sun for comfort.

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Rumours or not, this building is incredibly imposing, especially right at its foot. It’s near impossible to get the whole building into one frame. I must have craned my neck till it was almost 90 degrees to my body!

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It’s expensive to go up the tower. I found it a bit too cheesy to do it this time because I’d just concluded a hardcore backpacking trip in the region. Going up would blow pretty much what had been a whole day’s budget. It was just as well that the weather turned bad. Mum told me that on bad days, the top of the building would be swathed by clouds and groups going up would pay the same prices but see absolutely nothing. Buyer beware!

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[edited 5 Mar 2009 7.50pm: Mum pointed out that the ferry price was and, at the point of writing, still is ¥0.50, not ¥2.]