Xiamen's hidden gems, and cats

The city's Old Town area doesn't feature much in the guidebooks, overshadowed by more touristy Gulangyu Island nearby. But venture inside, and you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Late summer might not be the best time to visit Xiamen — a typhoon could hit at any time. And there have been several in the region in recent weeks.

On the afternoon I arrived, a typhoon alert was issued. I was told by hotel staff that all the main attractions on Gulangyu Island would be closed from the next day, and there was no word when they would reopen.

This was such a blow that I almost believed that my trip would be ruined. That was until I searched again the history of Xiamen where the BRIC Summit will be held next month and found that the Old Town area may not be highlighted in travel books, but is definitely worth visiting.

Most of the Old Town is in Siming District, the economic and cultural center of the city. It is believed that the name “Siming” was given by Zheng Chenggong (1624-62), or Koxinga in Hokkien, in 1650 in memory of the perished Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which he had fought to preserve.

For the next nearly 500 years, the district witnessed the ups and downs of the city, and many of the historical imprints are still there today.

Lu Feiran / SHINE

Old fanzai-style houses in Baijiacun

Lu Feiran / SHINE

The Art Deco villa at 42 Shentian Road in Baijiacun

Baijiacun

Near Zhongshan Road, a pedestrian mall quite similar to Shanghai's Nanjing Road Pedestrian Mall, is a residential area concealed behind the busy business zone.

When I told a taxi driver to take me to Baijiacun, he seemed confused: “What are you doing there?”

To him, it was a rather shabby area packed with poor people who could not afford a more decent home. But to me, this is a place where treasure is hidden.

In 1927, the Xiamen government decided to build a park to commemorate Dr Sun Yat-sen, and built a new residential area to house the relocated residents.

The houses in Baijiacun are in both Chinese and Western styles. The delicate carvings on the Corinthian columns and the retro patterns on the balcony railings are well preserved. Some of the houses are locked and empty, and some are still home to families.

The most eye-catching construction is at 42 Shentian Road. The grand villa is nothing like traditional Fujian- or Roman-style buildings, but of a unique bit of Art Deco. It is the only Art Deco building in Xiamen.

The building was originally owned by a returned overseas Chinese and became the seat of the government set up by the Japanese during World War II. Now it is an office building for a cultural communication company.

What I liked about the neighborhood was that it was never commercially developed. People are still using old flea markets, going to the streetside breakfast booths and idling in the lanes. The smell of life is the best.

Lu Feiran / SHINE

There are nearly no fishing boats left in Shapowei.

Shapowei

I didn’t know much about the place until a taxi driver mentioned it to me unconsciously, “You’re looking for Old Town in Xiamen? Then you can’t miss Shapowei.”

I searched on the Internet and saw quite a lot of pretty pictures of the place: the clear water, the small fishing boats, and the old houses on the riverbank that had decades of history, showered in the golden sunset.

But when I first arrived, I was a little bit disappointed. The weather was gloomy as the typhoon was about to hit; the water was far from clear; only a few fishing boats were floating on the river, and they were clearly new.

I thought it was just bad timing, and maybe in the evening the fishing boats would be back. I asked some local people about it, but they said many of the boats had been relocated when the area was turned into a bar street.

Now Shapowei has become a community like Shanghai’s Tian Zi Fang: coffee houses, art studios and small but sophisticated restaurants opened in old houses. I understand why young people love to spend time here.

But it was still regretful to me that I never got to see its original look, and I never got to experience the vibrant atmosphere of the busy fish market that old Xiamen people were so fond of. Maybe it is meant to be, with the development of the city, but Shapowei was still a disappointment.

Lu Feiran / SHINE

Cat-themed graffiti can be seen everywhere in Ding'aozai.

Ding’aozai — cat street

Near Xiamen University and South Putuo Temple, an old community named Ding’aozai is one of young people’s favorites because of its cat culture.

As a big cat fan, I felt this was the place for me as soon as I stepped onto the narrow lane.

Residents told me that long time ago, Ding’aozai was a fishing village. There were a lot of cats here, and residents were all crazy about them. Later when the community developed into a modern residential block, the cat culture was inherited.

Cat graffiti and sculptures can be seen everywhere here. There is also a cat museum, in which visitors can play with real cats in a room decorated as a bus coach. It opens daily at 7pm and only 30 people are allowed in a day.

The cats, however, were not as into the humans as the humans were into them. They were either sound asleep or doing their own cat things, glancing at the humans once in a while.

Cat-related products are available in stores. It seems that everything becomes more tempting in the shape of a cat or with adorable cat faces.

Indeed, how can anyone resist the charm of a cat?

Lu Feiran / SHINE

The new gate of the 500-year-old fishing village, Zengcuo'an

Zengcuo’an

Once there were many fishing villages in Siming District, and Zengcuo’an was one of them. I heard that people here were very nostalgic, and in the 1990s locals still loved to talk about how people dodged bullets during the war in the 1940s.

But now the facade of the 500-year-old village doesn’t look nostalgic at all. A new gate was built in front of the village, and the three golden Chinese characters, Zeng Cuo An, looked as though they were ripped off from a 1990s signboard.

The village now is a snack heaven. Nearly 80 percent of the shops are snack bars selling fried snacks, coconut milk, barbecued squid and steamed dumplings.

Leaving the main street, I reached the area of small inns. It is said that this village of only 6.5 square kilometers has around 300 inns. Most are in old fanzai buildings — what local people called Western-style buildings.

Fanzai buildings in Zengcuo’an were built by returned overseas Chinese early last century. Most of them lived in Southeast Asia for half of their lives, and they tried to duplicate the style they were so familiar with — often influenced by the styles of the region’s various Western colonial powers.

The returned Chinese also brought back Christianity. Now, a Christian church coexists with temples worshiping local deities.

Although Zengcuo’an has been fully commercially developed, I didn’t feel that the place was “fake” like many other old towns, maybe except for that grand gate at the entrance.

The old buildings are well preserved, the layout of the village hasn't been changed and some local people still live there, and I think that is good enough.


Lu Feiran / SHINE

The old houses are well preserved in Zengcuo'an.

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