Gulangyu Island (鼓浪嶼), Xiamen – a perfectly preserved piece of European history in China

The Lin Family Mansion (林氏俯fu - 1915), today a boutique hotel.  It is also known as the Octagonal Building (八角樓)

The Lin Family Mansion (林氏俯 - 1915), today a boutique hotel. It is also known as the Octagonal Building (八角樓)。

When it comes to poster-boys for colonial architecture in Mainland China, two places come to mind. The first is, naturally, Shanghai and the iconic Shanghai Bund (which features next month).  The second, which may come as a bit of a surprise to those unfamiliar with China, is Gulangyu Island, in Xiamen.

The island is a perfectly preserved enclave of European history and architecture, located less than a mile off the coast of the city of Xiamen.  Here it was, that the British and other Europeans established their foreign consulates and residences in the aftermath of the Opium War in the 1840s.  And much to the delight of any history buff, most of it still remains!

The journey to the island is a bit of a harrowing experience, however.  Gulangyu is one of the most popular destinations for domestic tourists in all of China.  Tens of thousands of Chinese descent upon the tiny 2 sq kilometers (less than one sq mile) each day.  Every single one of the ferries that make the ten minute journey across the narrow straits every ten minutes is packed dangerously full to the brim – a disaster waiting to happen.

When you do get to the island, however, hopefully on one of the earliest ferries of the day, it is surprising how large tracts of it are almost devoid of people.

True, the core tourist and commercial zones of the island are heaving with people; but there are pathways and side streets further off the centre that are quiet, tranquil and suffused with history – largely because, the island being car-free, the main way of getting to these remote spots is by walking.  And, walking the entire island in one day is NOT for the faint-hearted – it is larger than it looks.

This gallery presents a snapshot of Gulangyu Island, in no particular walking order. There is so much to see on the island that it is quite literally impossible to re-present everything that one sees as one walks.

What I’ve done is instead present these snapshots in broad themes. Former Consulates is the first: Gulangyu was the home of 13 Consulates in its heyday and here I present 4 of them.

Churches is the next, followed by Villas and Residences – these magnificent specimens of historical architecture are the highlight of any tour to Gulangyu; some of them I have been able to identify and some I haven’t – and I end with a quick series on Doorways, which are unique aspects of the architecture on the island.

I hope you enjoy the view.

Downtown Gulangyu is bustling are full of small cafes, restaurants and gift shops housed in refurbished historic buildings.  The Chinese love it.

Downtown Gulangyu is bustling are full of small cafes, restaurants and gift shops housed in refurbished historic buildings. The Chinese love it.

The first sight that assails the visitor is the former British Consulate (1844), which today houses government offices.

The first sight that assails the visitor is the former British Consulate (1844), which today houses government offices.

Across from the British Consulate is the former German Consulate (1870), today a mix of apartments and cafes.

Across from the British Consulate is the former German Consulate (1870), today a mix of apartments and cafes.

Nearby sits the former Japanese Consultate, today housing a dormitory for Xiamen University teachers.

Nearby sits the former Japanese Consultate, today housing a dormitory for Xiamen University teachers.

The former Dutch Consulate (1890) is now a Museum of Gulangyu history.

The former Dutch Consulate (1890) is now a Museum of Gulangyu history.

The most impressive church on the island is the Gothic Spanish-Catholic Church (1917).

The most impressive church on the island is the Gothic Spanish-Catholic Church (1917).

Just across is Union Church (1863), serving a Protestant Congregation.

Just across is Union Church (1863), serving a Protestant Congregation.

Trinity Church 三一堂 (1928)

Trinity Church 三一堂 (1928)

Renaissance Church 復興堂 (1997)

Renaissance Church 復興堂 (1997)

Gospel Hall 福音堂 Church  (1903)

Gospel Hall 福音堂 Church (1903)

Traditional Min-nan 閩南style houses  四落大厝 (1900s) to the left.  In the distance is  the Sunlight Rock 日光岩 - the highest point in Gulangyu.

Traditional Min-nan 閩南style houses 四落大厝 (1900s) to the left. In the distance is the Sunlight Rock 日光岩 – the highest point in Gulangyu.

Panoramic view of Gulangyu from the Sunlight Rock.  In the near distance is the Bagua Building 八卦樓 (1907), which is an Organ Museum today.

Panoramic view of Gulangyu from the Sunlight Rock. In the near distance is the Bagua Building 八卦樓 (1907), which is an Organ Museum today.

The Huang Family Villa 黃家園 (1920s) is the most famous mansion on the island, built by sugar magnate Huang Yizhu.

The Huang Family Villa 黃家園 (1920s) is the most famous mansion on the island, built by sugar magnate Huang Yizhu.

The Huang Rongyuan Mansion (1920) - one of the most historic and popular sites on the island today.

The Huang Rongyuan Mansion (1920) – one of the most historic and popular sites on the island today.

The Melon Building 金瓜樓 (1922) is so-called for its unique melon-shaped domes.

The Melon Building 金瓜樓 (1922) is so-called for its unique melon-shaped domes.

Yizu Mansion 亦足山莊 (1920s) was built by a Singaporean-born Chinese.

Yizu Mansion 亦足山莊 (1920s) was built by a Singaporean-born Chinese.

Koh Family Mansion 許家園 (1930s).

Koh Family Mansion 許家園 (1930s).

Yang Family Villa 楊家園 (1913)

Yang Family Villa 楊家園 (1913)

Fanpo Mansion 番婆樓(1920).

Fanpo Mansion 番婆樓(1920).

Chuncao Mansion 春草堂 (1933).

Chuncao Mansion 春草堂 (1933).

The former residence of Hsu Feiping, a famous Chinese-American pianist with links to Singapore. 許斐平故居

The former residence of Hsu Feiping, a famous Chinese-American pianist with links to Singapore. 許斐平故居

Owl windows.

Owl windows.

18 Anhai Road (1920s)

18 Anhai Road (1920s)

10 Fuxing Road.

10 Fuxing Road.

Red Brick Mansion.

Red Brick Mansion.

Like an English Public School...

Like an English Public School…

Many layers of history and architecture in Gulangyu.

Many layers of history and architecture in Gulangyu.

Random villa around the corner.

Random villa around the corner.

Laidback seaview with the Seaview Villa 觀海別墅 (1918).

Laidback seaview with the Seaview Villa 觀海別墅 (1918).

Almost neo-classical

Almost neo-classical

Staunchly Art Deco

Staunchly Art Deco

Somewhat ornately Baroque Chinese.

Somewhat ornately Baroque Chinese.

Mix of East and West

Mix of East and West

Gulangyu Beach.

Gulangyu Beach.

View of the other end of Gulangyu from the Shuzhuang Gardens 菽莊花園。

View of the other end of Gulangyu from the Shuzhuang Gardens 菽莊花園。

The Gulangyu Piano Museum is another attraction popular with foreign tourists, established by an Australian Chinese in his ancestral home.

The Gulangyu Piano Museum is another attraction popular with foreign tourists, established by an Australian Chinese in his ancestral home.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, China, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Landmarks & History, Photography, Sociology & Urban Studies, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gulangyu Island (鼓浪嶼), Xiamen – a perfectly preserved piece of European history in China

  1. Hi, Enjoyed your piece re: Gulangyu Island. I lived in one of the buildings similar to those you described (1930’s, unrestored) in the quiet center of the island, while producing art in 2009 and 2010. Loved it. Thanks for the memories….

    Colette
    Santa Fe, NM
    colettehosmer@gmail.com

  2. Ashley P Brewin says:

    Dear Kennie Ting,
    The building in the image titled “The former Dutch Consulate (1890) is now a Museum of Gulangyu history.” was actually the site of the Masonic Hall built in 1879 and used by two Masonic Lodges up until 1942. However, one of the brothers who attended meetings there was a Dutchman who we believe carried out consular duties from the Masonic Hall.
    The original Masonic Hall fell into disrepair after 1942 and was eventually demolished in 2000 after being damaged by a typhoon. The building in your picture was erected around 2002/3 and is quite a close representation of the original.
    To see pictures of the original building please see my website here:
    http://thecorinthianlodgeofamoy1806.com/history.html

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