Across the narrow straits from Gulangyu Island sits Old Amoy – the Chinese settlement, and the commercial heart of the former colony. Here’s where the city’s major banks, trading and merchant houses were situated. Here it was that tea, rice, lacquer, silks, spices from China were shipped to all over the world.
Here therefore, are found the dozens of winding streets flanked on both sides by Chinese shophouses, of the kind found all over the port cities of Southeast Asia, wherever there are significant Chinese populations. Walking down these streets is like walking down the streets of Old Penang, Malacca, Singapore, Surabaya…
There are two parts to this meandering afternoon spent in the Old Town. The first takes in the former Amoy Bund, and the second, the streets of the Old Town proper.
Part I – The Amoy Bund
Like its sister city Shanghai, Amoy too had a Bund – a grand waterfront precinct erected by the British and other imperial powers, and housing some of the most important banks and trading houses in the world in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Much of the Bund in Amoy was erected between 1870, just after Amoy became a treaty port; and in the early 1900s, just before World War I. Later on in the 1920s and ’30s, returning Overseas Chinese from Taiwan and the Nanyang region (Southeast Asia) would enter the scene, building their own commercial buildings, in their own unique style blending East and West, wherever there was a spot in the existing European bund.
Today, a continuous section of the Bund remains only to the far left of the stretch. From the Gulangyu Ferry terminal, across the major thoroughfare that fronts the Bund, one can just about get a glimpse of how imposing and elegant the sweep of colonial edifices would have looked like in the old days. Today, the buildings stand somewhat lost in amidst the towering new city that is emerging just around the corner.
Part II – The Old Town
Just behind the imposing facade of the Bund sits the Old Town, the commercial heart of the former treaty port and today’s city; a labyrinthine maze of winding streets flanked by crumbling shophouses and colonial-era mansions.
The central spine of the Old Town is the very recently refurbished Zhongshan Pedestrian Road, which runs just off the Lujiang Hotel, and extends deep into the town. This section of the old town is off limits to cars, and is exceedingly touristy, notwithstanding the many pretty instances of commercial and shophouse architecture that still exists on the street.
The crumbling, REAL bits of the Old Town, where REAL people live and conduct their REAL day-to-day business – Chinese medicine parlours, hardware stores, Chinese dried foodstuff, street food stalls, etc – occurs just to the left of Zhongshan Road, and is roughly bounded by Zhongshan Road 中山路 to the South, Siming North Road 思明北路 to the East, Xiahe Road 廈禾路 to the North and Lujiang Road 鷺江道 (the main thoroughfare along the waterfront) to the West.
This part of the walking tour first takes the Grand Tourist down Zhongshan Pedestrian Road, where one braves the hordes of domestic tourists taking in the sights. We then slip off to the side, into the Old City and explore its many winding streets.
The predominant architectural form here is the Traditional Chinese Shophouse, though other kinds of buildings – art deco cinemas, ornate shopping malls and baroque mansions, including one amazing specimen with Moghul cupolas – appear, as if by magic, at random street corners.
In Singapore, there is a street called Amoy Street in the old commercial heart of the city. Unsurprisingly, that street looks very much like the many streets here, in its namesake city.