Evanescent: Sunset in Xiamen


厦门 – Xiamen. Wikipedia calls it a “sub-provincial” city.  (What’s subprovincial, anyhow?)

Suburbia spread out over a long harbour, a bit like a mini-mini-mini version of Hong Kong, mainland style, Xiamen is famous for its universities, subtropical climate, and a car-less island in the harbour once renowned for the sweet tinkling of pianos as you walked around.

Like many places in our 21st Century world, an onslaught of tourists have filled the empty spaces in what was, once, a charming island.

Xiamen will soon be home to a meeting of BRICS nations ( Brasil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). BRICS is the new world order, what other countries are doing when the established order isn’t looking – an inter-country banking system which ignores the World Bank and stares unblinkingly at the IMF. BRICS came into being some years back and has already funded massive projects in South-East Asia.

Like many cities across China, Xiamen is becoming increasingly gentrified. Western style restuarants and bars spill out along the sidewalk beside the waterfront. Sipping on a mojito in a bar named Havana, I watched the evanescent sun setting over the bay.

Xiamen is a charming city, mid-way on the road  to reinvention. It’s not really bustling, not quite beach-culture, but it’s off-shore islands full of tropical plants and its by-the-harbour overpasses make it a town worth savouring.

the beach on Gulangyu, Piano Island in Xiamen.


The modern character for “xia” means mansion, and “men” is gate: Xiamen is a Mansion Gate. It’s older name used a homophone, another character xia, 下 meaning lower. Contrasting with 上海 , shanghai or ‘upper sea’,下门 was the lower gate.

Like most famous places in China, there’s a classical poem that sings it’s glory. The poet Cao Cao lived around 100 AD,  in the Three Kingdom period. Cao Cao is more famous as a warlord, whose adventures were novelised in the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. After gaining control of Central and Northern China, Cao Cao was defeated by the remarkable strategist Zhuge Liang  at Red Cliffs. The famous battle has been immortalised in the 2008 film Red Cliffs.

In between fighting land and river battles, Cao Cao must have gone on a trip to Xiamen. Walking from Xiamen and Looking at the Blue Sea is the name of his poem.

gazing at the blue sea, Xiamen

East of Jieshi mountain, I gaze at the blue sea.
The water dances so gently, the mountain island towers.
Trees here grow thick, a hundred grasses are lush.


Since the main ferry to the piano island was rumoured to be swarming with tourists, the taxi driver recommended taking the ferry from another island, Haicang. The taxi sped past a lush of trees, hibiscus plants, and giant banana leaves waving in the breeze. The trees were still thick, surely there were hundreds upon hundreds of lush grasses, and at the dock, I gazed at the blue sea.

on the ferry in Xiamen harbour


The only difference from Cao Cao’s time were the throng of tourists. I decided I’d give piano island a miss, and returned through the mountain island, gazing at the blue sea.