Fu Jian 2010
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This is Fuzhou in 2010, four years since our last visit. Still a likable town, still lushly green, still modestly prosperous, quiet, charming, and neat. However, the fanatic growth of Chinese economy has left its mark; and pollutions of all kinds have taken their toll.
The first thing we noticed the minute we stepped out of the plane, is that the air quality has noticeably deteriorated. Even though it was Saturday morning when we arrived, the streets were packed with cars in density that we just can't imagine in American terms. Typically in a two-lane street, five cars are running in parallel, horning at each other, with a dozen of scooters and a couple of bicycles dangerously dodging in between. For numerous times the bicyclists and the scooter warriors seemed to just escape with their dear lives by inches with some clever manoeuvres between cars, but from their smooth ride and composed expression this is clearly something they constantly deal with, day in and day out. Everything is under control. Obviously riding a bicycle nowadays requires a totally different level of competence that was not known in the good old days I remember.
What lies behind the deteriorating air quality and road hazard is of course the monstrous growth of number of automobiles on the road. Just last year (2009), China overtook the US to become the top auto market in the world with 13.64 million units sold (for comparison, the American bought a meager 10.4 millions, the worst in 27 years). I can personally testify that most mid-income families I know of own at least one car. Now this year (2010), total cars sales to October has already exceeded the total number from last year, at 14.67 million, and counting. The total forecast is to be around 17 million this year, a 25% increase from 2009. No wonder it was so difficult for China and US, the two largest carbon emitters in the world, to make any sweet deals with the rest of the world in 2009's Copenhagen UN Climate Summit. Under such neck-breaking rate of growth, who's concerned about a couple degrees of temperature rise?
It's not that I'm not concerned about global warming, but I was quite fascinated by the rise of the Chinese domestic auto industry in recent years. Last time I was here, the street was filled with foreign brands that were built in China by those 50/50 ventures with foreign companies: GM, Volkswagen, Toyota, Mazda, Citron, Fiat etc. Now just four years later, the domestic brands have surged and taken up 44% of the domestic production: BYD, Chery, Geely, Great Wall... the Shanghainese even bought a British brand called Rover and renamed it Roewe, which I think sounds more funny than classy (the 2nd Pic below is a 2009 Roewe 750). The design of these domestic brands, I have to say, has matured over the years. Some can even be called, well, almost, pretty. Sure, there're this and that design cues borrowed from here and there, which make the cars look oddly familiar: am I looking at the new Smart for Four... nope, it's actually a BYD F1. Now that's got to be a Nissan... sorry but it's the Chery A5 borrowing Nissan's grill and headlamps. Yeah it's a bit of copycat, but who doesn't copy in the beginning? Anyone remember the Japanese cars in the sixties and seventies, and the Korean cars in the eighties and nineties?
And I need to add, the Chinese do care about global warming: most domestic auto brands are developing electric or hybrid models; most scooters in Fuzhou nowadays are electric-powered, like the one shown in the last pic above.
Another eye-catching change since our last visit was the rapid expansion of the urban area. Farmlands were swiftly converted into construction fields. Apartment buildings shot up in dazzling rate, and surprisingly, so did the real estate price. Considering the average housing price in the country has tripled from 2005 to 2009, many viewed the housing market as an excellent investment vehicle. The unhealthy demand created tens of millions of empty apartments and inflated house price. I can personally testify that many of the high-rising apartment communities were actually ghostly dark at night, with no signs of human life – these were not habitats for people, but stacks of portfolio for the rich. This had many economists screaming “Bubbles!” But still, the housing market’s been scorching hot for over a decade now, and there’s still no sign of cooling down.
Everything else, however, was still the same. We immersed back into a remote yet familiar life style we used to know. We walked everywhere for errands. We shopped for groceries daily from a noisy, crowded, and dirty bazaar, where the meat arrived fresh daily from the slaughter house and was never refrigerated, where the fishes and shrimps and snails were alive. We negotiated our way for a few cents through every stall. We tasted delicious traditional breakfast from a shabby little booth in open air.
Oh seafood, lots and lots of seafood... In the 4th is a dish of stir fry tube worms, and it was incredibly savory.
We walked back into an old town that had been restored, or torn down and rebuilt rather, for tourism. Yeah, it was slick and all, but instantly lost that taste of antiquity.
Fortunately the a few temples we visited were left mostly unscathed by the epidemic of vulgarity. I was glad that every old brick was left the way it should be.
Quan Zhou. One pleasant surprise during our visit is that the Chinese High Speed Railway has extended across Fu Jian, adding a convenient and swift option for long distant traveling. Our first destination was Quan Zhou, one of the largest sea ports in the world (one thousand year ago, that was).
In 1292, Marco Polo concluded his epic journey to China and set sail for home via Quan Zhou. He was so impressed that he described Quan Zhou as "the world's busiest port," eclipsing more famous seaports such as Alexandria. Indeed, from the 10th to 14th century, Quan Zhou was the most important seaport in the Orient. Many described it as the eastern terminus of the Maritime Silk Road, trading extensively with Eurasian regions such as India, Persia, and the Arab world. A great number of foreign traders and immigrants established large communities in Quan Zhou, making it a international commercial as well as cultural and religion center in the ancient world. Unfortunately, in 1357, the Persian in Quan Zhou started a ten-year revolt that would led to an exodus of foreign communities and eventually the decline of Quan Zhou as a major Sea Port.
Today we can still find trace of Quan Zhou's past glory. For instance, the Qingjing Mosque is the oldest existing Arab-style structure in China. It was built in 1009 (during the Song Dynasty) by wealthy Arabic merchants. With its majestic green granite gate and unique Arab-style mosque arch, the Qingjing mosque stands out among the warm-colored Chinese-style buildings in the old town. In the last pic is a quiet ancient well that is just as old as the moseque itself. It has faithfully served the Muslims for over a thousand years without ever drying up.
The representative of native religions, on the other hand, is symbolized by this enormous statue of the Old Saint (Lao tze), the founder of Taoism. Over 17 feet tall and a thousand years old, the statue is one of the biggest and oldest Taoist stoneworks in China. But with all due respect, I was a bit shocked by the strangely amiable, jocular, and almost comic expression on this giant out-of-proportion face, the lazy posture, and those naughty little right-hand fingers -- the Old Saint looked more like a funny old man living next door, or a character jumping right out of a Dragonball Z comic strip, rather than an awe-inspiring ancient philosopher whose writing has profoundly influenced Oriental as well as Western philosophy. Well, I have no intention of blaming the artist(s) for failing to create a magisterial idol to be worshiped, on the contrary, I think fashioning such a warm, affable images out of a cold piece of granite is a remarkable achievement.
Buddhism can be considered a semi-native religion. Imported from India in 2nd century BC, Buddhism has been slowly blended into Chinese culture and extensively naturalized. It became enormously popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD). Famous Buddhist temples in Quan Zhou such as Kaiyuan Temple (finished 868 AD) and Chengen Temple (finished 958 AD) were all established during this period.
At last, a obligated ritual when visiting a thousand-year-old city, is to stroll around the narrow streets of the old town, peek into these little shops, dark back alleys and ancient courtyards to see how time has left its mark on every stone and shape people's lives. Every old street was neat, clean, and well-kept -- people in Quan Zhou never forget their glorious past and it definitely shows. Today, Quan Zhou is still the economic center of Fu Jian Province, churning out the highest GDP in the province for two decades in a row and counting. Its economy has expanded way beyond maritime trading -- textile, fashion and apparel, footwear, ceramic, and petroleum industry, all first-class in the country. Marco Polo will still be impressed seven hundred years later.
Xia Men. Next stop further south, is Xia Men, another coastal city located on a number of islands in the Taiwan Strait. With warm and agreeable sub-tropical weather, a beautiful sea port, and the absence of industrial pollution, Xia Men is widely considered one of the most livable cities in China.
Although the Xia Men area has been occupied by Chinese before the 3rd century A.D., the town of Xia Men was not officially established until late 14th century (Ming Dynasty). After the Manchurian Qing Dynasty invaded the south and overthrown the Ming Dynasty in 1644, the military leader and Ming loyalist Koxinga set up a military base in Xia Men to resist the Manchurian invasion, and remained there for ten years (1650 - 1660), before he finally retreated to the island of Taiwan. During the First Opium War, Xia Men was captured by the invading British and became one of the open seaports designated by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. The city spent the next century in foreign hands, controlled first by British, then became a concession area for multiple countries. During WWII, the city fell into the hand of the Japanese until they surrendered in 1945. Then in 1949, the island was taken by the Communists during the Chinese Civil War, while the Nationalists was driven to the other side of the Strait, to the Island of Taiwan. Xia Men then became one of the hot spots of the Cold War, because of the Nationalist-occupied Jin Men Island was only about 10 mile from the Communist-occupied Xia Men. The two camps could simply shoot each other with cannons. And they did. From the 50s to the 70s, people in Xia Men have been living in fear of randomly dropping bomb shells as well as political turmoil of communist movements. Finally in 1980, the communist China decided to open up the market and designated Xia Men as one of the original Special Economic Zones. The economy of Xia Men eventually took off, but never quite at the rate everyone anticipated (remember the less populous Quan Zhou has been yielding the highest GDP in Fu Jian), despite the economic privileges it was given and its vicinity to Taiwan. To make matters worse, in 1999, the Yuan Hua Smuggling Scandal, the biggest corruption scandal ever in Chinese history, exploded in Xia Men and shocked the whole nation. The scandal involved some $6.4 billion worth of oil, automobiles and other goods, and has profoundly shaken the economy of Xia Men, which is still not quite fully recovered today. Not an easy life for such a beautiful town in the last two centuries if you ask me.
Gulangyu Island. Forget about the unpleasant history, let's just enjoy the best Xia Men has to offer. Off the southwest shore of the city, less than 1km away, is a small quiet island know as Gulangyu, or "Wind Drum Islet." This 1.77-square kilometer island is connect to the city only by ferry, and is quiet without one single automobile or even one bicycle. Ever since the colonial period, this small island, with its beautiful beaches and peaceful environment, has become the residence of choice for foreign diplomats, missionaries, the wealthy and power elites of Xia Men. Today it's one of the most visited tourist attractions in Fu Jian, and is constantly voted the "most beautiful urban area in China."
If the rough life during foreign occupation left anything worth keeping, it must be a full island of colonial-style architectures . There are churches, consulates, mansions, villas, and some of them are quite impressive.
The most glamorous of them all, is the 5-acre Chinese-style Shuzhuang Garden, built by a wealthy Taiwanese businessman Lin Weiyuan in 1913. On the hillside of this delicate Chinese Garden is an enormous multicolored sandstone rockery named the "Twelve Grotto," each represents an animal in Chinese Zodiac. But to us it's just a huge bewildering rocky maze one can easily get lost in. While still mesmerized by the lush fine gardening, we walked through a door, and suddenly met by a meandering bridge leading to the vast ocean! Although we knew all along this is an island, the sharp contrast space and view still caught us by surprise. The designer, whoever that was, must be one heck of a illusionist.
The apex of the island, is the Sunlight Rock. There are steep stairs leading to the top of this enormous piece of boulder, from where we had an panoramic view of the entire island.
The island is a favourite gathering place for artists.You can spot them everywhere. A Piano Museum on the island, the only one in China and reportedly the largest in Asia, has an impressive collection of over 100 antique piano.
On the southeast end of the island stands a 15.7-m tall granite statue of Koxinga, facing the harbour of Xia Men. From 1650 to 1660, this island was the last stronghold of Ming resistance to the Manchurian invasion. Koxinga, the last Ming hero standing, trained his navy right here from the Sunlight Rock. But the more important reason he is immortalized in such a grand scale is that he recovered the island of Taiwan from the Dutch in 1662, a glorious victory over the foreign "imperial powers." If you know Chinese history, such victory was rare in the last couple of centuries. Honestly, to Koxinga, the landing on Taiwan was probably nothing more than a strategic retreat, a struggle for survival -- the Manchurian were right at his throat in the mainland. But in a later age, when a great but weakened nation has been repeatedly humiliated by foreign powers, when China was divided by a narrow Taiwan Strait, the recapture of Taiwan from foreigner took on a whole new significance. So, Koxinga, now a patriot and national hero, shall be commemorated stately.
Xia Men University, a prestigious school and the best college in Fu Jian, is next door to the South Pu Tuo Temple, a prestigious Zen Buddhist temple and the most famous temple in Xia Men. An interesting combination.
Food... Xia Men cuisine is quite similar to Taiwan's. Both are known for their small treats, readily found in these shabby little eateries and street booths everywhere. And there're a good many varieties of tropical fruits and seafood... The best dish was a bowl of curry crab (last pic), unspeakably delightful when accompanied with a bottle of ice-cold Tsing Tao beer.
Random sceneries from the streets and the Xia Men Harbour.
Lastly, the wildlife shots during this trip. A Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis, 1st 2 pix); a Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus, 3rd pic); a Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea, 4th pic), and a Black-Crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax, last pic).
A pair of Gray Heron (ardea cinerea, 1st pic); a Chinese Pond-Heron (Ardeola bacchus, 2nd pic), a Brown shrike (Lanius cristatus, 3rd pic), a Crested Myna (Acridotheres cristatellus, 4th pic), and a Magpie (last pic)
These are birds that I was not able to identify.
In the first 2 pix is a young mole, possibly a Mogera Insularis (Insular Mole). Don't know why the little guy showed up in open air under bright daylight.
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