Gulangyu: The Story of China’s Other International Settlement
From March 24-26, we will explore the historic architecture of Xiamen and Gulangyu Island on Amoy Art Deco Weekend. For more on the itinerary and to book, click here.
“For situation and natural attractions, it is unsurpassed along the coast of China,” wrote Philip Wilson Pitcher in 1909 of Gulangyu, then known as Kulangsu. A tiny gem nestled in the embrace of big sister Xiamen island in China’s southern Fujian province, its size– just 2km2 – belies its hoard of historic architectural treasures that date from the days when Gulangyu was an International Settlement.
Gulangyu came about its 18th and 19th century western architecture in much the same way as the rest of China: as part of Xiamen (“Amoy” in the local Hokkien dialect), the island was one of the five original treaty ports opened up to trade in 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium Wars.
The poetically named “Drum Wave Island”, from the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks, was not, at first, considered an ideal spot to set up housekeeping because of its “dirt and filth”. By the 1860s, with disease and death running rampant in Xiamen, many of the missionaries and merchants moved to Gulangyu island. There, they built all the usual trappings of the foreigners in China: schools, churches, hospitals, consulates, clubs, a recreation ground, hotels, and of course, residences. That initial distaste for Gulangyu is hard to fathom today, wandering the tree-shaded, winding streets, with charming villas and breathtaking sea vistas at every turn.
Gulangyu had submitted a “Scheme for the better management of the Municipal Affairs of the island of Kolongsu” to the authorities in Beijing in 1897, but it was not until the “Japan Scare” of 1900 that capital saw fit to acquiesce. Philip Pitcher, author of In and About Amoy (1909), presciently notes that there was a sense that “Japan had designs upon Amoy, and that, if a good opportunity offered … she would step in and assume control.” The burning of a Japanese Buddhist temple in Amoy was just such an opportunity, leading Japanese marines on both Gulangyu and Amoy. The Japanese were dispatched with the arrival of a British cruiser, and soon thereafter, Beijing came around to the idea than an International Settlement for Gulangyu would be beneficial.
The International Settlement was established in 1903 and governed by the 13 countries of the Gulangyu Municipal Council, and – as in Shanghai and Tianjin — policed by a Sikh police force drawn from Britain’s colonies in India.
Gulangyu’s high elevations, sweeping sea views, and the security of international policing also drew wealthy Chinese. Many native sons had made their fortunes in Southeast Asia — the Philippines, Malaya, Indonesia – and returned home to build magnificent mansions on Gulangyu.
By 1938, Japan’s designs on Amoy (and China) had culminated in the Japanese occupation of Xiamen; Gulangyu remained an International Settlement until its occupation in 1942. Extraterritorial privileges officially ended in 1943 with treaties signed by Chiang kai-shek, but the Japanese occupation, which lasted until 1945, was really the death knell for the International Settlement. The Chinese Civil War that followed ended in October 1949, when the Communist forces won Gulangyu and Xiamen.
That should be the end of the Gulangyu International Settlement story, but – as with Shanghai, and so many other treaty ports — Gulangyu’s architecture lived on, with its own stories hidden beneath the eaves. Those stories were silent for decades, but in recent years, the authorities have become aware of what a treasure they have on their hands. Gulangyu is applying for UNESCO world heritage status, and the old historic churches, schools, and consulates are being turned into museums and art galleries.
But if you want to see Gulangyu – and Xiamen – before it all becomes completely transformed, come with us this March 24-26, on Amoy Art Deco Weekend. We have two of Xiamen’s premier authorities on Gulangyu and old Amoy to lead tours, as well as rare access to buildings. A one of a kind experience!
Friday March 24
When Amoy was a treaty port, the foreigners on Gulangyu Island established an International Settlement (1902-1942), and its legacy is the rich variety of international architectural styles that remain – including Art Deco. We’ll take a walking tour of Gulangyu’s Art Deco with a local expert, hear the stories behind the buildings, enjoy a rare private visit to a spectacular Art Deco mansion built by a Filipino businessman in the 1930s. Whole day visit – lunch, dinner and ferry to Gulangyu island included.
Saturday March 25
Overseas Chinese Village + Baijia Cun
The Overseas Chinese Village is an enclave of Art Deco villas with Chinese design details, built in the 1960s (yes, the 1960s!) for overseas Chinese from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Today, many have been converted into cafes, boutiques and hotels, creating an atmosphere similar to Shanghai’s former French Concession. Baijia Cun, an adjacent neighborhood, also features some beautiful examples of Art Deco architecture – including the stunning former headquarters of the Japanese occupying force! Our walking tour guide today is a local architectural historian, who will take us on a walking tour of this area and share the history of this fascinating area. Whole day tour – lunch, dinner and local transport included.
Sunday March 26 (morning)
Our walking tour today will take us to the shophouses, cinemas, and downtown Deco in the waterfront area of Xiamen. Much is being redeveloped, but the winding lanes and alleyways that lead off the main streets are full of architectural surprises. Morning tour, lunch included.
Afternoon: Tour concludes.
Payment information: click here.
Member Discounts: Members of Historic Shanghai + Asian Art Deco Alliance: please email firstname.lastname@example.org for a discount code.
In and About Amoy, Rev. Philip Wilson Pitcher, Shanghai & Foochow: Methodist Publishing House of China, 1909