Gulangyu Island – First Encounters

March 2nd, 2012

Had a VERY busy day yesterday and was lucky to have met some lovely people – the star of which was Liping Cai, an 80-year-old lady, who plays in the local church – she can play EVERY hymn in the book and has had the most incredible life and has never stopped learning new things – new music, foreign languages etc., whatever it is: the eternal student. AMAZING.

As you can see from the film, she welcomed us into her home and played for us and talked about her wonderful life. Hopefully this will be one of the places that we can organise an intimate gathering of friends and family towards the end of the month.
It seems that, there are not that many pianos on the island anymore (perhaps around as many as sixty are thought to remain – including two of the first (and only) Steinway pianos ever imported onto the island). The term, ‘Piano Island’ itself, is, sadly approaching its sell by date  – people have moved away due to rampant and destructive tourism. It was sickening to see huge crowds pouring through the streets of this once lovely and peaceful island (it isn’t helped by the fact that it costs a mere 80p for the 500m return ferry ride from Xiamen). It’s not difficult to see how their way of life has become completely eroded by tourist bombardment. Despite Gulangyu applying for UNESCO World Heritage status and the likelihood of it being included on the National Reserve List of China, no one seems to have stepped in and put some sort of control on the amount of people that can visit the place.
There is an abundance of STUNNING colonial architecture, buildings from 1935 that look like forgotten mansions or palaces – an increasing number of which, instead of being restored with care and love, are being totally razed to the ground and replaced by modern, old-looking equivalents that are more often than not, becoming hotels.




I also met one of Gulangyu’s most well-known musician residents (and its biggest fan), Huang Bo. Huang lives in one of the original colonial mansion-style houses and has invited us around to his place tomorrow for a small gig he’s hosting. He has an old but bright-sounding American upright piano from Richmond, Indiana – hopefully he might also consider hosting another gig nearer the end of the month, too…

Violist, Jing Yang (Vice-Principal Violist in the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra) – who was born on Gulangyu, took us to meet her neighbours, whose music we could already hear as we walked down the tiny streets towards the house. We found them singing and playing slide guitar/guitars/percussion/mandolin – performing traditional Chinese melodies but in a Hawaiian style! They also had a new-ish Pearl River piano, so we shared some music together – the scene reminded me of some of Wim Wenders’s film, Buena Vista Social Club. We then went back to Jing Yang’s family’s place, ate some delicious local food and played some music together (with some dodgy sight-reading accompaniment by me!).

The meeting with Liping Cai and the introduction to Huang Bo was made possible by Zongpin Ni and Yi Bai – who are part of a dedicated group of people that are passionate about preserving Gulangyu’s musical heritage/tradition and way of life – trying in some small way to stem the massive avalanche of tourism that threatens to obscure it.

The ferry ride to Gulangyu was crazy, the ride back was even worse – as you can see, I had Lei Bi filming me battling the volume, news reporter style amongst the sardine-can-like environment (and I’m told that it’s ten times WORSE at weekends). I was appalled not so much by the idea of tourism but the attitude to tourism I experienced which, in this case, seemed thoroughly disrespectful, loud and lacking any kind of respect for the environment.
I don’t know how things like the garish-looking World Celebrity Museum (a waxwork museum), electric tourist buggies (driven around by fucking lunatics) have been allowed to take root when the builders that I saw working there still have to haul everything around by hand cart! Surely it should be the other way around or, make the tourist companies pedal their cattle round the island. Horrific.
Whatever I do now will be underscored by a desire to celebrate and embrace aspects of the islanders’ culture that has been in gradual decline for the last 20 years or so: communal music-making, family concerts, coming events that are spread by word of mouth etc. Many of the islanders have found themselves moving across the water into Xiamen itself to escape the throngs of people on Gulangyu!!!

Finally, back in Xiamen city we met Chunxin Zhen, a lady whose father used to maintain and tune many pianos on Gulangyu in days gone by. She lives in an apartment on one of the main shopping streets in the city centre that was reached by going through a children’s clothing store, through the door at the back of the shop and, with heads ducked – up through tiny passage-like flights of stairs into a room where, partitioned off, was a storage area with a really old and knackered old beast of an upright. REALLY knackered. I’ve been invited back next week to see if I can set a few things right with it and if so, this may also be a site for one of the proposed intimate gatherings. Just one member of many of Gulangyu’s community in exile!!!!
It seems to me that (especially after the mixed emotions of the day’s trip), even though the new is replacing the old in many ways here – it seems the history of this fascinating country lies not with its architecture but with its people: China has circa five-thousand-year history and, unlike much of ours (that which is largely anchored by architecture and aristocracy), theirs seems to be fully alive and in practice, fluid, adapting to the changing times, celebrated through the arts, traditional music and through their customs and practices.

Surreal, wonderful, touching, heartbreaking, heartwarming; and will be going back many more times over the next month or so. Today we’ve been taken to two people in Xiamen city by local pianist (and recent Royal Scottish Academy graduate), Jing Wan – but more about these encounters in the blogs to follow. We’re told by Zongpin Ni and Yi Bai that more will come – word has got around and is hopefully just a matter of time before some of Gulangyu’s most established residents will share their stories, pianos (and living rooms) for a look at a tradition that, at least whilst I’m around, hasn’t yet gone to sleep.