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One of my best Beijing expatriate friends once told me that Xiamen reminded him a lot of New Orleans, citing its architecture, incredible seafood, mild climate, and an overall laid-back atmosphere. Hearing this made me naturally keen to visit the city and see for myself if this was the case.
Exploring the waterfront area around the Heping Wharf Ferry Terminal to the Gulangyu on Southwest Xiamen Island did indeed make me feel as if I was in New Orleans. Xiamen locals describe this area as Xiamen’s “historic core” and it is easy to see why. Most of the buildings extending back from the waterfront clearly date back to the mid- to late-19th century, when Xiamen was a European enclave. Their stone construction, slatted wooden window shades, and protruding corners and wall sections give them a Mediterranean look. They are jammed together, with narrow lanes running between the wedged in blocks of buildings.
Although most of them are a bit run-down, the structures retain a shabby elegance, much like their counterparts in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The buildings and waterfront palm trees give Xiamen relaxed and soft Mediterranean ambiance, which sets it apart from the other Chinese European look-alike city, Qingdao, whose late 19th century German-style villas and churches have a stern Teutonic feel.
I could also see that the structures now house ordinary Chinese people. When it comes to shopping, these folks clearly pass on the upscale specialty shops and large department stores on Zhongshan Road. They instead flock to the outdoor markets in the narrow alleys running between their homes; the fresh seafood is indeed incredible, and the fish, squid and other marine bounty make this place a shrine to the local sea deity, Mazu. Seeing the fish being scaled by hand, vendors hawking their seafood, meat, produce and other wares and all the people jostling about and haggling before making purchases made me think that this area, which is also home to Xiamen’s night markets, has a vigor matched by very few other places in China.
But this part of Xiamen is clearly changing. In addition to covering the area north of the Siming Road, a few high rise apartment buildings and office towers now stand among the older structures just behind the waterfront. I suspect that the older buildings will either be spruced up, becoming gentrified housing for wealthier Chinese, much like the courtyard houses around Houhai in Beijing, or they will be torn down entirely to make way for more modern high-rises. Thinking about Beijing’s disappearing hutong neighborhoods and the now largely demolished old quarters of Chengdu and Kunming made me anxious about Xiamen’s architectural future.
However, for now the mix of new skyscrapers and older Mediterranean architecture makes for a nice contrast, juxtaposing China’s 19th century past with its recent economic revival. Some of the high-rises are the headquarters of major Chinese domestic and overseas banks, marking the emergence of Xiamen as a major regional Asian financial center. I instantly recognized the neighborhood around the Wave Arthouse and Atu on the Zhenbang Road in this part of Xiamen. As an avid film buff and follower of new Chinese cinema, I recalled vivid memories of Ning Hao’s 2008 madcap comedy, Crazy Racer, which was shot in this part of Xiamen and made it part of China’s emerging art film culture.