Gulangyu Island is a small island off the coast of Xiamen, Fujian Province, Southeast China. Only 1.88km2 in area, the island has blossoming flowers in all seasons, architecture of various styles, a meandering coastline, and lanes from which music emerges at all times. It has breath-taking sceneries, fresh air, mild climate, and green trees. Soft breezes, sea waves and drum-beats give the people of Gulangyu Island tender, romantic, and imaginative characteristics, and the island a rich music culture.
In the middle part of the last century, there were over 500 pianos on this island, and in almost every household someone played the piano. At that time, it was very common for people to play the piano and sing songs with their family members, for a “family concert.” World-famous musicians also loved giving performances on this island.
Paul Hutchinson, an American who visited the Island in the 1920s, was fascinated by this “garden on the sea.” He once said, “This is an astonishing island, because there are so many different styles of architectures on such a small island, which is also the hometown of so many talented and influential people. We can definitely say that Gulangyu Island is a pioneer of its time, in various fields, including arts, education, medicine, and architecture.”
Now, known as the “World Architecture Museum,” Gulangyu Island has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Once more, the “Piano Island” has caught the world’s attention.
Visitors can reach the island only by ferry from the terminal in Xiamen. The shape of the Ferry Terminal at Gulangyu Island resembles that of an open piano. Stepping out of the Terminal, and following the stream of people to the narrow stone-paved road, one will find musical notes and staves carved in certain patterns on the flagstones. These notes follow the winding roads to the front square of Gulangyu Concert Hall. Local people say that the musical stave and notes on the flagstone road, is the musical score of The Waves of Gulangyu. The island is indeed “The Island of Music” and “The Town of Pianos.”
As night falls, tourists fill the narrow streets, with prosperous businesses on both sides. Neon lights draw the outlines of the streets, the sandy beach, and bars. Electronic music, the smell of barbecue and coffee float in the air. You can hear ‘The Symphony No.5’ by Beethoven being played at street corners, the sound of piano and violin coming out of the windows, and the passionate music of street artists. An atmosphere like this makes you feel like the island is a musical world.
A beautiful natural environment has been gifted to Gulangyu Island; formerly named “yuanshazhou” (literal meaning “a round island” in Chinese). There are two neighboring rocks at the southwest coast of the island. Sea water has long been eroding the rocks, making a vertical hole inside them. When the tide rises, waves knock onto the rocks and create sounds that resemble drum beats. Hence, the name “Gulangyu Rock” (“gulang” means “drum-beating waves” in Chinese) and “Gulangyu Island.”
In ancient times, ethnic music, local music (mainly southern Chinese music) and operas were widely spread on the island. In the mid-19th century, after Xiamen became one of the five foreign trade ports of China, various ethnic customs, cultures, arts, and music forms interacted and integrated with the local customs and music of Gulangyu Island. Modern and contemporary music, therefore, developed quickly on the island.
From the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, the economy of Gulangyu Island grew rapidly. All the people of the island learn to love music when they are very young. They learnt and knew how to enjoy music, so more than 100 musical families appeared on the island, during that time. Running modern music schools was once extremely popular, and the first piano kindergarten of China (now Riguang Nursery School) was started here. A cultural environment like this did nothing but stimulate the integration and promotion of traditional local music and western music.
Listening to music on Gulangyu Island is incredibly enjoyable. The mountains, waters, flowers, and birds on the island only compose part of its beauty. What makes people fall hopelessly in love with it is the musical atmosphere of even the smallest lanes. This is where people feel nostalgic; this is where people become romantic.
Translated by Zhu Siyu
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