Kulangsu Island: a tropical beach paradise beating to the waves of its own drummer

Kulangsu is an island about 600 meters from southwestern coast of Xiamen, Fujian. Slightly long and narrow, the 1.88-square-kilometer Kulangsu Island looks like a sailing ship anchored in the bay. There are seven granite hills as well as numerous ravines and springs scattered on the island. An alternating distribution of white beaches and oddly shaped rocks around the island adds to the beauty of the place. With a pleasant climate, thousands of plants and widespread green trees, Kulangsu is a picturesque and livable island in the Xiamen Bay.

The name of Ku-lang-su is formed of 3 characters: Ku refers to drumbeat; Lang refers to the tide; Su means island. Legend says that while the tides hits a huge rock on the southwest coast and the water goes through its hole, it generates a sonorous sound like beating several drums. Thus the rock got its name as “Drum wave stone”, then this little island was named after the rock, called “Kulangsu” (transliterated as “Kulangsu” at that time).

From the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, the unique history and dynamic cultural landscape of Kulangsu, an international community jointly administered by Chinese and foreigners, highlighted a world integration of multi cultures, a comprehensive practice of the emerging modern life style as well as a full blossom of the adventurous, open and inclusive migrant culture of southern Fujian, and brought a unique and prominent achievement in the communicative process of human civilization.

The formation of Kulangsu was based upon the scattered traditional settlements constructed by the early residents of southern Fujian. Then its development afterwards can be divided into 2 main stages by the Land Regulations for the Settlement of Kulangsu, Amoy, which was reached in 1902 and signed effective by the Chinese emperor in 1903. The first stage featured by the foreign culture dissemination and then the second stage featured by the fusion of multi-cultures.

The first stage started from the mid-19th century. Since Xiamen was opened as a commercial port, Kulangsu, as an ideal place of residence for the foreigners working in concessions areas, became immediately the frontier of international culture introduction as well as a meeting place of various national forces. Foreign missionaries, consular and diplomatic officers, together with businessmen successively came to live on the island and introduced western architecture, modern community amenities including schools, hospitals, clubs, and infrastructures like roads and cemeteries. Additionally, Kulangsu functioned as a base for modern western culture, technology, and life style to be disseminated to southern Fujian and even inland China.

There are three different views about how “Kulangsu” was named. Some people believe that the name originated from the hearing. It is said that in the past there was a rock with a hole in it on the southwestern coast of the island, and every time the rock was lashed by waves, it would make a sound like drumming. Therefore, the rock was named “Kulang Stone” and the island was called “Kulangsu”. However, some other people believe that the name originated from the vision.

It is also said that if looking down from a high place, one could see waves, like beating drums, surged towards the shoreside rocks. Another view is that the name originated from geomancy. According to the geomantic omen, the five hills on the Kulangsu Island sprawling from the northwest to the southeast were considered to be the gathering of five dragons, therefore also called “Five Dragon Island”, and in Amoy, “Five Dragon” is similar to “Kulang”, which finally developed to be “Kulangsu”.

Southern Fujian, where Kulangsu is located, has seen the formation of southern Fujian culture, the unique regional sub-culture, during the long historical development. Southern Fujian culture inherits the farming culture of the Han people in Central Plains, and integrates maritime commerce culture during trade and population exchanges with overseas areas. After the mid-19th century, a large number of residents in southern Fujian moved overseas and formed the migrant society in local places. Decades later, they took part in construction of southern Fujian as overseas Chinese or returned overseas Chinese, injecting vigor to local economy, making southern Fujian more influenced by internationalization and developing the regional subculture, characterized by mercantilism, pragmaticism, aggressiveness, openness, innovation, flexibility and inclusiveness.

Cultures started to collide and exchange in Kulangsu, then blended and matured through long historic process. The second stage was from 1903, when the Land Regulations for the Settlement of Kulangsu, Amoy took effect and a large number of overseas Chinese returning from Southeast Asia began to join in the political and economic construction of Kulangsu, to 1941 when the Pacific War broke out and forced residents to leave amid social turmoil. Thanks to its unique geographic location, loose political atmosphere, multicultural environment and good quality of life, Kulangsu became a safe island rare on China’s southeast coast at its time and thus attracted a great number of foreigners, overseas Chinese and local Chinese to settle down.

In particular, the increasing number of returned overseas Chinese gradually became the leading force facilitating the construction of houses and public amenities and the development of industry and commerce on Kulangsu, and created new architectural and decorative styles with local features including Amoy Deco. In this period, supported by the sound community environment and modern education, Kulangsu nurtured a great many Chinese and foreign elites whose achievements in linguistics, literature and education influenced the popularization of education and the spread of Christianity in Southeast Asia and southern Fujian.

Developed to this point, under the combined influence of multicultural powers, Kulangsu established a series of modern spaces and facilities for culture and education, medical treatment, infrastructure, sports, entertainment, and finance, which further improved the community function and service of Kulangsu and showed the prosperity at the culmination of its development.

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Development of local culture

Kulangsu had been a desolate island named “Yuanshazhou (Round Sandbank)” or “Yuanzhouzi (Round Bank)” covered by lush grass. It is said that, in late Song Dynasty and early Yuan dynasty, some fishermen, whose family name was Li, had built their houses and settled on the northwest of the island, giving the name of this place as “Li Cuo Ao”. Since then, the island had experienced a comparatively long development period until 1840, when Opium War broke out. A rich traditional local culture was accreted on the island, with the culture of southern Fujian as its major element. At the same time, thanks to its close geographical proximity to the sea and the characteristics as an islet in the sea, Kulangsu was closely tied with foreign countries, especially Southeast Asian regions and Japan through maritime trade at the early stage.

The historical documents Fangyu Jiyao made records of the early development of the Kulangsu Island, “there were dwellings in Kulangsu and adjacent islets formerly. Inhabitants there moved to the mainland in the 20th year of the Hongwu period (1387), and after the Chenghua period (1465 to 1487), residents came back here.”

From the Jingtai period to the Tianqi period (1450 to 1627) of the Ming dynasty, Zhangzhou Yuegang Portat the estuary of Jiulong River was very prosperous with direct trade contacts with 47 countries and regions in Southeast Asia and Indochina Penisula (North Korea, Ryuku and Japan),and countries in Europe and America through Luzon (the current Philippines). The rising and prosperity of Yuegang promoted the connection of Kulangsu on the only way to the sea from Yuegang with foreign countries. In early 16th century when European colonists began to enter mainland of Southeast Asia and adjacent island countries, Xiamen gradually replaced Yuegang to be the sea trade gateway in southern Fujian. In the 11th year of Zhengde period of the Ming dynasty (1516), Portuguese privately traded with local vendors in Wuyu outside Xiamen Port, marking the beginning of maritime trade between western countries and Xiamen. Until the 17th century, islands of Xiamen and Kulangsu were specifically marked on nautical chart by westerners.

In 1878, an Englishman, Herbert Allen Giles, said in the book “A Short History of Koolangsu” that there was foreigners’ cemetery with old tombstones at northeastern seaside of Kulangsu, some of which were hard to read as the handwriting was faded due to the age and weathering. The tombstones for European sea traders during the 18th century in Tianwei bear testimony to cultural exchange between the western countries and the southeast coastal area of China. In this way, Kulangsu Island, which was in the vortex of Sino-foreign maritime exchange for ages, was open to overseas exchange and foreign cultures on top of local traditional culture.

In late Ming and early Qing dynasties, it was said that Zheng Chenggong once garrisoned in Kulangsu Island before Taiwan’s recapture, built Longtou Hill Village and practiced naval forces, leaving many historical sites and relevant legends on the Kulangsu Island, such as Gate of Longtou Hill Village and Koxinga’s Well. Many famous descendants made cliff inscriptions as eulogy, adding strong national emotional color to the islet.

In the 23rd year under the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1684), the Qing government set up the Fujian Customs in Xiamen and its branch in Qingdan on Kulangsu Island, which were governed by front camp. Aojia was dispatched to manage merchant ships, fishing boats and ferries. The seclusion of Qing dynasty and policies with restrictions on maritime trade dealers and foreign trade had negative impact on the development of coastal regions. Under the reign of Emperor Qianlong, there was a small population on Kulangsu Island. Until the early 19th century, three main traditional settlements were formed at Neicuo’ao, Lu’erjiao and Yanzaijiao.

Although the Neicuo’ao Settlement was burnt down in mid-19th century, Huang’s family moved to today’s Kangtai Road, Jishan Road and Neicuo’ao Road, bringing vitality to the settlement. Lu’erjiao Region underwent the construction and renovation by westerners in second half of the 19th century and Chinese and overseas Chinese in the early 20th century, so it is hard to find relics of native residential houses. Yanzaijiao dwellings provided us the opportunity to have a glimpse of the buildings in the middle and late period of the Qing dynasty (19th century) kept in the northeast area at the foot of Sunlight Rock, the traditional southern Fujian red brick house yards and ritual buildings ( Four-Courtyard Mansion, Da Fu Mansion and Huang’s Ancestral Hall) are still well-preserved till now. These dwelling remains show the ethics affected by scholar-official culture of Confucian scholars and lifestyle of part-time learning in the ancient Chinese society, as well as profound connotation of early southern Fujian traditional culture of Kulangsu. According to the cliff inscription about the Sanhe Palace’s Reconstruction, Zhongde Taoist Temple, Sunlight Rock Temple and other early cultural relics in different regions of the island, these religious relics, Buddhist temples and Taoist temples dated from the Ming dynasty (15th century) reflect the living conditions of islanders at that time from the other side.

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