As a first generation Canadian immigrant from the pre-1997 grand Hong Kong exodus, neither I nor my parents ever envisioned me returning to China. Yet I have always felt an irresistible draw to my homeland. Having led a rather nomadic or as some have called it, “cosmopolitan” lifestyle, I still continue to struggle with the question of home and identity.
Rewind a few months and you will find me at a crossroads in my life, not knowing where to go next and what I want to do, but I thought to myself, you might never be here again. And so I packed up as much as I could carry and got on a plane to China. I decided to visit Fujian province, my heung ha, where my grandfather was born. It seemed like a good place to start my journey of self-discovery.
As soon as I landed in Xiamen, it felt much easier to breathe. I had left behind the humid and polluted air of Guangzhou and exchanged it for a crisp and slightly salty breeze. Palm trees lined every avenue. I was almost convinced I had accidentally got on the plane to Hawaii. First stop: lunch at Huangzehe Restaurant (20 Zhong Shan Lu). It was a delicious and filling meal for under twenty kwai. I tried their famous peanut soup with some skepticism, as it looked like concoction of boiled peanuts floating in milky water, but after one sip I was hooked. The restaurant is right in the middle downtown Xiamen, perfect for an afternoon stroll.
I felt right at home here as Xiamen is a university town, with plenty of foreign students. The campus is lovely – it’s one of the three most scenic campuses in China. Green spaces galore, just like college quads of yore. You can hear the giggling of young couples in love whilst strolling around the pond under hanging willow trees…like something out of a picture book.
Near the university, the Brown Sugar Café is perfect for a rainy day (2/F 82 Cen Tou Road, Jimei District, tel: + 86 (0)592 622 0738). I fell in love with this place the instant we arrived. I felt a wave of nostalgia for those carefree college afternoons where we would bring our books to study and instead sit for hours just talking and laughing. The back wall was lined with CDs of all genres and a plethora of books and magazines filled every available space. Underneath on old globe, was a stack of board games to choose from. I spent that that afternoon (and quite a few more) munching on their fluffy hot bread rolls and slurping up their cheesy, orgasm-inducing spaghetti bolognaise. And their lassis are to die for.
I waited for a sunny day to hit up Gulangyu, a beautiful colonial island that is the place to visit in Xiamen. It certainly did live up to expectation. The winding streets promised hidden gardens behind dusky pink walls. The buildings formed a mesmerizing collage of pastel colors. There were shops with all manners of dried out sea creatures and other trinkets. Since almost everyone I passed was drinking out of a coconut, I decided to give it a go. It was a bit sour and diluted, waste of a few kwai. I wandered out of the main area and decided to walk all the way around the island. After walking for about thirty minutes in the unrelenting heat, I discovered stretches of beach lined with shaded plastic tables, where I could take our tea with ice cream.
Exhausted from all the walking, the next day I decided to soak my weary bones at Riyuegu hot springs resort about forty minutes away. They have free shuttle busses running from various convenient locations in town. The busses only operate on request and only in the afternoon on week days, so it’s a must to call ahead. It is a huge veritable theme park of baths with different kinds of flowers, tea, and alcohol to name a few. They’re all fairly similar and not very well maintained. You can get all sorts of spa services but prices along the steep side for China. The bath side restaurant offers some unique delicacies, most notably their hot spring egg, which tasted like a normal hard boiled egg with a slight sulphuric tang.
Nanputuo Temple complex is also, quite rightly, on Xiamen’s must see list. In the courtyard you are greeted by a gigantic lotus pond with a majestic looking path leading up to the entrance. There’s a quiet and meditative air about the place, despite the clamor of pushy tourists. If you wander through a nondescript archway you might just catch a glimpse of a monk suspended in stillness. The locals come here to chat and play cards. The Fukinese are a friendly lot, and they took me for one of their own but their local dialect is impossible for me to understand. They pointed to my high nose, the mark of a true Fukinese but all I could do was smile and sadly shake my head. Sitting in that vibrant temple enclave, watching the sky shake out sheets of rain over Xiamen city, I wondered if my grandfather had come here as a child. Before we left, I held up three sticks of incense and bowed three times, praying that my ancestors would guide me on my journey.
The days passed rapidly and before I knew it, my last day in Xiamen had arrived. From the balcony I could see the sun glinting over the bay and the early morning bustle of the boat people hard at work. It was a perfect day to visit Haiwan Bay Park for one last seaside stroll. The boardwalk continues for miles in both directions, passing beaches, and winding around the coastline. I savored the sweet taste of salt in the air and the sand rushing between my toes, with every step knowing that the journey is not yet over.
*Published in That’s PRD, Guangzhou 2008*