feature stories

Cultural Xiamen: Literature, Music and Architecture

Xiamen is an island city of around 3 ½ million people, on the southeastern coast of China in Fujian province, right across the water from Taiwan. While it’s always been a local holiday destination with beautiful beaches and mountains, Xiamen’s relaxed island vibes and generally pleasant atmosphere have been drawing younger creative in the past years. This tropical metropolis has recently become a hub for creativity, attracting young fashion designers, photographers, and technologists to set up companies and studios on the island. Artists moving to Xiamen are enthralled by the laid back lifestyle and affordable studio space, as well as the strong cultural scene rooted in literature, music, and architecture.

But first, a little history and context. Originally a seaport grew under the Song dynasty, Xiamen is named after a major fortress built built to keep pirates at bay during the Ming dynasty. From the 16th to 19th century, Xiamen was occupied alternatively by the Southern Ming, the Portuguese, the Qing, the Dutch, and the British, eventually becoming the centre of the tea trade. But by the 20th century, the British sourced tea from their other colonies and trading ports in India, forcing waves of emigration of Fujianese and Hakka from Xiamen to other the world -- a lot of Chinese diaspora families can trace roots back to the area. Later, during WWII, the Japanese occupied Xiamen, before being captured by the Chinese Communists in 1949… And then, in 1980s, Xiamen became one of the four cities marked as “Special Economic Zones,” opening up to international trade.

Xiamen maintains strong ties to traditional craft traditions, especially in neighboring De Hua, one of China’s notable ceramics centers known for its white porcelain. Xiamen and the neighboring rural areas of Fujian are home to Tulou, exceptional traditional Hakka architecture in the form of round, multi-storey earthen buildings dating back to the 12th century. Though many residents have left these buildings for the neighboring cities like Xiamen, younger architects and urbanists like Lin Lusheng are returning to their hometowns to revive these exceptional buildings. The neighboring (and very touristy) Gulangyu island, which doesn’t allow cars or any other motor vehicles, is known for its preserved heritage colonial architecture and piano museum, as well as the Kulangsu Gallery with historical objects from Beijing’s Palace Museum.