Sunday, April 26, 2009

Item From the Past: Notes on Xiamen (Amoy), China

April 23, 1994

Our first day in Xiamen we visited a late Qing fortress (vintage 1890s) down the coast on a hill, as good fortresses tend to be. The star relic of its martial past is a German-made Krupp cannon, big and outward pointing, to intimidate barbarians. It probably wasn't particularly effective at that job, at least as far as the Qing were concerned. But in our time it makes a fine little park.

Nanputuo Temple, near Xiamen University [pictured below], was open and doing a lot of the business that Chinese temples do, such as purveying joss sticks and places to burn them, and offering to have some calligraphy done. Repairs to the temple were even under way. What would the Red Guard think?

Our favorite part of Xiamen was Gulangyu (yu = island). We went there on Wednesday just before dark, but the island's electricity was off that night, so we didn't stay for dinner, even though some of the seafood restaurants looked intriguing. It wasn't until yesterday that we better appreciated the island's charms, including the fact that no cars or motorcycles are allowed on its narrow streets.

We came over on the ferry at about 3 and took a stroll, discovering Gulangyu to be a treasure trove of Victorian architectural gems -- gems marked by stately decay, covered in soot, and strung with drying laundry. Subtropical greenery added to the effect. Mixed in with the residences were trading company headquarters and schools, sometimes occupying older buildings, but also in newer ones that somehow managed to blend in with the older building stock.

Along a main street we had an excellent four-course dinner for two for about ¥40, or about $5. We were the only ones in the place, so had the full attention of the two waitresses, two teenage girls who giggled sometimes. At other times they would stand off a little ways and watch us eat. Maybe they didn't see too many foreigners in their establishment, but I would think the residents of old Amoy would be blasé about that kind of thing.

Various idlers concentrated themselves around hotels, asking "Money?" or "Change money?" or even "Hello, change money?" I only changed money once outside of the Bank of China, when Yuriko and I were sitting on a bench and reminded me of the FECs that I had -- not much, only about ¥110. I took them out of my wallet to look at them, and a man next to me on the bench, who had previously expressed no interest in us, suddenly offered a 1-to-1 exchange for RMB. I accepted the deal. I don't know what profit he got from it, since FECs were being phased out, but he must have gotten something.

2009 Postscript: RMB, or Renminbi (人民币), "People's Money," is Chinese currency, of which the yuan is the main denomination. From 1979 to early 1994, just before we visited, foreigners in China were supposed to use foreign exchange certificates (FECs) instead of RMB, which the government sold to foreigners at a premium to RMB. But as usual with this kind of thing, I understand that rule wasn't rigidly enforced, especially by the early 1990s. We didn't have to worry about it in any case, and thinking back on it now, I'm not sure how I got the FECs.

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