Shapeshifting Politics on the Island of Pianos5 min read

Rui Zhong visits the setting of the novel Bury What We Cannot Take


On a mild winter’s day in 2014, a friend and I took a ferry to Gulangyu, also known as Drum Wave Islet. This tiny island off the coast of the Fujianese city of Xiamen is named after the drumming sound of waves that lap against its shorelines. Towering over the cliffs is a giant stone statue of Koxinga, a 17th century half-Chinese, half-Japanese pirate that once sailed its waters, whose claim to historical fame was successfully fending off a colonial Dutch militia. We sampled satay-flavored noodles, toured European-style villas retrofitted into coffee houses, and browsed the vintage pianos and organs at the Gulangyu Piano Museum. Based on how it’s advertised on Chinese tours, Gulangyu approximates somewhere foreign that requires no additional passports or visas from the mostly-Chinese groups of tourists packed into the ferries lolling to and from the islet each day. While nationalistic interests increasingly characterize China’s maritime cities and its construction projects in the South China Sea, the shaping of Gulangyu’s peripheral identity is a story with deeper historical roots.

Kirstin Chen’s novel Bury What We Cannot Take takes the reader and the island back six decades, to a time when Gulangyu was enveloped by anti-rightist campaigns and cultural crackdowns. The book’s central conflict begins in the summer of 1957 when the matriarch of the old-money Ong family, Bee Kim, smashes a portrait of Mao Zedong. She is reported to local cadres by patriotic Ah Liam, her eldest grandson. Recognizing that their strained but comfortable life is now behind them, the Ongs are forced to relocate to colonial Hong Kong – nine-year-old San San, the youngest member of the Ong family, is left behind on the islet due to a visa shortage.

China’s antipathy towards foreign influence is rooted early on in its history as the People’s Republic of China, and this trepidation is especially true of a place like Gulangyu. In 1902, in the midst of what was later termed the “century of humiliation,” Western nations and Japan established the International Settlement that turned Gulangyu into a neutral zone and greenlit the construction of consulates.

A Gulangyu mansion. (Rui Zhong)

Chen’s central characters reside in a Western-style complex named “Diamond Villa,” one of many island houses boasting sunny colors and architectural styles absent from the port of Xiamen, which is just under four miles away and is today packed with identical square skyscrapers and apartments. Staffed by a cook and a house girl, Diamond Villa is a visual premonition of the suffering the Ongs will face throughout the course of story, embodying the division of practices of culture and consumption into acceptable and unacceptable.

Gulangyu’s historical ties to Western culture, and its relative isolation, are readily weaponized against the Ongs, who become trapped and targeted as cultural outsiders, San San especially. Even in 1957, before the proper start of the Cultural Revolution, it is readily apparent that any trappings of Western culture would trigger the suspicions of Party cadres and their protégés. Consumption of the correct items becomes a clear distinction between acceptance and ostracization. Canvas Red Star shoes and mooncakes are in, Western shoes and eclairs are out. San San’s piano-practicing and appetite for French pastries foreshadow the moment when she is singled out to write and recite a self-criticism.

An English tea shop on the island. (Caroline Tremblay)

The islet of today, like the rest of China, has morphed its standards of cultural consumption to fit the notion of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” Signs in both English and Chinese for English tea shops and a “European-Style bakery” were scattered throughout the car-free island when I walked through its lushly vegetated hills.

America’s cultural contribution was even more blatant, with McDonald’s golden arches plastered obnoxiously over a villa balcony on a prominent walkway. The state-run People’s Daily describes Gulangyu as a place that “bears witness to the early period of Asia’s globalization, where commerce and cultures flowed together, collided and mixed.” Mild words for a newspaper that would have called for the villas to be razed to the ground in the time the Ongs lived there. But there are ferry tickets and lattes to sell now, and the unique characteristics of a place are a siren’s call to foodies and travel-bug bitten Chinese from the mainland.

McDonald’s villa. (Rui Zhong)

During my walk through the islet’s piano museum, I was startled by the sterility of the supposed shrine to music. Once or twice a day someone would sit at one of the pianos and play, though most of the music was piped in through sound systems installed inside the museum. Once filling the island’s houses, hotels and consulates with Western classical music, the instruments now stand in a row in a climate-controlled room to protect them from the humidity.

In a 1997 interview, Yin Chengdian, a music teacher who lived through the Cultural Revolution on Gulangyu, described how Western music was linked to capitalism and how people became too afraid to play as their sheet music was taken and their instruments smashed. Flourishing under the hands of Gulangyu musicians, surviving near-certain destruction at the hands of Red Guards, and finally resting in a curated space, these pianos have witnessed the island transform around them again and again.

What has remained consistent, from the period which Chen’s novel is set through to the present day, is that the Party defines its history and its position on Western culture and values. The Chinese state’s reverence towards its leaders’ images, and what it can do to people that deface them, is unlikely to change any time soon, regardless of what form Gulangyu takes next. ∎


Kirstin Chen, Bury What We Cannot Take (Little A, March 2018). Photos by Rui Zhong and Caroline Tremblay and used with their permission.