A Chinese grace note Piano music drifts on night air, keeping alive tiny island's past

September 19, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

GULANGYU, China -- This small island takes its name from the drum-like sounds once sent up from the rush of the sea through a hollowed-out rock along its southeast shoreline. But these days Gulangyu is better known for the sound of piano music.

By day the hilly outcropping, a half-mile offshore in the harbor of ,, the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen, is a busy place catering to thousands of Chinese tourists. The narrow streets of its business district -- lanes only wide enough for an elderly woman carrying two buckets of pineapples on a pole across her shoulders to pass -- are lined with open-air shops brimming with curios and beach paraphernalia. Dozens of seafood restaurants offer whatever is flip-flopping around in large plastic basins outside their entrances.

As dusk settles over Gulangyu's two-thirds of a square mile, however, the raucous crowd hops a ferry back to the real-world bustle of Xiamen. The island descends into a deep quiet rarely found in urban China. No cars, or even bicycles, are allowed here. Street lighting doesn't exist. And the dark, 19th-century silence is only broken by the soft tinkling of piano keys.

Perhaps it is the tentative sound of a child practicing keyboard drillsthat wafts through laundry hanging outside the shuttered, second-story windows of a combined shop and house. Or maybe it is the work of a much more accomplished pianist, nurturing a lifelong love affair behind the walls of a crumbling villa. With more than 200 pianos among its 6,300 households -- a far higher ratio than anywhere else in China -- Gulangyu seems to exhale piano music.

The pianos are a legacy of the island's colonial past. The %J Portuguese, in the early part of the 16th century, were the first foreign traders to sail into Xiamen, about 300 miles north of Hong Kong overlooking the Taiwan Strait. They were quickly followed by Spaniards, Dutchmen and the British, who turned Xiamen into a full-fledged foreign enclave after their victorious Opium War against China from 1839 to 1842. By the turn of this century, Gulangyu was an international settlement with consulates from 12 nations ruled by a foreign-dominated council.

The foreigners and wealthy overseas Chinese erected denseclusters of luxurious villas, built in a potpourri of architectural styles from Roman and Gothic to German and Spanish. And of course they built churches, which invariably were furnished with pianos.

Gulangyu periodically fell on hard times during this century in line with China's tumultuous modern history. Relatively lavish lodging and certain musical diversions were not possible during the Japanese occupation of World War II or during the Communist terror of the "Great Cultural Revolution" in the 1960s and 1970s. The island's pianos were destroyed, sold off or hidden away. Its stylish homes were appropriated and carved up into one-room apartments for the masses.

But China's economic and political reforms of the 1980s brought a move to return Gulangyu's homes to their rightful owners, even if longtime occupants had to be resettled. The island's musical tradition returned as well. The first private recital in almost two decades was held in 1984, and since then local authorities have promoted the notion of an island of pianos -- an effort evident in the grand-piano shapes of both Gulangyu's ferry terminal and its new concert hall.

The 801-seat, 4-year-old hall serves as a movie theater all but 20 nights a year. But on those nights, it is packed with Chinese piano aficionados who come to revel in the unamplified chords of its excellent Steinway grand. Displays outside the curvilinear structure underscore what is taken for granted here -- the heart of Gulangyu's music tradition is Western and classical, not Chinese. Pictures of China's modern composers are overwhelmed by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven.

Beethoven's sonatas are what 17-year-old Liao Ning finds mostmeaningful. In the living room of his family's home at 64 Zhangzhou Road -- the largest private home in China that I have ever seen -- young Ning's long fingers race flawlessly across the keyboard of the best Chinese piano, a "Pearl River" model made in Canton. On top of the instrument, which by day is draped in a respectful but utilitarian brown cloth, is a picture of Ning sitting at a keyboard shortly after he began his piano studies at age 4.

While Ning moves on to one of Chopin's nocturnes, his grandfather, grandmother, father and I sit in appreciation, quietly sipping bowls of a sweetened, gelatinized white fungus called "bai muer." In all respects, it is a pleasant moment. And despite the many vagaries of Chinese life, it is an experience that the Liao family claims to have more or less maintained for 70 years, four generations since Ning's great-grandfather returned from Indonesia to build their elegant, eight-room home.

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