Where is this?”… “You left China already?” Such are the questions from a few friends who received my pictures online. Indeed the pictures I posted seem not to be taken in China. One friend thought I am in Mexico City. Another ventured that I must be in Italy’s Cinque Terre. But no, the colorful houses are truly from within China, though somewhat inspired by, but not pirated copies of, the five fishing villages along Italy’s Riviera coast.
I am staying on an island headland connected to the mainland in the mid 1980s through a breakwater, and later made fully connected through landfill. Prior to that, villagers coming and going from this Xiao Ruo Island needed to cross to the mainland by sampan or on foot through mud during low tide.
Old village houses on this former island, with less than 500 residents, are made from huge rocks from the seaside. They were recently plastered over and painted with rainbow colors. It was organized and paid for by the local government just a few short years ago in order to do a makeover and establish this little coastal village as a tourist attraction, naming it Colorful Island.
The tactic seems to have worked, as this old fishing village has suddenly become hot on the internet, with many of the houses turning into successful home-stay hostels. Some houses with the best views of the ocean are charging from Rmb 500 to even over 1000 per night. In a reverse of fortune, houses lower down the hill used to be more desirable as people won’t need to carry water up the hill. Today, those higher up with commanding view also command higher prices.
My original intent was to check out fishing ports along the eastern seaboard of China. Our tickets purchased online to sail to Da Chen Island were abruptly cancelled due to an approaching typhoon, so I opted to visit Xiao Ruo, a fishing port along the coast of Zhejiang Province. Due to the typhoon as well as being in the middle of a three-month yearly fishing ban, both the oceanic fishing fleet as well as smaller near coast boats were all back and anchored inside the sheltering bay. Nonetheless, we were able to charter a small wooden boat to sail inside the bay and have a closer look at all the various types of boats at anchor.
The houses in Cinque Terra Italy were originally painted in differing colors so that fisherman returning from long periods at sea and longing to get home could quickly identify their house from afar. Here though, the colors mainly are used as an attraction for tourists. Over at Colorful Island, we choose to stay with Chen Sumei, a sixty-some years old owner of a home-stay house. She has operated her four-room outfit for two years. It is located near the top of the hill with a decent view of the bay below. My room comes with a balcony looking out upon all the other colorful houses around me.
Across the bay however are cluster of original rock houses, built with huge boulders, sometimes of large suitcase sizes. A few of these walls can still be seen in alleys on the island side. These were the traditional architecture before the government stepped in to plaster the walls and add color to houses on the island hill, making it somewhat foreign looking and catering to a new wave of tourists from within China. With this new touch, even local people and children began to dress more colorfully.
During these two years of pandemic, it has become a popular destination where visitors pride themselves to make a “punch” on their card of travel pictures to circulate among their countless WeChat groups. It seems the weather was cooperative the very morning before my departure – even a distant storm with its rainbow rushed over to add its own “punch” over my photograph of this colorful village.
Leaving Zhejiang, we soon enter Fujian Province, again along the coast. Our next stop is San Sha, another fishing port said to be one of the four most important ones in China. It is barely sixteen sea miles or 30 kilometers from Taiwan-controlled Maju Island, and around 120 sea miles from Keelung port at the northern tip of Taiwan. Due to its location close to Taiwan, it has been set up as one of the ports for direct trading across the channel. Even Taiwanese ships, fishing vessels included, are allowed to use the port as typhoon shelter or for ship repair. Such is its strategic location for Mainland China, to be connected to Taiwan in a constructive way.
My interest prompted me to charter a motorized boat to tour the bay, where plenty of the fishing fleet was now at anchor, not so much to avoid the approaching typhoon but due to the three-month fishing ban. It is said that the port can house as many as 2000 boats. On the other side of the fishing port we chose to stay at a new and rather comfortable home-stay lodge with a full view of the ocean and near a former fishing village.
Today, former fishermen use only smaller boats to plant seaweed along the coast as the main stay of their income. After all, going out to sea is now the realm of the big boys with large metal boats, which are often organized as entire fleets during operations far out into the oceans and even to other continents.
In a small bay are tied all these small boats, protected from the waves and rising tide by a breakwater and sand bank. It is amazing to see that high above them is a full line of modern villas. These are homes of former fishermen, now with children who are much better educated and attending universities. Many of these homes, like the one we stay at, are now set up as home-stays, where city folks find tranquility and solace spending a weekend along the coast.
Looking into the sunset, I can envisage that, in the next generation, these fishermen would give up not only their ancient fishing tradition, but also the seaweed growing, and be integrated into the new-found leisure industry of a developing China.
As I have spent almost half a century focused on remote China, my own view of coastal China is rather outdated, with many preconceived notions and even prejudices to feed my superiority complex. It may not be unlike those people who have historic grudges or political and archaic baggage who pray that China would never come to the fore. But with this trip, I realize that China has turned the corner and reached a tipping point. The future and the road ahead are more than obvious, at least for me.