Exploring newfound hipness in Xiamen

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The sun sets on Shuzhuang Garden on the traffic-free Gulangyu Island.
The sun sets on Shuzhuang Garden on the traffic-free Gulangyu Island. Photo Credit: Sanna Kontinen

The island city of Xiamen is routinely a recipient of that most bittersweet, backhanded compliment: a destination that feels nothing like the country it is found in, a part of East Asia that feels distinctly European.

Xiamen, a relaxed, affluent, cosmopolitan coastal retreat, was singled out by Vogue's trendsetters in summer 2017 as the country's hippest fashion-design hub. If this public crowning was expected to get the secret out to international fashionistas, then uptake has been perhaps slower than one might have predicted, with few foreigners in evidence outside an exclusive expat bubble.

And for domestic audiences, it's never been much of a secret at all, with Xiamen -- which sits in Fujian province, roughly 300 miles northeast of Hong Kong and 600 miles south of Shanghai -- long holding a reputation as a refined getaway for chic Chinese jet-setters. 

But change may be afoot, with Xiamen among the latest destinations added to China's transformative transit-visa exemptions. Since the beginning of this year, visitors from 49 countries have been able to stay in Xiamen for up to six days (144 hours) without submitting to the traditionally arduous and expensive tourist visa system. And cruise lines have also helped to ensure a continual influx of foreign travelers thanks to Xiamen's growing role as a port of call on many Far East sailings.

Xiamen's "European" tag at least has a fair precedent. Like many of China's more desirable coastal cities, there's a distantly international lineage. After earlier attempts by the Portuguese and Dutch, Xiamen was pried open by the British in 1842, following the First Opium War, as a treaty port which was to become the center of China's tea trade.

Meanwhile, massive regional immigration made the city a recipient of foreign influence, and income, from a diaspora that made its fortune in Singapore and Malaysia -- no doubt reasons why Xiamen was designated one of China's first four Special Economic Zones, which granted it market-orientated freedoms since the 1980s.

All of which goes a long way to explaining Xiamen's seductive charms. Returning to the city for the first time in 16 years and in search of its fresh, famed hipness, I stayed at the Hanting Premium Hotel Xiamen, a sleek, boutique-style Accor property off Zhongshan Avenue, which is a pleasant milieu spotted with independent clothes retailers and restaurants serving seemingly identical menus of underwhelming Sichuan staples. Despite smatterings of pretty street art, my gut said Vogue's assessment might have been overcooked. 

Street art is widespread in Xiamen, especially in the Shapowei Art Zone.
Street art is widespread in Xiamen, especially in the Shapowei Art Zone. Photo Credit: Sanna Kontinen

Fate and footwork led me first to the Railway Culture Park, an old railway track reborn in 2012 as an urban parkway, and a grounding reintroduction to a city either barely recalled or completely transformed. Tracing a fascinating three-mile arc through the city's fringes with the impractical precision only a railway's inflexibility could invent, slicing terrain and neighborhoods alike, the path burrows through a rocky hill and hovers above rooftops but always returns to street level, skirting businesses and backyards with an aggressively voyeuristic proximity and offering an awakening snapshot of the city's inhabitants from all angles.

While Xiamen's historical heart and city center remains on the 60-square-mile Xiamen Island -- about a third of the city's urban area and just a tenth of the administrative region -- most visitors are drawn to the tiny neighboring island of Gulangyu, a carless, colonial enclave less than a square mile in size that is renowned for honeymooners and, curiously, pianos (dozens of which can be viewed at the surprisingly engaging Gulangyu Piano Museum).

There's one more attraction to note, the Kinmen Islands, part of the independently administrated Taiwan. The islands are just six and a half miles east of Xiamen and apparently viewable from the Hulishan Fortress on Xiamen's southern coast. 

I say "apparently" because a long coastal walk in that direction was thwarted the moment I hit the Shapowei neighborhood, along the Bifengwu river and sprawling out from the Shapowei Art Zone, a former industrial complex converted into a hub for independent boutiques, craft shops and kooky eateries. Unlike other neighboring cities' attempts at top-down gentrification — in particular, the organized chaos of Guangzhou's tongue-twisting Zhujiang Party Pier Beer Culture and Art Zone — there was a grassroots vibe and entrepreneurial energy in loud, proud evidence.

As evidenced by the rows of cute, food truck-style vendors back on the seafront, craft beer has hit China with force, but Shapowei lives up to the hype with the Fat Fat Beer Horse. Located inside the dramatic contours of an old ice factory, the German-founded brewery serves a half-dozen seasonal ales that ensured the fortress (incidentally, also built by Germans but some 120 years earlier) slipped off the itinerary altogether. So much the better -- finally I'd found the dollop of hipsterdom I was looking for.

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