Brac’s environmentalist, educator, adventurer and author Martin Keeley
spent a little time in China. Here is the latest missive he sent
Weekender from across the planet.
Gulangyu “Piano” Island, Xiamen, Fujian Province, China – There aren’t theme parks as we know them in China, there are places that are designed for tourists – mostly Chinese tourists from other parts of that huge country. And they tend to be quite odd. At least they are to the Western eye.
China is a country of contrasts. Juxtapositions that sometimes set you back on your heels shaking your head in wonderment. Or incredulity – whichever comes first!
Several friends in Xiamen had been telling me that I should visit Gulangyu “Piano” Island – a 10-minute ferry ride from the city. I was reluctant as I had the feeling that it would be one of those odd Chinese leisure parks filled with Ferris Wheels and plastic life-size replicas of characters from American history like Davy Crocket. Not to mention oversize versions of almost every cartoon character you ever saw.
Eventually, however, I capitulated, as I wanted to visit the piano museum.
Gulangyu is dubbed “Piano Island” because its 17,800 permanent residents own 620 pianos. So the museum is the focus of this column because it reflects the history of the island. An actual tour of the island will be the theme of another column. The island is a remnant of the European scramble for China that took place in the 19th Century, and the piano museum itself is a microcosm of this mad rush to open up the Forbidden Continent and its riches.
In the Victorian century before electronics was even thought of – except by people like Jules Verne – the piano was the musical centrepiece of every home (middle and upper class) that could afford one. So, when the European adventurers focused their eyes on China Gulangyu, like Hong Kong and Singapore, was a natural base for their exploits. And once the luxurious homes of the multi-national merchant kings were completed, they furnished them with the trappings of their Empires which, of course, included a piano or two. This heritage was passed along to the local inhabitants of the island and music has become part of their tradition, so much so that several national festivals are held there every year and there is a college where you can only study music.
The piano museum is the brainchild of Hu Youyi – who the locals call an “Overseas Chinese,” the name given to those Chinese people who emigrated around the world and made it to the “big time.” Hu Youyi, is a native of Gulang Islet, who now lives in Australia.
The piano museum’s two halls are set within the tropical flowers and trees of a 2,000 square meter tract of land on the hill overlooking Shuzhuang Garden and the sea. A perfect way to finish the museum tour is to sit on one of the piano benches before the ceiling-to-floor plate glass windows and savour the scenery while listening to piped in classical piano pieces.
Mr. Youyi chose his ancestral home for Asia’s largest piano museum, which has over 70 pianos from the UK, France, US, Germany, Australia and Austria, and over 100 priceless piano lamps. Mr. Hu’s collection includes a French street musician’s barrel piano (I half expected to see an organ grinder and a monkey), the Broadwood & Sons piano that won a golden medal at the Paris International Fair, a grand piano with ivory keys from an English palace and a piano cherished by US president Abraham Lincoln. Few pianos were actually built by pianists, but one instrument was crafted in 1801 by the visionary composer Muzio Clementi (1752-1832). Clementi crafted both uprights and grands on which to perform his more than 106 sonatas (46 were for violin, cello or flute), as well as countless smaller pieces. His pianos are here.
The large hall also houses the world’s tallest upright piano (an 1824 Broadwood & Sons, from London); a rare gold-plated piano, the oldest and biggest vertical piano and the oldest four-corner piano in the world. Added to these is a Pianola – a hand cranked power piano that uses a roll of perforated paper to activate the keys; a pedal drive auto-performing piano; and an eight-pedal piano.
Hall number two showcases the development of the piano with exhibits like the 1928 Haines. The most expensive piano of its era, this American marvel was completely automatic, able to perfectly imitate the styles of many well-known pianists.
In the centre of the big hall there are two strikingly beautiful pianos that incorporate the images of flowers and birds in Chinese classical style, meticulously pieced together with wood.
If you wait around a while, you will be entertained as I was by a local musician who played a classical piece on a baby grand – one of the well preserved musical instruments. The schedule varies with the time of year, but it’s well worth waiting for.
There’s even a souvenir shop where you can buy a miniature replica of the real thing with which to remember your visit.
Incidentally, photographs are not allowed and guards are strategically placed to enforce the rule. As there seems to be absolutely no reason to ban photography, visit the museum with a Chinese friend who can mask you when you’re snapping away! The most challenging photo-op is the pianist performing every hour or so. My friend told me later that she had been admonished by a visiting Chinese tourist for allowing me to take photos when it was “not allowed.”