Tan Kah Kee’s university town, once a simple fishing village
In Jimei, hometown of the famous Tan Kah Kee, you can smell the sea long before you reach it. This isn’t so much due to the salty water itself, but the locals who sit in sandals on the ground, cleaning and picking at oyster and clam shells.
Before the turn of the century, I imagine the whole of Jimei smelt of fish and oysters. Back then, this now bustling district of Xiamen city was only a fishing village. Now the original village is packed with sloped roofed houses surrounded by high walls topped with rusty barbed wire, a pastiche of Chinese and European design.
Now the men and women who turn shingle into seafood seem to cluster around one point: the entrance to Tan Kah Kee park (or Jiageng park).
This park and it’s surrounding areas adorn the eastern coast of the peninsula like gems. It’s one of the most fascinating places in Xiamen and well worth a visit for anyone who loves history, architecture, education, or shopping by the sea.
And it’s all because of one man… His name was Tan Kah Kee.
So where’s the history?
The Jiageng Memorial Museum overlooks the northernmost point of Tan Kah Kee park. (Jiageng by the way is Tan Kah Kee’s mandarin name. Tan Kah Kee is his local Southern Min dialect name).
The building is a spectacular four story pagoda, dressed in a scaffolding crinoline over which hangs green construction netting. It’s 60 yuan to go in, and in China that’s a good thing.
You pay for the serenity, as it seems that crowds in China generally don’t like to cough up the cash. So, with the few people around, the bare stone paths, knee high columns, and pruned trees merge together to create an impression of space.
Inside, a life-size stone statue of Tan Kah Kee greeted us. He stands in front of a finely woven blanket, which displays a restful view of the ocean and is apparently the largest woolen blanket in the world.
The 94 chapters in the supplied English audio guide took us a good four hours to go through. But Tan Kah Kee’s story fascinated us so much that we didn’t begrudge that. The man grew rich from the pineapples he planted in his father’s rice farm and then the rubber he planted in the same farm. He went on to become a rubber tycoon, but later ran into financial trouble.
But he persevered against all odds and invested his earnings to turn Jimei, this once sleepy fishing village, into the bustling and charismatic centre of education it is today.
As we wandered through the panels and descriptions explaining his life (mostly in English and Chinese), we became enthralled by how much this man changed China. Armed with his suits, bamboo hat, and walking stick, he helped unite the huaqiao (Chinese emigrants) community abroad and he built an estimated 180 schools and universities in China.
China loved him so much that, after his Mao endorsed state funeral in Beijing, they named a star after him. And, if that wasn’t enough, they genetically engineered a flower to take his name too.
A Turtle Garden which has no turtles…
Tan Kah Kee rests in his tomb on the other side of the park from the memorial museum. He lies underneath a 23 metre stone column and surrounded by white pavilions with roofs layered with ‘Tan Kah Kee’ tiles, an invention of his made from the local sandstone. All this rest on an artificial island, which from the air looks a little like a turtle. Hence the name: Turtle Island.
A stone corridor leading to the island depicts bas reliefs of scenes from ancient and modern history. It struck me as rather surreal how fighter planes and bombers danced around a depiction of the Japanese occupation adjacent to bearded men sitting under a pavilion drinking tea.
The whole area around his tomb is called Turtle Garden. Turtle Island… Turtle Garden… Alas, I’m sorry to say there’s no turtles.
Tan Kah Kee’s legacy
The park contributes only in part to the character of this whole area. If you turn left out of the west exit, you’ll stumble right into a small beach that overlooks Xiamen island across the Xiamen strait.
Further along the road, Jimei High School towers so tall that you have to crane your neck to look up at it. That, or climb the tall steps that reach around this impregnable academic fortress, to at least get a peek inside.
Just besides this is a seafood restaurant that juts out into the water. It was low season when we went and so the restaurant was closed. But we plan to return in warmer climes so we can dine and watch photographers snap shots of the Tan Kah Kee column from our table on the terrace.
The road then leads towards a dragon boat pond, with pagodas sitting in the water and where dragon boat races run year round.
There’s more to see on the surrounding streets too. Jimei elementary school, the first school built by Tan Kah Kee. Jimei university lies a little further north, one of the most prestigious universities in China and a huge part of Tan Kah Kee’s legacy. Commissioned street art spray-painted on many of the walls that cloister the local campuses depict Tan Kah Kee in glasses, staring out upon his patron town.
Wait… You promised shopping!
Ah yes, the shopping. You know when I told you to go up to the beach and walk past Jimei High school? Well, turn around and go the other way.
You’ll see your first shop, in fact, when you take the west exit from the park. This is rather commercial — there’s much smaller and more welcoming shops further south.
Just opposite Turtle Garden, a long cloistered walkway runs around the perimeter of the park. This, I guess, used to be another education centre built by Tan Kah Kee. But now, the classrooms lie on the other side of the wall and have become tiny street-side shops. They sell, at low cost, all manner of things, including bamboo hats, silk scarves, Buddhist charms, intricate Chinese word carvings (which for some reason have been infested with giant vinyl ants), dried fish, and of course local tea.
But our favourite item, by far, were the animal statuettes made from tiny periwinkle shells. We now have one perched on our TV speakers at home.
If you’re feeling peckish (be warned there’s nowhere to eat in the park), try the building with double saloon-like doors. Inside is a restaurant that serves delicious Nanyang (Singapore & Malaysia) laksa with seafood or pork and Nanyang coffee.
Tan Kah Kee did, after all, spend much of his life in Nanyang.
What I decided to eat for dinner
After we’d explored the area outside Tan Kah Kee park, I suddenly realised that my phone wasn’t in my pocket. It must have fallen out in my enthusiasm to take photos, getting a good workout while I did.
We marched back in and straight up to the column, suspecting this as the most likely location for a phone to hide. After a while searching, the guards called us over and directed us to the tourist information office. There, four ladies sat around a marble table drinking tea and gave back the itinerant item.
Of course, China being China, they wanted a photo of us for the album and prestige before we left.
We walked towards the north entrance astounded, as we’ve often been, about the honesty of this place. Would it be the same, I wondered, if it wasn’t for Tan Kah Kee?
Outside, the locals had been hard at work. They’d laid out flat on a blanket an impressive array of cleaned and shelled seafood meat. Jimei, it seemed, had always remained a fishing village.
I decided that evening that I just had to have oysters for dinner.
How to get to Tan Kah Kee Park:
By ferry, you can also come in from Taiwan via Kinmen island. Buses run regularly from the ferry port to the airport.
From the airport you can take the BRT (a fast dedicated over-road bus route) to get there, take bus 1 or 6 to Jiageng Ti Yu Guan station. Turn right as you leave the ticket gates and follow the bridge into the supermarket. From there, take the travelators down and turn left
The 921 bus will drop you off at the lake. Get off once you see the lake (there should lots of coffee shops with wooden facades on the right). This is Shigu road, also a great place for exploring, shopping, and relaxing. If you cross the reservoir you’ve gone too far.
To get to Tan Kah Kee park, simply follow the road along the artificial lake to its end.
Thank you for reading. Next weekend we have a trip planned to Fuqing to explore a South Shaolin temple. This is to continue our quest to uncover the original Shaolin temple.
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