Boats in Three Acts – Fuzhou

Act 1: Fuzhou

Saturday, January 20 – Fuzhou City, Fujian Province

Don’t try to take the boat.

Taking the boat might seem like it will save you time. It might seem like it will save you money. It might even seem like a relaxing trip to a relaxing tropical island. But it won’t be any of those things.

So don’t try to take the boat.

Mawei Port

A boat place in Fuzhou. A place you shouldn’t go.

This past weekend a friend of mine needed to leave China on a visa run: out, stamp, in, stamp, done. Legal for 60 more days.

Flight prices had climbed higher than I’d have liked on the normal visa trips to Seoul or Hong Kong, and the timing of flights to Xiamen (厦门), where tourists and visa-runners alike can take the 45 minute ferry to the outlying Taiwanese island Jinmen (金门) were not so appealing (arriving 2:20 a.m. Sunday, leaving 9 a.m. Monday?). But after a little research, I discovered Taiwan owns another small island just off the Fujian Province (附件省)coast, this one a 1.5-hour boat ride from the provincial capital Fuzhou (福州). I’d not heard anything good about Fuzhou, nor had I heard anything bad, and my Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t have much at all to say about it, which I figured was either good or bad, so I booked a cheap “business” hotel in the port district of the city and a 1000 RMB (150$) plane ticket from Tianjin to Fuzhou and back two days later.

Fuzhou has a long history as a critical port, even serving as the sailing-off point for the most famous of China’s explorers, Admiral (and eunuch) Zheng He (郑和), who in the 15th century sailed several times from Fuzhou to the Indian Ocean and, on a few occasions, even to the African coast. Hundreds of years later after the First Opium War with Britain, the Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the war and humiliated the Chinese, also opened Fuzhou up to foreign trade (read: Western exploration) as one of five treaty ports in China. Fuzhou was open for saving souls and selling stuff to them.

Most relevant, perhaps, in the 1950s Fuzhou was on the front lines of the of war between the communist People’s Liberation Army and the nationalist Guomindang, or KMT, under Chiang Kai-Shek, and KMT aircraft bombed the city frequently after the PLA occupied it in 1949. By then, the KMT had withdrawn to Taiwan. Against the advice of many of his commanders, Chiang brilliantly left a substantial rear-guard force on Mazu Island — where we planned to make our run — to protect the main Taiwanese Island from immediate invasion and to serve as a base for the eventual campaign to retake mainland China. Huge characters in Chiang’s hand foretelling that event, which never happened, still face the mainland. For years, then, Mazu served a pivotal role in preventing the conquest of Taiwan as it was bombarded by big guns from the mainland, and some stories even tell of communist frogmen sneaking across the waters at night to slit the throats and take the ears of KMT guards in the island’s many military bases. Although Mazu still hosts a sizable Taiwanese military presence, hostilities have obviously ceased and those bases, forts, and tunnels serve as some of the main tourist attractions on Mazu, though tourists are warned not to wander far off the roads, into the unmarked minefields or unexploded bomb shells that litter the landscape.

Simple plan, then: Take the 30-minute Saturday morning train from Beijing to Tianjin, fly 2.5 hours, find the ferry port, take the bus downtown for the evening, catch the 9 a.m. ferry to Mazu Island (妈祖), rent a scooter, spend a couple of days exploring those old military fortifications and Taiwanese temples, watch an island sunset from a rooftop, catch the 2 p.m. ferry back to Fuzhou, take a cab to the airport, take the train back to Beijing.

OK, maybe not so simple, but still, it made sense, and for a while, it worked accordingly.


We flagged down a cab in the Fuzhou airport and loaded into the back.

“Mawei,” I told the driver.

“Ok. But you have to pay extra to go to Mawei. It’s way out of the way from where I was going. I won’t be able to get any pick ups there. One time I waited five hours,” he said.

“Fine, fine,” I said.

We drove for a while.

“Are you from Fuzhou?” I asked. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah. Fuzhou is a good place. It’s developing fast,” he said we drove past a power plant venting plumes like an underwater volcano and through the skeletal ribs of half-completed highways. “But not Mawei. Nobody likes Mawei.”

Great, I thought. At least it’s near the ferry.

We drove on through construction sites and industrial plants. The driver ranted, flicking his hands around as he took them off the wheel, about foreigners coming to China and making easy money, while Chinese, like his brother, go to America and can’t even find a decent job.

“Why do Chinese go to America? I don’t get it,” he said, turning around to look me in the face. “They should stay here. I really don’t get it.”

He threw up his hands one last time.


The river near Mawei Port.


The hills near Mawei Port.

Later that afternoon after checking into the hotel and finding our room with not three but four unplugged floor lamps in a line against the wall, we took a bus up to the ferry terminal to make sure we could find it and also to check the departure times. Then we caught a bus to downtown.

One hour and a half of bouncing over unused train tracks and through unfinished subway zones later, in the dark, we arrived.

The centerpiece of downtown Fuzhou is the “Three Lanes, Seven Alleys” area, which has been revitalized as a touristy slice of Ming/Qing China.  Brand name shops and trinket dealers crowded the main strip, but the murmur of the tourists faded to footsteps in the lantern-lit alleyways where coffee shops added their bright glow to the fire-touched white walls. Just outside the historic district, a canal cut through a restaurant strip, and crowds lounged under the willow tendrils outside fish and hotpot restaurants of varying qualities, most of them out of my price range. Somewhere, a impromptu street band strummed and crooned in the night. Across the river, a man flowed through Tai Chi forms before hopping on his scooter, still in his traditional martial arts clothes, and drove away.




We rode bike-share bikes the five kilometers to our next stop: Fuzhou’s lone (maybe?) craft brewery, Pocket Brewing. As we rode nearly kilometer-long bridge across the sandbar speckled Min River, I passed a woman on a motor scooter. She drove, headlight off, earphones in, watching a movie on her phone, which she propped up on the left handlebar.

The taproom was typical, if a little messier (Halloween and Christmas still happening–at the same time!), than the norm (wood tables, exposed metal) but the beer was decent (especially the passion fruit stout). Next to our table, a group of increasingly drunk young businessmen order flight after 20-glass flight (shaped like an airplane, heh), knocking them back like shots while chain smoking and chewing on pickles and pea pods. A bowl of crab claws they left mostly untouched. After a while, the drunkest of them ambled over to our table and started shout-slurring stuff while his friends tried to coax him back. He pounded the table and bellowed something like “Ammerrrca!” over and over glowering crooked at my forehead, then asked if he could kiss my friend. Without waiting for an answer, he pecked her head.

“Bu bu bu bu!” his friends screamed. “No no no no!”

“Mei shi!” he screamed back. “No problem.”

He turned and kissed me on the head. Everyone laughed. He turned back, grabbed her by the face, and kissed her on the mouth.

“Bu bu bu bu bu!” his friends screamed. This time, he didn’t scream back. He just swung around and latched on to my gaping mouth with his spirit soaked lips, writhing like still-glistening worms stranded out on the sidewalk on a warm-but-not-hot summer day. His friends wrenched him off me, undoubtedly waiting for me to take a swing, and tried to drag him from the establishment. He grabbed a shelf showcasing bottles and cans of rare beer. They began to rain down on the table, a dangerous, unforecasted precipitation. At last, three of them together pried his hand off and bulldozed him out of the bar as he shouted “Ammmmercaaaaaaaaaaa!” one final time.

The businessmen left at their table made it up to us with no small amount of beer.


A morning mist hung over the harbor, slicking the streets with a greasy moisture and blurring the cranes on the horizon to fuzzy orange stickbugs, stabbing at the sky. It looked like the back of my eyes felt.

Still, we were up and stepping off the bus early to catch the 9 a.m. ferry.

The guard at the gate stepped out of his shack.

“You going to Matsu?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, stepping cheerfully past him.

“It’s not running today,” he said. We stopped and turned.

“It’s not running today?”

“No. It can’t go out today.”

“Why not?”

“It can’t go. It’s not running today. Come back tomorrow,” he said.

Our flight back to Tianjin was “tomorrow”.

“Are there any other ferries to Taiwan?” I asked, The haze cleared from the back of my eyeballs as the hot sun of desperation burned through, and the grease slid sour into the back of my throat.

“Yeah,” he said. “From Huangqi.”

He must have seen my shoulders sag with relief.

“But you can’t take it,” he said. “You’re American.”


China’s little Europe

This weekend Jordyn and I took a trip to England. And Italy. And Germany. And the whole time, we stayed in China.

Tianjin is one of those places that all the foreigners in Beijing say they’re planning to go to, eventually. Even though it’s only 30 minutes away by bullet train, most of them never do. We finally did.

At 14 million people, Tianjin is the fourth largest city in China behind Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou and is one of the country’s four direct-controlled municipalities along with Shanghai, Beijing, and Chongqing. It’s location on the Bohai Gulf as well as on the banks of the Hai River, which connects northern China to the Yangtze River via the Grand Canal, also made it one of the most important ports in China, especially after it was forcibly opened to French and British trade by the Treaty of Tianjin, which was signed in 1860 following China’s defeat in the Second Opium War. Over the following decades, Great Britain and France were joined by Japan, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Belgium in establishing self-administered foreign concession areas in Tianjin, each with its own government buildings, public facilities, and neighborhoods.

That’s what makes Tianjin so interesting: The city is a patchwork of early-20th-century European buildings and avenues that trumpet the cities colonial past and steel-and-glass skyscrapers that announce its intent to own the future. And underneath it all scoot the overstuffed electric tricycles ubiquitous to China.

Sunday was Qingming festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, so I was off work. Jordyn also had Monday off, so we decided it was time to take the trip. We’d tried to do the same with Toby on the same weekend last year but showed up to the train station too late and didn’t have time to make the trip. This time we planned ahead and bought tickets a few days before.

Tianjin is a walking city.

There’s the old downtown, lined with European-turned-Chinese banks of the columned variety, most of them (of course) webbed by renovation scaffolding during our visit.

Banks in Tianjin's downtown

Tianjin’s downtown is mostly banks built during the early 20th century to house European companies. These days they are mostly Chinese banks.

There’s the riverside parks, lined first across from the train station and a giant clock with the old British treaty port, then with fishermen, then with the skyscrapers.


The treaty port sits on the river across from Tianjin’s train station. Past the bridges down the river, the city’s skyscrapers project a different attitude.

There’s the Italian Concession, Tianjin’s version of Little Italy, lined with Italian villas and European-style restaurants and souvenir shops catering to the domestic crowd.

Tianjin's Italian concession

This clock tower marks the entrance to Tianjin’s Italian concession, complete with gold statues, fountains, and lots of cheesy Italian (and German?) restaurants.

There’s the ancient town street, lined with traditional Chinese craft shops that look like they’ve seen better days.

There’s the creepy China house, a house lined with tourists and constructed entirely of concrete and vases or pieces of vases.

Tianjin's China house.

Tianjin’s China house.

There’s the wide avenues, lined with buses and cars and where, on Qingming, you might catch a man burning piles of paper money for his ancestors in the middle of an intersection or a group of people trying to keep the grass from catching on fire when their paper money takes off with the wind.

A man burns paper money in Tianjin

On Qingming, people burn paper money as well as iPhones and other gadgets, for their ancestors to use in the afterlife.

There’s the Yongle Bridge, topped with the Tianjin Eye, the world’s only Ferris wheel ( (120-meters) built on top of a bridge, and lined by a riverwalk where revelers launch flaming lanterns into the night.

People light lanterns near the Tianjin Eye

Evening celebrators light floating lanterns under the glow of the river-spanning Tianjin Eye, the world’s only Ferris wheel built on top of a bridge.

There’s the 五大道 wudadao (five big avenues) area, lined with blossoming trees and the mansions of former government officials and generals, some of their abodes straight out of 1910 London, others out of Spain.

House in wudadao

Houses in the wudadao district certainly don’t look Chinese.

And there’s Tianjin’s biggest shopping avenue, lined with glittering monuments to consumerism and punctuated by the French-built St. Joseph’s cathedral hiding at the very end.

St. Joseph's Cathedral

St. Joseph’s Cathedral is the end point of Tianjin’s biggest shopping street.

For people who liked walking, Tianjin is good for a pair of days well spent.

The city is at once much cleaner than Beijing and also more traditional. Its modern streets and streets alike have almost no trace of what one comes to expect as China, save for all the Chinese people as well as the army of food and repair carts posted at many of the intersections. Many of the European-style doorways the traditional red paper characters and door gods pasted on them. And St. Joseph’s Jesus is covered in Chinese writing. The contrast was somewhat disorienting.

A man takes a break from fishing near the train station.

A man takes a break from fishing near the train station.

Jesus with Chinese characteristics.

Jesus with Chinese characteristics.

Tianjin is also well-known for its snacks, notably jianbing and 狗不理包子 goubuli baozi (translated as Steamed buns that dogs don’t pay attention to).

Jianbing are common in Beijing but originate in Tianjin. They’re basically a crepe, covered in egg and wrapped around cilantro, onion, shrimp crackers (I think), and a spicy sauce. Jordyn loves them so we tried two different styles, one of which made with green peas and fried dough instead of shrimp crackers I’ve never before seen. We decide Tianjin’s jianbing are indeed superior to Beijing’s.

Gobuli is actually the name of Tianjin’s most famous steamed dumping restaurant, which has been open for more than 100 years. More famous Chinese than I care to list have eaten there, and the Empress Cixi called its namesake dumplings the most delicious in China. The strange name (Steamed buns dog doesn’t pay attention to) originates with a villager who came to Tianjin to learn to make dumplings. His name was gou (dog). As he learned, he developed the special style that is Goubuli’s specialty, but would get so absorbed in making his dumplings that people started to say “Dog doesn’t pay attention to people, only to bao zi.” Eventually the saying was shortened to Dog doesn’t pay attention” and the name stuck.

The veggie baozi at Goubuli.

The veggie baozi at Goubuli.

It turns out Goubuli also has a branch in Beijing where Jordyn and I have eaten a few times before, though we didn’t know it until we returned from Tianjin. They are our favorite steamed dumplings. Regardless, we had to eat in Tianjin’s original branch, so for an excessive price – truly – we ordered one set of eight vegetable baozi. They were delicious, but we decided the baozi round goes to Beijing.

Goubuli baozi in Tianjin.

Goubuli baozi in Tianjin.