here is a reason Fuzhou starts the way it does. The first character of its name, fu, means luck, and according to the principles of feng shui it should be a lucky city. The city is surrounded on three sides by mountains and sits where the Min River meets the East China Sea. It is thought that the city receives lucky energy from the ocean, and the mountains stop it from flowing away.
This luck has often manifested itself in Fuzhou’s prosperity – the city was and is one of China’s biggest port cities. For example, during the 19th century it was the heart of the country’s tea export trade – exporting more tea than any other city in China.
However, if it wasn’t for a work trip on cross-straits cooperation, I would probably not have thought to visit Fuzhou, a city of over seven million people and capital of Southeast China’s Fujian Province. As it happened, though my visit was short, this old port town – which has both witnessed the country’s modernization and played a key role in that process – won me over. When I arrived, a big red banner informed it was “International Museum Day.” So to mark this auspicious date that I had just learned about, I decided to wander around the China Chuanzheng Culture Museum. This museum, which is designed to give the appearance of two warships colliding, tells the history of Fuzhou’s Mawei Arsenal, which produced many of China’s earliest warships and built China’s first navy fleet.
The cab driver who took me to the city was himself a representative of the city’s mercantile culture, quizzing me about not just my wages – a common query – but the budget of my company’s projects, and boasting about Fuzhou’s free trade zone. No wonder Fuzhou’s people can be found doing business all round the world.
Normally I’m not a big fan of museums in China, which tend to be a bit dull and oddly lacking in historical details. But the Chuanzheng Culture Museum impressed me by telling a clear chronological story, from the arsenal’s establishment in 1866 as part of the Qing Dynasty’s Self-Strengthening Movement to boost the country’s development, to its role in wars against the French and Japanese and to its eventual decline along with the Qing Dynasty itself (1644-1911). This story was told with tons of historical artifacts, including documents from ships of the era, and a number of painstakingly recreated model ships.
One other interesting aspect of the arsenal’s story is its naval college. This was one of the first schools in China to use Western teaching methods and embrace European advances in engineering and navigation, sending students to Europe and bringing teachers from overseas to China.
Deciding to continue my jaunt down Fuzhou’s memory lane, I headed next to the Sanfangqixiang (three lanes and seven alleys) area, one of the largest and best-preserved “old town” neighborhoods in China. It boasts over 250 historic buildings, most of which date back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. It has earned the nickname “imperial China’s Beverly Hills,” as influential writers, officials, scholars and revolutionaries made Sanfangqixiang their home as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
This soon proved to be a tough outing. Fuzhou, like most of China’s south, has a subtropical climate, and the oppressive May heat led this northern girl to feel sticky and woozy in less than two hours. So while it’s definitely worth checking out, I would recommend taking cold-drink breaks every once in a while if you visit Fuzhou in summer.
Walking down South Street, the wide central axis of the neighborhood that splits it in two, can feel a bit familiar to anyone who’s visited a commercial “old town” in China before – and not in a good way, as loud music blares out of shops selling trinkets to tourists. But if you, as I did, turn into one of the narrow alleys that run off South Street, you’ll soon find yourself away from the hustle and bustle.
As I meandered down its winding brick roads, the high white walls of the old houses loomed over me, guarding their households. A walk in this neighborhood is a must for anyone with an interest in traditional architecture, as the walls feature an aspect distinct to northeastern Fujian – their tops are saddle-shaped with a raised corner. These saddles are delicately carved with traditional Chinese motifs, such as dragons and flowers.
When I got there it was nearing sunset, and although this meant that I missed out on visiting some of the area’s famous residences, I did also get to miss out on the crowds of tourists. As I walked, I was joined on the streets by people who actually live locally, who were taking their after-dinner strolls, dogs lazing on stone doorsteps and the elderly walking with their grandchildren. This is a great way to get the feel of this still-living historical community, which unlike so many others hasn’t yet lost its original residents.
Another great way to get a feel for a city is at the dinner table, and as I saw fishermen practicing old-school fishing methods in the Min River, it was clear to me that Fuzhou takes its food traditions very seriously.
While just about every city in China likes to boast about its food culture, Fuzhou actually walks the walk.
The city’s long history and its abundance of seafood have birthed a light, delicate cuisine, with a strong emphasis on soups. They are cooked in various ways with local seasonal fresh vegetables and seafood and often flavored with local cooking wine.
Classic dishes include fish ball soup, which has minced beef and pork inside a fishy flour ball of dough in a thin broth; guo bien hu, large steaming-hot soft rice noodles floating in soup of rice powder and shrimps; and bian rou yan, a kind of exquisite meat-pastry dumplings. Unlike other dishes featuring salt and heavy sauces, they are light but flavorful, preserving the umami taste and retaining the original flavor of the main ingredients.
A well-known celebrity from Fuzhou said once that the thing he missed the most from his hometown is the street food. If you want the full Fuzhou experience, start with food and take at least a month off to try all the local delicacies. This is the way to taste the soul of the city.