Pingtan, Fujian province

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Homestays create fresh harmony on the island of singing stones

Updated: Apr 30, 2019 China Daily Print

A tourism boom is raising living standards for residents of a granite outcrop off the coast of Southeast China. Zhang Yi reports from Pingtan, Fujian provinces.

"The island grows no grass, but stones. Sand is everywhere. Houses look like forts."

This ancient folk saying from Pingtan, an island county in Fujian province, bears witness to the area's desolate state in days gone by.

Haitan, the largest of the 126 islands that form the county, which lies off Fujian's coast, is a granite outcrop. In the past, local fishermen used the stone to build sturdy homes that would keep the strong winds at bay, forming several unique stone house complexes in the process.

Now, the old saying that speaks of the island as a land of stone is being turned on its head as locals and newcomers inject fresh vitality into the ancient houses.

Beigang, or "North Harbor", village lies in a bay in the northeast of Haitan, China's fifth-largest island. Rows of gray stone houses stand on a small hill facing the sea, with their backs nestled against the slopes of a heavily forested mountain.

The two-story houses are made from large stones - some rectangular, others irregular - and have very small windows. Rocks have been placed on each of the red roof tiles to stop the wind from blowing them away.

The formerly abandoned buildings have been upgraded into homestay hotels, handicraft workshops and small restaurants that cater for visitors who come to experience the island's history and lifestyle.

Visitors to a small artistic community called "Singing Stones" can hear the melodies created by people hitting different-sized stones with hammers, causing them to produce musical notes.

The stones are laid out on a wooden table in front of the homestay. Each stone is marked with a musical note and a score has been pinned to the back of the table so visitors can play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

Opportunities

Although the granite is a useful resource for building dwellings, the barren land and a lack of drinking water mean life is hard on the island. Sweet potato porridge is still the predominant local dish, because the arid land is only suitable for the cultivation of crops that can endure drought - mainly sweet potatoes and peanuts.

"The poor life on the island forced young people to leave and look for work outside, while the old people stayed and fished for a living," said Chen Yuqin, head of Beigang.

In addition to fishing and shipping, tunnel construction has long been an employment mainstay. The unyielding terrain meant the people of Pingtan had to dig underground chambers to store goods and food, so they became adept at tunneling.

They are still renowned in the industry, and many locals run construction companies that specialize in tunneling projects.

"By the 1990s, about 80 percent of all the tunnels in China had been dug by Pingtan people. Every family has at least one member in the industry," said Chen, who used to run his own tunneling company.

"People earned a lot from digging tunnels, but they had to leave their homes, so many houses in the village were unoccupied or even abandoned."

Pingtan is the closest part of the Chinese mainland to Taiwan - the city of Hsinchu is 68 nautical miles (126 kilometers) away across the Taiwan Straits. In the 1960s, when cross-Straits relations were tense, the county became the front line for troops, and local people were encouraged to dig bomb shelters and underground grain stores.

In recent years, though, Taiwan's close proximity has brought opportunities for Pingtan's residents.

In 2011, a direct ferry route was launched between Pingtan and Taiwan, with a journey time of three hours. In 2015, the county was designated a free trade zone, with the emphasis on attracting investors from Taiwan.

In 2016, the central government decided that the county would be expanded into an international tourism zone.

New arrivals

Many businesspeople from Taiwan have taken the ferry across the Straits to try their fortunes in Pingtan. Lin Jhih-yuan, 30, founder of "Singing Stones", is one of them, arriving on Haitan in 2015.

In June that year, Lin and his wife opened a shop selling tea and handicrafts from Taiwan in Aoqian Taiwan Town, a duty-free market targeting businesses from Taiwan.

By the beginning of last month, 270 people from Taiwan had opened stores in the market, and the goods they imported from Taiwan had a combined value of 3.3 billion yuan ($491 million).

A short time after their arrival, Lin, his wife and some friends from Taiwan visited Beigang, because there is a place with the same name on Taiwan.

There were few young people in the village, so the primary school was empty and abandoned, but the visitors found the old stone houses fascinating.

"The bay is quiet and peaceful. The red roof tiles light up the gray buildings. From the roof of each house, one can see the sea. It's a really interesting place," Lin said.

After that, he and his wife visited the village regularly.

They had run a couple of homestays in Taiwan, so they decided to convert some of the old houses into similar lodgings for visitors.

In March 2016, they rented five houses and began refurbishing them with the help of several young people from Taiwan, including designers and architects.

"We wanted to make use of the existing resources, which contain the history of the island, and also put our ideas into these stones to find new possibilities for the ancient village," he said.

They lodged in villagers' houses, and talked with the locals to get ideas for their designs.

To their delight, they discovered that the local people could create melodies by hitting the rocks they collected from the nearby mountain.

"I wanted to revitalize the stones of Beigang via art and homestays," Lin said.

The couple decided to build an arts community in the village, featuring a combination of homestays, handicrafts and home-cooked food.

They decorated the handicraft workshop with old tables and chairs from the empty primary school, and with driftwood left behind at low tide.

Then they festooned the walls and ceiling with fishing nets that had been abandoned on the beach.

"Singing Stones" opened in the summer of 2016, after six months' preparatory work.

In front of the house, the couple placed the rock-strewn table that allows visitors to make "stone music".

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