Gulangyu was an enclave for weathly foreigners. Picture: John Borthwick

The Opium Wars and Chopin don't usually feature in the same sentence. The two, however, came together in the mid-19th century on a tiny island off China's southern coast that became known as the "Piano Island". Thanks to the generosity of an Australian-Chinese philanthropist, it has regained that title.

Leafy Gulangyu Island lies just off the city of Xiamen in Fujian Province. It became a so-called "treaty port" in 1841 when European powers forced imperial China to open its markets, principally to British opium. Thereafter, Gulangyu became a haven for Europeans, Japanese and expatriate Chinese who built mansions, consulates and churches.

Today, a stroll around reveals dozens of surviving villas, which, up until World War II and the Communist Revolution, echoed to the sounds of parties and music. I can still hear the music. On closer examination I find it coming from small speakers embedded around the foreshore parks, playing everything from Chopin to a treacle-soaked Auld Lang Syne. Meanwhile, actual piano music flows from the windows of decaying Sino-European mansions.

Gulangyu's musical tradition took root in the era when it was an enclave of elite, some might say decadent, foreigners. Music was played widely and taught seriously. Pianoforte, in particular, survived the subsequent serial thuggery of the Japanese occupation, Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. It is thriving again. "There are more pianos, maybe over 500, on this one little island than in most large Chinese cities," says Tony, my local guide.

Gulangyu is home, too, to a famous Chinese musical dynasty, the Yins. In 1967, just as Red Guards were preparing to destroy all pianos as bourgeois toys, it is said that patriarch Yin Chengzong rolled a piano into Tiananmen Square and, by playing odes to Mao Tse Tung for several days, put the piano both at the heart of the revolution and out of harm's way.

"Every house has its own story," Tony says, pointing out a former British consulate, Japanese hospital and Spanish church. Further on is a grandiose villa built by a wealthy Chinese man who lost it all through gambling soon after completion.

Some time ago, on a Gulangyu hill overlooking the sea, I came to a unique museum containing dozens of pianos and pianolas, many of them rare, and all beautifully restored. Equally surprising was to then meet the man who had founded the museum and donated this priceless collection - a Melburnian.

Hu Youyi - Marcel Hu - a gracious, silver-haired Chinese-Australian was born on Gulangyu in 1936. True to his island's tradition, he took up music, studying at the Royal Academy in Brussels before settling in Melbourne where he taught music and became a dealer in Oriental antiquities.

"A piano is a beautiful object and should be respected," he told me as we toured his remarkable collection, assembled over 35 years. "I felt very sorry to see them being discarded in Australia. I even rescued some before they went to the tip." When he suggested to Xiamen officials that he relocate his collection, then languishing in a Melbourne warehouse, they welcomed the idea. In 2000, the Gulangyu Piano Museum opened with a performance by Australian concert pianist Geoffrey Tozer.

The West Australian

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