White male seeking red roses

Finding a flower shop had never been so hard. Then again, this was the first time I’d tried to do it on an island in China.

It was Valentine’s Day, which unfortunately also happens to be my girlfriend’s birthday. I say unfortunate because the stakes are twice as high. Choose a lame gift or a less-than-spectacular restaurant and the consequences are exponentially bad.

We were visiting Gulangyu, a small island off the coast of Xiamen in the southeastern province of Fujian. Gulangyu became a treaty port after the First Opium War (1839-42), and 13 countries — including the US, Spain and Japan — established consulates, churches and businesses.

It’s easy to forget you’re in China as you traverse the island’s winding streets, which — thankfully for pedestrians — are car and bicycle free. The narrow roads, lined with European architecture, are perfect for a leisurely stroll. They’re also perfect for getting lost.

Gulangyu was very crowded, despite unseasonably cool weather.

Gulangyu was very crowded because of Chinese New Year.

The boardwalk was one of the few spots on the island that wasn't packed with tourists.

The boardwalk was one of the few spots on the island that wasn’t packed with tourists.

Gulangyu is also home to an art college.

Sculptures line the boardwalk. Gulangyu is also home to an art school.

Using a map that the manager of our hotel gave me, I walked to the center of the city, where I found my first landmark, a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The manager said the flower shop was close by but the sketch he drew didn’t match the area, so I began asking for directions.

After several wrong turns and what felt like an hour of backtracking, I stumbled upon the flower shop. I told the owner it was my girlfriend’s birthday. “What do you recommend?”

Without pausing to think, she pointed to a huge bouquet of roses — the most expensive in the store.

“Fine, I’ll take it,” I said.

Now, one of the best ways to draw more attention to a white guy on an island packed with thousands of Chinese tourists is to stick a huge bouquet of red roses in his hand. I couldn’t walk five steps without someone staring in my direction and whispering “hua,” which means flower in Chinese. I pulled my cap down over my forehead and made a run-walk for the hotel.

By the time I made it back, my forearm was throbbing from carrying the huge bouquet, but the pain was worth it. She liked the flowers. Hopefully that means I’m off the hook for another 364 days.


Gulangyu is a popular tourist destination because of its European-style architecture.

This museum contains pianos from all over the world. Gulangyu has been nicknamed “Piano Island” because most families here own the instrument, and many of China’s celebrated pianists come from the island.

One of the many churches on Gulangyu Island.

A Protestant church.


View from Gulangyu, facing the city of Xiamen.

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