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August 28, 2013

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Xiamen rolls the dice, parties for Moon Festival

The grand dining hall roared with cheers and laughter amid the tinkling sound of dice rolling in ceramic bowls. Everyone focused on the ceramic bowl at the center of their table. Excited exclamations from time to time suggested that someone was hitting the jackpot.

Holding my breath, I focused on the dice spinning in the big bowl on our table. They finally came to rest — I hit two four-pointers. “Aha, after a load of shampoos, finally I get a rice cooker,” I joked.

Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t in a casino or some underground gambling party. It was a bobing dinner party, a special treat of Xiamen during the Chinese Moon Festival. Four months after settling into this comfortable island city in 2012, I was introduced to my first bobing dinner — a cheerful game that stirred the whole city for almost one month — in my hotel.

It was really an eye opener for me because everyone wins. Even if you lose, you win. I was surprised to discover that the whole city was immersed in the game. Every year each Xiamen citizen has at least two or three bobing games. “It shows the native spirit of ‘throwing the dice’,” said a local friend.

There are many stories about the origins of the game of bobing, which literally means “gambling for (moon)cakes.” The best-known explanation is that it arose with Zheng Chengong, a revered general and national hero of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) during his efforts to fight Dutch colonists and retrieve Taiwan.

Tradition has it that he had an attendant invent this game to lift the morale of homesick soldiers during the Mid-Autumn Festival when they were stationed in Xiamen. More than 300 years later, the game lives on and has become a festive tradition unique to the island. Only today the prizes are no longer mooncakes, but range from toilet paper, toothpaste and shampoo to computer tablets, iPhones and cash.

The rules are a bit complicated, so I’ll simply put it this way: It’s the fours that matter.

Each table has 10 people, taking turns to roll the six dice in a bowl at the center. Those who have at least one four can win a piece of mooncake specially designed for the game. There were 63 pieces of cake, their sizes varying according to the prize level. Players who get four fours and two ones win the top prize of Zhuangyuan cake, a title for the top-ranking candidates in imperial examinations in ancient times. The game does not end until all the prizes are given out.

It’s really fun to see everyone enjoying this healthy competition, which is unlike, say, a poker game. When you lose, you won’t get upset or paranoid, or suspect others of cheating. It’s also a team activity that unites people. What’s more, it does create business for restaurateurs and hoteliers.

This year’s bobing party has recently started and people in town are enjoying the carnival. It’s the right time to come to Xiamen to experience this and many other local traditions.

Magical Amoy

A couple of days ago, I celebrated my 10 years anniversary in China. Xiamen is my fifth stop after Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou. I still remember that when I first arrived in the city on April 1, 2012, it was monsoon season.

Everybody was telling me how blue the sky was and how nice the city was. In the first month, I kept asking myself, “Where is the blue sky?”

Then after a period of almost endless rain, we had this marvelous sunshine, bestowing a welcoming holiday feel of gorgeous coastlines against azure sky.

The name of Xiamen literally means “the lower gate,” possibly referring to its position at the mouth of the Nine Dragon River. The Zhangzhou dialect of Min Nan is the source of the name Amoy, “the Gate of the Grand Mansion.” Over the past one and a half years, Xiamen saw positive changes. Actually, talking to expats around me, I discovered that it has replaced Hong Kong as one of the best places to start in China for foreign newcomers.

One of the seven special economic zones in China, it has an ideal location, only an hour away from Hong Kong and Taiwan — actually 30 minutes by boat to Taiwan’s Jinmen Islet. Located between the 25th parallel and the Tropic of Cancer, the city enjoys quite a soothing climate during most of the year. Furthermore, with its proximity to Hong Kong and Taiwan, Xiamen boasts an open mindset. Though it’s not a melting pot like Shanghai, it blends its southern Fujian Province roots with the influence of Hong Kong and Taiwan. I felt no real cultural shock at all on arriving in Xiamen: it’s magic!

The percentage of international families here is relatively low compared with the overall population (3 million). Yet the acceptance of expats is high. Small international communities allow you to have a diversified group of friends.

In recent years, Xiamen has grown into one of the most desirable places to live in China. Egret birds (the emblem of the city) as well as the magnificent colorful Bougainvilliers and phoenix trees are a caress of every instant and every street or park when exploring the city which can be done in a leisurely fashion on foot. Air pollution is one of the lowest in China and as an example of the city’s regulations to control any sort of pollution, motorbikes are not allowed in the island, even the electric ones to much of my surprise!

I reckon it would be such a lovely place to travel around on an electric scooter ... Lying on the beaches on sunny weekend afternoons or along the Island Ring Road at night or during late afternoon boat trips, you can see a starry sky ... I couldn’t recall seeing that so often when I was in Suzhou.

The blend of modern life and nature is soothing. With our hotel sitting in the serene Bailuzhou Park, my colleagues and I can unwind with a stroll along the lake in the park, and then go back to business without missing a beat.

From the perspective of a hotelier, I see Xiamen as a competitive place. It is a maturing market. The supply of four- and five-star international hotels continues to rise over the past few years but so far it is not outpacing the increase of travelers and hotel rooms demand, which means there is still business for everyone.

In the end, I think it’ll be a big plus for the city image if it can introduce an electric engine bus system, and improve local driving habits to show more respect to pedestrians.



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