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Protecting China's classical past
China is striving to have a tiny island, dubbed "Piano Island", listed on the United Nations World Heritage list due to its classical heritage, as Huey Fern Tay reports.

The Bund in Shanghai is probably the most significant reminder of the history of western influence in China.

But then there are places like 'Piano Island', as it's called.

Now China is striving to have it placed on the United Nations' World Heritage List. But that's proving an uphill battle because people are leaving in droves, taking with them the culture that has defined the island.

China correspondent Huey Fern Tay reports from Fujian Province.
(Sound of piano music plays over footage of Gulangyu)

HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: It's a Friday evening, but the tourists are still spilling off the ferry for a weekend on one of China's most popular island retreats.

Gulangyu used to be the home of the privileged, in particular diplomats and wealthy overseas Chinese families who settled here over 150 years ago. But the old money is long gone. These days Gulangyu is a playground for China's newly minted middle class.

CAO FANG, GULANGYU MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE (translation): You can enjoy the best of both worlds on Gulangyu. There's no traffic noise, no pollution from factories, no tension from the modern way of living.

HUEY FERN TAY: Gulangyu has a unique place in China's history. After the opium wars in the 1800s, parts of China were carved up by colonial powers, and the island became a foreign concession.

The English, Japanese and 11 other countries set up consulates, churches and hospitals. It was during that time that the island's rich musical traditions were formed.

(Footage of piano being played in the Gulangyu piano museum)

Pianos were features in the homes of the elite, and informal recitals were common place, earning Gulangyu the nickname 'Piano Island'.

The island authorities paint a romantic picture of Gulangyu. A vision captured in this song that is about reunification with Taiwan which is visible from this part of China. It's the only song ever performed in the piano museum.

Now, in an effort to preserve the rich traditions here, the island's management has set its sight on having Gulangyu put on the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) cultural heritage list.

The man who has been appointed to manage the bid for UNESCO listing is Cao Fang.

CAO FANG (translation): Gulangyu was a joint foreign concession. Westerners and Chinese lived on the island. The most difficult thing now is the preservation work.

(Footage of tourists on Gulangyu plays)

HUEY FERN TAY: But it's Gulangyu's popularity that also poses a threat to its future and preservation. Tourism is now the economic life blood of the island, with some 20,000 visitors coming every day. During peak season, the crowds swell to up to five times that number.

But the sheer numbers of people on an island that takes only 40 minutes to walk around has made living on Gulangyu less attractive.

(Footage Huey Fern Tay and tourists on view point plays)

This is the tallest peak on Gulangyu and in the past people used to come here not only to admire the scenery but also to enjoy some peace and quiet. But as you can see, tranquillity is a thing of the past.

Only about 6,000 people now live on the island. 62-year-old Bai Yi was born here but moved away 20 years ago. He left not because of overcrowding but to take advantage of better opportunities on the mainland.

BAI YI, FORMER RESIDENT (translation): Actually, I really wanted to remain on Gulangyu, but I left because I had just gotten married and the place we were living in at the time was very cramped. That is why I moved to Xiamen.

HUEY FERN TAY: It's a story Cao Fang has heard before.

CAO FANG (translation): The standard of living on Xiamen has surpassed that of Gulangyu's. Besides it's an historical trend for this island's residents to move there or go abroad. That's why we have to maintain an open mind that this doesn't necessarily spell the end of Gulangyu.

(Footage of musical performance plays)

HUEY FERN TAY: But Gulangyu's dwindling population is a worry for authorities, and could affect their bid for UNESCO status.

As the original inhabitants leave, they take with them the musical tradition of the island - its identity.

What is left now are informal recitals being kept by a handful of residents and former residents like Bai Yi. He's part of a small group that's been organising intimate musical performances on the island every month.

BAI YI (translation): I remember a famous Chinese pianist once said that the residents of Gulangyu don't need to be taught how to sing in harmony, they are born with it because that's what they've been exposed to at a very young age in church.

HUEY FERN TAY: Authorities have big plans to maximise their chance of getting the UNESCO listing.

(Footage of conservation work happening on Gulanyu plays)

Conservation and repair work can be seen in pockets of the island. They intend to make Gulangyu a more liveable place once again. First of all by limiting the number of tourists on shore.

(Footage of family singing and playing piano)

They also want to revive the culture of creativity that once produced some of the country's most well-known artists. But few underestimate the size of the task.

CHEN SHANGWU, RESIDENT (translation): If the living environment changed for the better, then maybe people would return. But the young have to consider their career prospects so they may not return. This place is more like a residential area. Transportation is inconvenient too.

(Footage of group musical performance plays)

HUEY FERN TAY: Gulangyu's traditions are being kept alive. But the living history of the island is aging or moving away.

And a UNESCO listing won't preserve the sounds that won this island a unique place in China's history.
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