Xunpu oyster village: Fresh seafood, flamboyant women

Xunpu oyster village: Fresh seafood, flamboyant women

China's tastiest oyster omelet -- yes, there is such a thing -- is just 20 minutes outside Quanzhou city. Along with colorful women and some of China's most creative houses
Xunpu oyster village -- main
Women are the mainstay of the oyster trade in Xunpu's marketplace.

Visitors flock to Xunpu Village (蟳埔村) for two things: oysters, and a photo of the colorfully dressed women who sell them.

The oyster women are usually well past middle age -- it's their flamboyant costumes, exotic hairdos and supposed Arabic heritage that piques tourists' interest.

And the oysters themselves? Well, they might just be the freshest and tastiest in all of China.

Xunpu oyster village -- inline 2Xunpu's women spend hours every day shucking oysters.

Fresh, meaty oysters

Approximately 10 kilometers southeast of downtown Quanzhou, Xunpu is a tiny fishing village located at the estuary of the Jinjiang River.

The 1.5-square-kilometer neighborhood is most celebrated for its fresh, meaty oysters.

Fujianese consider the oysters produced in Xunpu to be the best. Knowledgeable foodies in Quanzhou drive here regularly to stock up on freshly shucked oysters for cooking at home.

A made-to-order oyster omelet (海蛎煎) is the local specialty.

The oysters are pan-fried with eggs, sweet potato starch and chives. Although the dish tastes quite similar to the Teochew equivalent, the Xunpu version is less crispy.

Visitors can sample a Xunpu oyster omelet for RMB 20 (US$3) per plate at the no-frills small eateries clumped near the intersection of the waterfront boulevard Fenghai Lu (丰海路) and the only other main street (it's nameless street) in the village. The street doesn’t seem to have a sign, but you'll know when you're there. 

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Putting oyster shells to good use

Xunpu oyster village -- inline 1Xunpu women serve the best oysters in China.

With so many oysters sold every day, Xunpu villagers have found an ingenious way to put the mountains of empty shells to good use: build houses.

In the back alleys of the village, huts and one-story buildings stand with outer walls insulated by oyster shells.

Locals believe these outlandish shell structures won't get eroded by the salty sea breeze. Some houses have been standing for more than 200 years and show no signs of dilapidation.

Lam Hong-ki, a graduate student of the University of Hong Kong, is awed by the village's organic architecture.

"The oyster shell houses are simply splendid," Lam says. "They're no cookie-cutter houses -- each one has its own life and stories."

Although wealthier villagers have moved into the uninspiring concrete buildings along the main street, newly built oyster-shell houses are still dotted around.

“Unlike those famous villages in China that are commercialized and charge outrageously high entry fees, Xunpu is very authentic and the villagers' way of life is relatively undisturbed at the moment," Lam continues.

Xunpu oyster village -- inline 4In Xunpu, flowers are a girl's best friend.

Fisherwomen fashion: flamboyant and flowery

The women of Xunpu's are the village's other main draw.

Most women living in Xunpu are aged 40 or more (most young natives leave Xunpu to live in big cities for a better career). Married women wear old-style pink floral tunics and loose black trousers.

They twist their hair into a chignon or a bun, and decorate it with colorful garlands. Favorite flowers include chrysanthemum, jasmine and magnolia buds.

A granny now in her sixties, sporting a double-ring garland set off by yellow chrysanthemum, says that when she was a newlywed decades ago, she spent more money on flowers than on food.

Some Chinese historians believe that the villagers of Xunpu are the descendents of Arab traders and seafarers, which is why the women wear a distinctively different set of costumes and head ornaments than the average Han Chinese.

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, Quanzhou enjoyed fame and prosperity as the Arabs' first port of call on the Maritime Silk Road in China. 

The traders brought ivory, spices, rhino horn and other exotic goods, and then sailed back to the Middle East with Chinese tea, silk and porcelain.

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Xunpu oyster village -- inline 3Local house walled with oyster shells.

Mazu followers

Today, however, Xunpu locals are loyal followers of the cult of Mazu (aka Tian Hou or Heavenly Goddess, the protector of seafarers) rather than Islam; and the center of worship in the village is a Mazu Temple, not a mosque.

The annual Mazu procession, which falls on the 29th day of the first Lunar calendar month, is a red-letter day for the village, when all the women dress up.

But travelers don't need to wait till next year to see the fisherfolk fashion extravaganza. Women here are colorfully attired every day, as they believe that this is one of the ways to make sure their seafaring husbands will come home in one piece.

A good location to observe the local women and their fashion is the market.

With men struggling for a livelihood on their boats or at the oyster farms, the women are the mainstay of the oyster trade in the marketplace.

At the end of the one and only main street in the village, a covered market serves as both a grocery shopping arcade and a community center. Every day, aunts and grandmas natter away their afternoon while shucking the shelled creatures on the waterfront.

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Xunpu Village (蟳埔村) lies 10 kilometers southeast of the city center of Quanzhou. A taxi ride costs about RMB 20 and takes about 20 minutes.

Chung-wah Chow is a bilingual travel writer based in Hong Kong. 

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