东哥dōng gē (Dongge) my Chinese 哥哥 gē gē (big brother), and I are sitting at the bar of his hostel, chatting non-stop as we catch up on the last 6 months of each other’s lives. He blinks as his long hair flops into his eyes, he beams when I stumble on my Chinese pronunciation, he shoves me playfully when I ask ridiculous questions and all the while shuffling his feet – each are decorated in one orange and one yellow sock. He’s wearing a long black and white striped prison t-shirt, with not-quite-long-enough grey, baggy, camo trousers.
This hostel, tucked behind Xiamen University in a low-level open courtyard and filled with odd bits of furniture, is my favourite place in China. It is my home away from home, my sanctuary and my haven. The last time I came here, I was so heartbroken I could hardly go a day without breaking down. Dongge would pick me up and tell me everything would be ok … and it was, in the end.
A couple of months ago, I asked Dongge whether I could volunteer at his hostel for a couple of weeks in July. He bashfully told me that recently, due to local restrictions, he was no longer allowed to accept foreigners. I felt slightly offended … I could be Chinese if I wanted to. When I arrived in Xiamen, I stayed elsewhere, but would often come to see Dongge in his hostel to chat with the (Chinese) volunteers, slurp coffee and read curled up on the sofa, plastering new memories over the painful ones I left last time.
The night before he’d had two Brits stay, and whilst Dongge and I were chatting, a guy from New Zealand walked in. I was so shocked I almost blurted out “you can’t stay here, you’re not Chinese!” As it turns out, despite petty local regulations changing every month, Dongge just goes ahead and does what he wants … within reason. The Chinese idiom 我行我素 wǒ xíng wǒ sù is particularly apposite.
Dongge opened his hostel aged 24. He hadn’t even heard of hostels until the age of 17, when his older brother took off traveling around China. At the age of 18, Dongge traveled around Western China including Yunnan, Tibet and Xinjiang for a month with friends, funded by his older brother who has always encouraged him to go out and explore the world. One of the first places Dongge stayed in was a capsule hostel, which had a lasting impression on him. Over time, he began exploring and discussing the feasibility of opening his own hostel.
Throughout university, he traveled the whole of China and met people from around the world, cultivating the desire to start his own little place – straight after graduation. Originally from Hebei, he decided the location should be Xiamen, “because of the sun, and because of the food”. Unlike many opportunists in the market that set up shoddy hostels for profit and offer an aesthetic experience, Dongge has emphasized a family-orientated environment from the beginning. Establishments such as the YHA offer some regulation in the market, requiring hostels that want to be affiliated with them to a) pay a fee and b) provide certain facilities e.g. WiFi and catering services.
I can only imagine how overwhelming one’s “to do” list would be when starting a hostel. Dongge explained that he had to first rent the hostel (at a costly 50,000rmb paid quarterly) and then apply for a government license. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to purchase the property. His family help him where they can, but they also need to support his older brother through the financial demands his marriage will bring.
Dongge is still keeping afloat, and he works hard on continually striving to improve his hostel. The average day entails waking up at around 8am to start work for 9am. Usually, Dongge will open the bar, check for any new bookings, delegate various jobs for the volunteers, check up on the ayi (cleaning lady), wait for guests to arrive, help guests who are lost, offer suggestions on where to visit, repeat the same answers to mundane questions again and again, and maybe sit down to read a book in between all of this.
At around 5pm, talks of dinner become serious and a list is made of how many hungry mouths there are, and what dishes to prepare. When you have visitors from all around China, food becomes fundamental, yet complicated. People shout a lot and it’s important to get it right. Once everyone sits down at around 7pm, a brilliant array of tofu, beef strips, aubergine, fish soup, peanut chicken, and fried veg fill out the room, and bottles of Chinese beer are wolfed down. Bedtime is around midnight, or in the early hours depending on whether, and to what extremity, drinking games were started.
Dongge promotes on his site: “If you are cool, and we are in the mood, we might whip up a Chinese feast! Do note that this is not a guarantee (we may be limited by time and manpower) but if it happens, let’s all enjoy. Cheers!” When visiting Xiamen this time, 10 of us sat down to dinner at the hostel. Tongue twisters were shared from provinces in Beijing and Sichuan. After a few beers, people shared more of their personal lives – university, work, family and relationship pressures. A particularly hilarious guy from Hunan sat opposite me. All he could say in English was “1,2,3” and “you is beautiful” yet he thrashed me in the first wave of drinking games.
The longevity of Dongge’s hostel is reliant upon open-minded visitors both Chinese (and non-Chinese) plunging into a welcoming, home away from home environment. There are a ton of things to do in Xiamen such as: visit 鼓浪Gulangyu island the UNESCO World Heritage Site, walk along the seafront and into the bay with quirky shops and cafés, talk your way into tour around the Sheraton Xiamen Hotel (and it’s beautiful bar) by the lovely footman, get lost along the old railway track pathway, and stroll around Xiamen’s Botanical Gardens, ZhongShan Park and the South Putuo Temple.
Dongge says: “Our little rustic establishment was created as a result of our deep desire to connect with more travelers from around the world. Walking in from the vibrant University town, to a little whacky getaway village, the change in vibe can be pretty cool. Managed by a bunch of backpackers for backpackers, we are super social! While we may be limited by our English capacity, we are nowhere less in our hospitality. We love to chat, have some drinks and hangout in our yard. We can share with you our experiences travelling around China and we hope to hear yours from around the world.”
*Image credit from HostelWorld
This 66hands story is dedicated to 东哥- thank you for showing me true Chinese hospitality, and true friendship.