‘Bout time we get a local’s perspective
Hainan – Paradise Island in the south of China
by WeeCheng Tan
Over 20 American airmen are now held on Hainan Island, a Chinese island described by western newswires as supposedly “heavily militarized”. To me, Hainan is a magical land. This was where my father was born before being brought to Singapore at the age of two, ad also where my maternal grandparents came from before moving to Southeast Asia.
I grew up with the sweet song-like sounds of the Hainanese dialect, one of the smallest regional groups of overseas Chinese. Linguists say the Hainanese dialect is a sub-dialect of Min, also known as Hokkien or Fujianese, spoken in Taiwan and the province of Fujian – of course, the tongue that the more pro-independent minded Taiwanese and ignorant western media called the “Taiwanese language”.
Of course, we free-willed Hainanese say this is nonsense, we speak the Hainanese and no other tongues are quite as unique as ours… The neighboring Cantonese would just shake their heads – they say, “Nine out of ten Hainanese is mad and the last is simply crazy!”
Hainan – this is China’s southernmost province – 6 million people live here and another 2 million members of the diaspora live worldwide. Hainan has always been China’s equivalent of Hawaii. This is the island of endless deserted beaches and tropical jungle and forests of wild coconut trees, palm trees.
Although not exactly known as a gastronomical paradise, Hainanese have created the national dish of Singapore, the Hainanese Chicken Rice. Apart from Han Chinese who first came to Hainan more than a thousand years ago, Hainan is also home to the Miao and Li ethnic groups, both of whom speak languages very close to the Thai.
In the south of the island is the beach resort of Sanya, where vacationing Chinese gawk at the stone carved monument “Tianya Haijiao”, meaning Edge of the World. Indeed this is the southern edge of the Chinese empire, that is, if you exclude the Spartly Islands claimed by the Chinese Government. Further inland are a group of mountains crowned by a group of five peaks, known as Wuzhishan, or Mountains of the Five Fingers (of Buddha) – which has become one of the symbols of the island.
The Chinese first settled Hainan during the Han Dynasty 2000 years ago but the first 1000 years of Chinese rule was one of bored colonial garrisons, intrepid borderland trader-farmers and occasionally hostile native tribes. The first great wave of Han settlers came during the Song Dynasty, settling in the northeastern coast, pushing the native Li tribe inland.
Even then, Hainan has always been regarded as a frontier land, where the emperors (and later, the communists) exiled the rebellious and the seditious. Great poets and politicians – including the famous Song Dynasty poet, Su Dong Po, was exiled here after offending higher authorities – were exiled to this wild island where they set up schools among the local peasants, thus bestowing on this island a literary heritage and scholarly tradition normally not associated with borderlands.
The next great wave of settlers came during the Ming Dynasty, and their presence provoked the rebellion of the Li tribes. The Imperial Army brought in the Miao tribe, better known in Chinese movies as voodoo practitioners, from the Mainland to crush the rebellion and the colourful Miao thus settled in Hainan as well. It was also during this period that my ancestors arrived from the North, and they settled in the village of Tai Family (Taijiachun) in the poor remote county of Wenchang. Family legends say that the village was deserted when the settlers arrived… could they have perished in a round of ethnic cleansing, or became victims of some occult local magic?
Within 200 years, the family prospered with an exemplary act of an ancestor. This chap, adventurous and nomadic, became a sailor in the inland waters of the Jiangnan (southern China), saved Qing Emperor Daoguan when the Son of Heaven was traveling incognito and met with an accident on a boat. The hero was made a knight and given wondrous fortune. The honours bestowed were so great that the Viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi was obliged to kowtow him when he passed through Canton on the way to Hainan. He built a huge mansion in Wenchang, acquired the time-honoured traditions of keeping numerous concubines, each of whom had to serve him in the evenings when he signaled his wishes through bells tied from their bedroom to his.
Another ancestor was less mentioned by the family. A no less nomadic soul, he set off for Nanyang, the proverbial South Seas, only to disappear without a trace. I often wonder what happened to him. Could he have drowned in the rough South China Sea, or killed in a tavern riot in Bangkok, or perhaps stranded in a remote Borneo village too poor to return to the Hometown?
The Qing golden age did not last long. Foreign invasions raged as the Empire’s fortunes faded. Heroes arose in troubled times. Here in Wenchang, not far from where my ancestors once lived, the Song sisters were born at the turn of the last century. The eldest married into then China’s richest and most ennobled family, the Kangs (also descendents of Confucius), the middle married China’s foremost revolutionary, Sun Yatsen, and the youngest married Chiang Kai-Shek, Kuomintang leader who later fled to another of China’s island province, Taiwan. When the Japanese invaded in the late 1930’s, they found the island infested with communists and preceded a bitter pacification campaign, killing 1/3 of the island’s male inhabitants. It was during this traumatic period that my father’s family fled to Singapore.
When the war was over, the island embraced communism with a vengeance thus giving rise to the famous Mao-era ballet piece, the Female Red Guards of Hainan. This, however, did not bring prosperity to Hainan. Hainan by the 1970s had turned into a backwater. This was reversed when China opened its doors in 1980’s.
Hainan was declared a Special Economic Zone and a province. The capital, Haikou, previously a sleepy run down town, now packed with foreign investors, had turned into a mini-Manhattan. The tropical land of exiles is now being marketed as China’s answer to Hawaii. Sun seeking mainlanders flood the island for the beach and fun, while Sichuanese and Russian prostitutes turn parts of Haikou into mini-Bangkok.
What does the future hold for this land? The events of recent days have suddenly placed this island onto world map. The world watches while the incumbent superpower and an emerging one faces each other on this island. The standoff is beginning to look prolonged, but to the ancient tudisheng – territorial gods the local Chinese believe to be the guardians of this land – this is but a mere episode in the island’s history.
Wee-Cheng Tan, Singaporean by spirit & nationality – Londoner by location – citizen of the World
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 11 April, 2001
by Tom Mitchell
Hainan enjoys the dubious meteorological distinction of having been hit by at least one typhoon a year for the past 50 years. But for the past 11 days, this tropical-island province has been at the eye of a rather different type of storm.
The world has been watching Hainan intensely since a United States spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter and subsequently landed at a PLA airfield at Lingshui, on the province’s southern coast.
The 24 crew members of the US Navy EP-3E Aries II surveillance aircraft have been held for most of the past 11 days in the centre of Haikou, the provincial capital, at the Southern Air Force No1 Guesthouse since dubbed by journalists as The Haikou Hilton. Last night, it appeared they would be released soon.
The aircrew 21 men and three women is probably one of the few groups of people ever ransomed for an apology, which the Chinese Government said was ”crucial” if its seemingly cursed relationship with the US is to return to an even keel.
Meanwhile, the PLA Navy and Hainan’s fishing fleet accompanied by sister vessels from six provinces and regions, including Hong Kong, Taiwan and Guangdong province is combing the seas south of Hainan in an increasingly desperate search for Wang Wei, the pilot missing since his F-8 jet plunged into the sea after the collision.
Hainan probably never expected so much fuss on the occasion of its 13th birthday, which (appropriately enough) falls tomorrow Friday the 13th. Previously administered as a part of Guangdong, Hainan was established as a province in its own right and also a Special Economic Zone on April 13, 1988.
Like most soon-to-be teenagers, Hainan is troubled and, for its parents in Beijing, difficult to manage. Indeed, Hainan has been a problem child from the start.
It was the late Deng Xiaoping’s idea to elevate Hainan’s administrative status and give it a raft of special economic privileges, such as the right to import certain goods duty free. But like most spoiled children given an inch, Hainan helped itself to a mile.
Fortunes were made as Hainan transformed itself into a black-market wholesale centre, smuggling its duty-free imports cars in particular to provinces on the mainland at huge markups.
When the central Government finally put a stop to the scam, it did not take long for Hainan to get into trouble again. Money poured into the province’s property sector. Over a 10-year period, more than 62.3 billion yuan (about HK$58.6 billion) was invested in Hainan’s property market. About half of this amount originated from outside Hainan, and Hong Kong developers were among the biggest investors.
But the party was ended by a central-government austerity campaign started in June 1993 by then Vice-Premier and central bank Governor Zhu Rongji, as inflation soared to post-revolution highs.
Hainan’s economy never recovered. By the late 1990s, seven million square metres of housing lay empty accounting for 10 per cent of all vacant residential property in China and construction of another 11.35 million square metres was stopped in its tracks. The situation was so bad that in July 1999, the State Council approved a plan specifically designed to help Hainan dispose of its housing stock.
Even today, the consequences of this misadventure are readily apparent. Haikou is littered with the concrete shells of abandoned commercial- and residential-property projects. A quick walk around the hotel where US diplomats and the journalists assigned to hound them are holed up this week reveals about 15 concrete shells.
But at least the abandoned projects are not entirely useless. One concrete shell, situated adjacent to a Southern Air Force compound where the US aircrew might have been held initially, provided reporters with an excellent bird’s-eye view into the heavily guarded installation.
According to one estimate, developers’ losses in Hainan’s property market were thought to be as high as 39 billion yuan a fiasco, in other words, on a par with the January 1999 bankruptcy of Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation (Gitic). Gitic, which was closed in January 1999 with debts of about 39 billion yuan, is China’s largest-ever bankruptcy case.
Not surprisingly, Hainan’s financial institutions were neck deep in the property bubble. At one point, it was estimated that 70 per cent of all provincial bank lending was unrecoverable due to borrowers’ exposure to the collapsed property market.
Indeed, the first bank failure in post-revolution China occurred in Hainan six months before Gitic’s bankruptcy.
Hainan Development Bank, established by five Hainan-based international trust and investment corporations (Itics), was closed in June 1998, with local officials blaming the closure on the bank’s overexposure to the local property market.
Hainan Itics were also among the first to wobble after Gitic’s high-profile bankruptcy. In the most recent development, in October the Hainan International Trust and Investment Corp (Hitic) failed to make a 238 million yen (about HK$14.9 million) coupon payment to bondholders in Japan. Hitic’s creditors subsequently declared the 14 billion yen bond, which was supposed to be repaid over a seven-year period, to be in default.
With the only real engine of the provincial economy in the early 1990s, the property market, stalled for almost eight years and the province’s financial sector still reeling from the experience, Hainan is one of those strange places in China that claims to be growing at an impressive rate (averaging 8.6 per cent over the past five years), even though there is no readily identifiable economic activity.
So what is the invisible economic force that stepped into the void left by the collapse of Hainan’s property sector? The official answer is ”tourism”. The Government says official earnings from tourism account for about 20 per cent of the province’s gross domestic product.
”As is known to all, Hainan is an island province of tourist destination, where people are accustomed to a life of peace and harmony,” says Hainan Foreign Affairs Office director Chen Ci. ”The frequent US military reconnaissance flights around Hainan Island, which resulted in the collision, have seriously disturbed the normal life of Hainan people and brought negative impact on tourism … We welcome American tourists to Hainan for holiday-making, but not the spy planes.”
But tourism, many observers say, is a euphemism for prostitution. ”It is the flesh trade that keeps this place going,” says one long-term resident. ”The economy is soft … [and] Haikou has nothing much to offer as a tourist attraction Sanya maybe,” he adds, in a reference to the resort city on Hainan’s southern coast, close to where the spy plane landed. ”So what do you think all the businessmen come here for?”
Or as a manager at one popular Haikou hotel puts it: ”A lot of men come here for golfing weekends but never use their clubs. Men go to bars and expect to be able to return to their room with four women.”
The long-term resident adds: ”This is something that the local authorities are very well aware of. Only on this island would the Public Security Bureau close one eye.”
He notes you can count on one hand the number of anti-vice sweeps launched in Haikou in a given year one on National Day and a few others when the wind from Beijing blows hard enough. Standard practice, he says, is to tip off the hotels and raid a few nightclubs.
Indeed, hang out in any Haikou hotel something overseas and Hong Kong journalists have spent a lot of time doing since the latest Sino-US crisis began on April 1 and you will soon notice a steady stream of beautiful young women in too-short skirts and too-high heels walking to the lifts, and then walking back out the front door an hour later.
Many hotels disconnect their room-to-room dialling service at night to keep guests from being disturbed by not-so-secret admirers. Hainan, in short, is a paradise for dirty old men.
Watching a tipsy, overweight businessman and a woman decades younger than him thread their way through a pack of about 125 journalists covering a major international incident is slightly amusing.
But it is mostly pathetic and for the young women who flock to Hainan from all over China because prostitution is the only alternative to a life of drudgery a tragic indictment of how unevenly the benefits arising from China’s economic reforms have been spread. Hainan is in desperate need of firmer foundations.
Tom Mitchell is the Post’s Guangzhou correspondent.