Hainan – Does This Name Strike a Bell?

‘Bout time we get a local’s perspective

taking life in the slow lane
Calm on the surface
I love photos with big phalic rocks
Such photogenic rocks!
in serious need of proper landscaping
Not all of China is rich
Allah is great
Nature’s Best
pretty from afar, empty up close
Glass and steel sprouts
I only wish WeeCheng was as pretty
Wearing black in the tropics?
and ya wonder why I went Chinese

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

Hainan Island

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.

A Private Moment With Jingmei

A few pretty pictures and plenty of fun comments

week, Jingmei and I are enjoying Shanghai, and if you don’t mind,
its a private affair. Enjoy these China photos, and I’ll see
ya next week.
Yep, Dave gets mad some dayz Beijing Yes dear, I told 'em we're shagging like rabbits!
Shut-up Dave! A happy Jingmei
The best view of Xi'an's smog and dirt Xi’an No marble fixtures if you ain't got running water
Mom tackles Xi’an’s city walls Yes, hot baths are a luxury
Now that's how to take a curve in Chongdu Chongdu What else is there to do on a slow Tuesday?
Chinese tire changing Kids watching the show
Now you tell me why he's washing the mud! River Life Am I naked?  What do you think??
Mud washing takes skill Working on that tan!

The Real Value of Yangshu

A kayak beats a tour boat any day

That girl better be glad she ain't fat
Odd, no bicycle
in between
No, it didn't have business class or an inflight movie
At least the runway is paved
I love his 'taxi' steering wheel
Nice view from his desk
Now that is the way to enjoy the scene
Don’t rock the boat!
Into a woman-driven taxi (an odd sight for me) we jumped, showing our
tickets and making fast revving engine noises in a hope to cross Wuhan in
time. After a wild ride on rain soaked streets, cursing the Let’s Go China
2000 guidebook for pointing us to the wrong train station (Wuhan has
three) as we went, Ma and I jumped out and ran through the mud and
peasants outside the station. Once inside, the look on the station
attendant’s face told the sad truth ma and I needed to accept: we’d missed
the train.

Like the time I missed train to
Hong Kong the next train to Guilin didn’t leave till the following day.
Rather than burn another day in Wuhan, we decided to fly because neither
of us are masochist to take a Chinese sleeper bus.

I’d taken puddle jumpers before, but I was too young to remember those
South American adventures outside of my parents’ stories of pushing planes
out of mud and sitting on dried fish cargoes. Now I have an adult memory,
and the Soviet-designed Chinese-built turboprop was such a smooth flight,
I almost forgot my fear of flying.

I highly recommend Wuhan Airlines, not for their un-researched safety
record, but for the cool bottle opener and scented wooden hand fan the
flight attendants gave us. Oh, and their laid-back style (napping during
takeoff and landing) helps those of us who are still not convinced of that
whole wing/lift/flight concept.

Anyway, Mom and I finally made it to Yangshou, the downstream and down
market version of Guilin and yesterday we saw what all the fuss is about.
With tree covered limestone pillars rising up from rice patties and a calm
river, postcard photo ops leapt out at us from every turn in the calm,
clear Li River.

Unfortunately, we were not alone. As we motored upstream with other
cheap-o travellers, luxury ferries cruised downstream, packed with Chinese
and foreign tourist who looked a little shocked to see us scopeing the
scene on the cheap.

The PRC, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that only certified boats
could make the entire Guilin-Yangshou route, charging obscene prices for
the privilege. At $80, it is more for the three-hour Li river glide than
Ma and I paid for our three-day Yangzi gorges cruise.

Today, in an effort to escape the oppressive tourist and tout onslaught
all this beauty has brought, I kayaked downstream from Yangshou, and back
in time to an era gone from most of the world.

On either side of the river, water buffalo soaked as villagers beat
clothes clean on rocks or fished for eels along the river’s bank. The
calls of birds, humming of insects, and grunts of beasts were only broken
by an occasional shout from a farmer coaxing his bull to make a turn or
the flocks of domestic ducks surprised by my water-skimming form.

The government can keep the breath-taking tourist portion of the river,
for Yangshou’s real value to me is not in the majestic spires of green but
the humble rhythm of daily life. Like the laughs of children as a kayak is
spun and capsized by inquisitive boatmen more comfortable poling bamboo
rafts than fiberglass tubes.

Looking Up While Floating Down the Yangzi

In eight years its gonna be a scuba tour of the Three Gorges

Ride that wave!
Getting a tow upstream
Yeah, it could take your breath away
Beautiful, eh?
Ma and I are now in Wuhan, the terminus of our Three Gorges boat ride from
Chongqing, and in need of a neck massage. No, the neck aches are not from
bad beds, for the ferry’s accommodations were very comfortable; we have
cramps from staring up at the amazing river-carved gorges along the Yangzi
and down at the mad card-game contests with our Chinese cabin mates.

Similar to the Colorado River’s Grand Canyon excavations, the Yangzi
has a slightly shorter and shallower tumble through mountain ravines. Our
ferry floated easily with the fast current through the main Three Gorges,
while we fought the strong current in a small and slightly overcrowded
longboat up a tributary to see the ‘little’ Three Gorges.

We feel fortunate to witness the beauty that nature can perform now,
for China will submerge the whole area behind the massive Three Gorges Dam
in 2008. Evidence of the staggering relocation process (150 million+
people) is already visible all along the river, though there is no sign
that international pressure is slowing the controversial project.

I feel fortunate to report another wonder. Somehow I’ve fallen for a
woman who has the smarts and the luck to be accepted by Oxford’s MBA
program. Yes, that Oxford. With the usual adventurous spirit you know me
for, I’m off to the UK with Jingmei in the middle of this month to attempt
a Belly Button Window on England.

Due to Chinese red tape beyond comprehension, I will be off to
apartment hunt two weeks before Jingmei can cut/dig her way out of the
Middle Kingdom. If you have any advice, connections, or piles of cash you
could part with in this endeavour, please let me know, for I haven’t dealt
with Western landlords in a few moons, and Oxford’s housing reputation
isn’t the best.

Sweating in Xi’an With Ma

Two thousand years after Qin Shi Huang a kite calmed the Chinese

No chicken testicles this time
Ma and I hotpot
Still ready to grab a bow and arrow your ass
An archer, still at attention
The General will make sure your head is on a stick
A general in full splendor
The last time I saw my folks was the
last time I was in the USA; Christmas 1998. I’m a good son though, for I
email every day and phone several times a month so they don’t worry.
Still, there is a difference between a phone call and a hug.

When my folks found out I would
be spending the summer in China, they immediately started to make plans to
see me here. Unfortunately, with business commitments and such, only my
Mom attempted the 20-hour flight and 12-hour time change from Florida to
Hong Kong.

Even before she took off, I was a
bit busy managing the delicate relations that would arise with an American
Mom meeting Chinese parents. Jingmei and I had several strategy sessions
trying to figure out how to make the meetings smooth and yet somehow mix
Western and Asian values.

traditionally, my family would
treat Jingmei’s folks to dinner without the kids present. There, aspects
of the families’ histories and futures would be discussed, sans the kids.
Of course, with the language barrier and such, it wasn’t gonna happen like

Not to worry, for everything went
well. I do believe that the look of pure joy when Jingmei’s Dad saw the
funky high-tech kite Mom brought all the way from the USA, was worth all
of the effort it took to get the three to meet. This is what Mom had
to say about it:

night was the ‘meet Jingmei’s parents night’. Wet
dressed up and drove to a magnificent Chinese restaurant in a
converted mansion on embassy row.

Wayan and I bore gifts brought
from the USA for Jingmei’s parents according to her suggestions.
Jingmei Mama and Jingmei Baba (literally Jingmei Mom and Jingmei
Dad, what she told us that we should call them) loved the book
about Florida, the dragon kite with two controls, the perfume, and
the fountain pen for calligraphy.

All of us had a
good time and JM was translating so well that we were all
comfortable with each other. Her parents are so kind and gracious
with pleasure radiating from their eyes because we are visiting
their historic and natural wonders.

Before I had a chance to digitize
the experience, Ma and I hit the road. Our first stop was Xi’an, home of
the famous Terracotta Army, and we were in awe of Qin Shi Huang’s efforts
to fight on even after death.

With 1,000 visible warriors (and
an estimated 8000 still unearthed), his ceramic army is impressive, even
after 2,500 years underground bleached off all the paint and a few
cave-in’s smashed many into bits.

Ma and I were fighting our own
battles aboveground, against the 40+ C heat (that’s 100+ F for you
Americans), muggy humidity, and endless dust. Mom kept doing rain dances
to try and induce a street-cleaning, dust-reducing tropical thunderstorm.
I applauded her efforts from the comfort of a beer kiosk in the shade.

Next we are off to Chengdu, home
of spicy food and endless tea gardens.