Hainan Part 1: The Island of Paradise And Hell - My Own Family Saga

My long awaited Hainan story... here's part 1 of 5...

Hainan: The Island of Paradise And Hell
- My Own Family Saga

Hainan, a sub-tropical island province in the southernmost of China 34,000 square kilometers in surface area, this is a land of ethnic as well as biodiversity. Hainan first became part of the China during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). Central control for the next thousand years was mainly exercised through a series of coastal colonial fortresses and frontier settlements, occasionally besieged by the seemingly never-ending tribal rebellions of the indigenous Li[1] people who had moved inland to the deep jungles in the inland of Hainan as their lands were taken over by Mainland settlers.

Over the last millennia, successive spurts of settlers came from Fujian[2] Province and other parts of the Mainland, especially whenever civil conflict broke out. A separate tongue and culture evolved in Hainan from this admixture of Min-nan[3] (southern Fujian), Mainland and the indigenous Li peoples.

Hainan, with its humid tropical jungles and malaria-infested swamps, was for a long time, the Chinese equivalent of the proverbial Darkest Africa. Dissident ministers and officials or simply anyone who had lost favour with the emperor were exiled to Hainan. This was the Chinese Siberia – a land that Li Deyu[4], a Tang Dynasty prime minister who was exiled to Hainan in 849 A.D. and died one year later, called the “Gate To Hell[5]” and lamented that it would take half a year even for a bird to fly from the imperial capital to Hainan[6].

Today, however, Hainan is China’s answer to Hawaii. On the sunny beaches on the southern coast of Hainan, millions of sun-seekers from the new Middle Class of China’s northern cities indulge in the sun, sand and the sea. What the ancients saw as abhorrent, the modern men sees as paradise.


Taijia: Barbarian Guests

Uncle Shan and Dad picked me up at the George Soros-invested Meilan[7] Airport of Haikou[8], capital of Hainan, and we sped on the largely empty motorway towards Wenchang[9]. Wenchang, one of the two major counties in eastern Hainan where most of the Hainanese Diaspora had originated, was where my family had lived since the 17th century. Mum and Dad, along with Aunt Neo, wife of Dad’s late elder brother, had flown here from Singapore a week before. Uncle Shan, although born in Singapore, lived in China most of his life and is a Chinese citizen.

According to the local government website, whilst the county has half a million inhabitants today, descendants of Wenchang emigrants number about more than 1.2 million. Hainan has long been a poor, neglected part of China. Between the 19th century and 1949 when the Communists took over China, the Hainanese people, especially those who live in the more densely populated eastern coast of the island, had been emigrating to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Being a frontier province, Hainan had suffered from neglect by the Chinese government who for a few decades had preferred to develop the inland provinces, which were further away from Taiwanese bombers. For many years, Overseas Hainanese have been remitting funds to support their poor relatives in Hainan, and since economic reforms in China began in 1979, have been investing heavily in businesses in the province, as well as sponsoring schools, roads and various infrastructure projects in the land of their forefathers. Even then, Hainan’s GDP per capita is about US$1,000, close to the national average but far lower than the other fast developing coastal provinces of China (e.g., Guangdong US$2,000, Shanghai US$5,600).

After about an hour plus on the motorway, we turned into a two and half kilometer dirt track through countryside interspersed with rice paddies, prawn farms, coconut plantations and groves of fruit trees. And then a signboard “Taijia Village[10]”. Taijia Village has over 200 inhabitants, many of whom are somehow closely or distantly related to my family. Interestingly, there are more descendants of Taijia emigrants in Singapore than inhabitants of Taijia, although, increasingly, few of these Taijia-Singaporeans, especially the younger generation, care much about this link with the ancestral village. Even then, like many villages in eastern Hainan, Taijia Village is full of well-restored (complete with satellite dishes and modern amenities) but empty houses belonging to the Hainanese Diaspora whose members come by once in a while from abroad.

Dad was born in Taijia in 1938. Economic and political chaos in China in the 19th and early 20th century subsequent years have forced many people in Taijia to flee to Southeast Asia. Dad and his elder brother were brought to Singapore by their parents fleeing the Japanese who invaded Hainan in 1940. Stubborn resistance by the Hainanese brought massive vengeance from the Japanese, who killed one third of the island’s male population. Dad’s younger brother, Uncle Shan was born in Singapore but was brought to Hainan after WWII by Grandmother who had to return temporarily to deal with family matters.

Then came the Communist Revolution in 1949, and the British colonials in Singapore decided to stop the movement of population between Singapore and China in order to stem “Communist infiltration”. Father and his elder brother grew up in Singapore without their mother, and Uncle Shan, who was with his mother in China, grew up in China without his father, who was in Singapore. Grandfather and grandmother passed on in Singapore and China respectively without meeting each other again.

Dad only met his brother again in 1986, when we visited China. I still remember that emotional scene – Dad hugging Uncle Shan, both crying. My family, like that of many others in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia, were divided by the Cold War. Do any of you – especially Westerners - ever understand why the issue of Taiwanese independence is more than just native Taiwanese desire for democracy and a separate identity? To many ethnic Chinese in and outside China, it is the result of the Cold War and Big Power manipulation that have divided families and nations.


We drove through narrow lanes with quaint traditional farmhouses with small courtyards, and then stopped beside one with a few coconut trees in front. “Here it is, our family home,” Father said.

I walked through the gate, refitted in traditional style with an elegant Chinese rooftop and a plaque with the words “Yin Chuan Di”[11] which indicated the region in northern China where the family originated more than 2000 years ago. I found myself in a pretty garden courtyard with an old ancestral hall standing at the far end and a modern house constructed a few years ago by the side.

And there was Mum and Aunty Neo waving at me at the ancestral hall. The ancestral hall is the most important building in any traditional Chinese family complex. This is where the altar dedicated to one’s ancestor can be found. Except for the fact that the family moved to Taijia in the 17th century, no one knew when this ancestral hall was built. Dad and his late brother remitted money 15 years ago to restore the building which fell into disrepair, because Uncle Shan by then was living in Wenchang City 18km away.

On the traditional terracotta tiled rooftop and outer walls of the building were painted ceramic carvings of dragon and other traditional symbols of longevity, good health and wealth. Some joss sticks were stuck on ledges at the door to offer protection to those who enter, and pieces of red paper bearing messages of good fortune were stuck on the door and over it.

Major family decisions took place in the ancestral hall, where the ancestors were informed about family weddings, deaths, new business ventures and all major events. The centerpiece of the ancestral hall is the ancestral altar. Traditionally, offerings were placed everyday to honour the ancestors, as well as more elaborated prayers on the first and fifteenth day of every lunar month, major festivals, and on the death anniversaries of ancestors.

The altarpiece is a beautifully carved wooden work, with intricate floral figurines and symbols of fortune and wealth. There used to be elaborately carved family tablets and ceremonial vases on the altar but they have since disappeared during the chaotic era of the Cultural Revolution (1965 – 1975). In fact, fanatical Red Guards had once rampaged through the village, destroying family altars and all symbols of traditional culture and what they saw as “feudal practices”. Grandmother had courageously buried the altar in the backyard where it survived. Today, the altar looked somewhat worn-out and we have suggested that it should be painted in lacquer to restore it to its former glory.

On the ceiling, about five meters high, were talisman with words of good fortune and brightly coloured frescoes of country-scenes and local flora and fauna, which according to the government website, are unique characteristics of village architecture in Wenchang county. Really cool!

Around the courtyard were buildings which used to house the concubines of a wealthy 19th century ancestor, who was showered with presents from the emperor, for saving the latter during an incident nobody now remembers, while as a captain of a trading boat on which the emperor was traveling incognito. These buildings have since collapsed from disrepair and typhoon, which strikes this region from time to time. A few years ago, Dad and his brother funded the construction of a new house on the side of the courtyard.

We set off for the village temple 50 meters from our house, and made offerings to the ancestors and village gods. Firecrackers were set off to honour the ancestors and gods while we kowtowed to the temple altar. Inscriptions on the temple walls and an outdoor opera stage indicated that Dad and many family friends in Singapore had contributed funds to the rebuilding of these over the last two decades – once again an indication of the importance of the Diaspora.

Dad and another Taijia-Singaporean also “informed” the ancestors and village gods that the Taijia association in Singapore had closed for good, and asked for their “understanding” of the circumstances that have left to the unfortunate decision. Sacrifices were also offered and fire crackers set off on behalf of the defunct association to honour the ancestors and the gods.

We returned to the house, where more than a hundred and thirty villagers have gathered for a lunch hosted by us, at a fraction of the cost of a similar meal in Singapore. More firecrackers setting off, and the villagers gave us – whom they call “huan ke[12]”, literary “guests from barbarian lands” – small tokens of appreciation for hosting the lunch – ranging from more fire crackers to fruits, fish and live octopus!

How times have changed. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, visiting Overseas Chinese often found themselves besieged by poverty-stricken distant relatives they hardly knew, who asked for cash, household appliances, bicycles, and gifts of any kind imaginable, which gave the impression that these people were greedy, rude and uncouth. During the last decade, drastically improved standards of living have given the people a sense of confidence and social grace. Now they welcome us as friends and relatives and expect little more than a greeting and respect for our shared past.

[1] Li (黎族), also known as the Hlai.
[2] Fujian Province (福建省) – A coastal province in southeastern China, which is the origins of major Overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
[3] Min-nan (闽南), literally meaning southern Fujian, one of the two major dialects spoken in Fujian. Also the predominant mother tongue spoken of most Taiwanese, Chinese-Philipinos and Chinese-Singaporeans.
[5] 一去一万里,千之千不还。崖州在何处,生度鬼门关!
[6] 独上高楼望帝京,鸟飞犹是半年程,青山似欲留人住,百匝千遭绕郡城
[7] 海口美兰机场
[8] 海口市
[9] 文昌市
[10] 泰家村
[12] 藩客