Short the distance: Hainan, Part One

There is Hainanese Chicken Rice on Hainan Island [海南岛]. Only it’s mostly crappy and the recipe’s most likely garnered from what Singaporean and Malaysian tourists tell the Hainan Islanders. The same goes for Hainanese coffee, Hainanese kaya and Hainanese mutton soup.

(The original Hainanese Chicken Rice is actually a steamed/boiled chicken dish from the city of Wenchang [文昌](‘Voon Sior’ in Hainanese) on Hainan, known as Wenchang Chicken. The chicken flavoured rice bit is a Singaporean invention).

I travelled to Hainan with my uncle and two cousins in 2002. My uncle was born on Hainan [海南] (as was my father), and this was his first visit in 70 years. He was very excited about returning to our family’s ancestral village, and from the moment I met him at KLIA, he was decked out in a three piece suit the entire trip. Very much the dapper returned emigre, he was. This trip also happened to be my first proper China visit, a madcap daytrip to Shenzhen from Hong Kong notwithstanding.

A group of around 90 odd ethnic Hainanese pilgrims organised this tour, which entailed chartering a Hainan Airlines Boeing 737 to and from KL, a guided bus throughout the entire island, and full meal and board for five days. Having taken bus tours of Taiwan and Hong Kong before, I expected the five day itinerary to be very hectic. And I was right.

The flight from KL took off at two in the morning, and once on board, the flight attendants gamely tried to present themselves as an international carrier with international standards of service. Heck, there even was a short, plumpish, blonde attendant who sounded Russian. The pre-flight announcement was made in Mandarin, parts of which I understood; and attempted again in English, abruptly stopping when the attendant struggled with the pronounciation of ‘Kuala Lumpur’. Not many people care about in-flight, pre-flight, post-flight and safety announcements anyway, and a plane load of mostly elderly Hainanese hobbits weren’t going to be much different as they carried about chattering away in that gutteral tongue which sounds loosely like a bunch of angry turkeys. We weren’t going to get much shut eye on this flight. Might as well enjoy the food. If only we could enjoy the food. The food came in styrofoam boxes and was exactly the same thing as what I might have ordered for lunch from Ah Tan’s Economy Rice stall at Amoy Street Market for $3.

Three bites from the three dish and rice meal, and I reached for the moist towelette, the cover of which featured the airline’s logo with a most memorable tagline:

‘Short the Distance, Together the People’.

The four hour flight wasn’t short enough for ‘together the people’, especially me, as I had to fly from Singapore to meet my uncle and cousins at KLIA earlier. We landed at Sanya [三 亚] on the island’s south coast, much to our surprise, because the tour operator had told us we were flying to the provincial capital Haikou [æµ· 口](which is nearer to our ancestral village) instead. Never mind. I had read that Sanya boasted the nicest beaches and resorts in the whole of China. ‘China’s Hawaii’, so the official tourist boards trumpet.

And so, at 6.30am, but sufficiently excited about the trip, we stumbled out of the airport terminal (more like a bus station), and into a waiting tour van, greeted by a pugnacious little Mandarin speaking tourguide, who happily announced we were only checking into our hotel at 7pm that evening because our tour of Sanya and its environs would commence immediately.

I tried to sleep again on the van. But the tourguide spoke non-stop, and mostly about herself, how she was born there, grew up in Guangzhou, came back to Hainan and how she loved the island, its people and its culture. With lunch hour came a much welcomed respite. We stopped on one of Sanya’s strips of beaches. With clear blue skies, pristine white sands, coconut palms and salty sea air, it was hard to imagine this being part of China, the only other strange thing being that there was practically nobody on the beach. No sunbathers, no windsurfers, no lifeguards, no ice cream vans, no nothing. Eerie, almost.

A barely passable lunch was taken at a hotel, not the hotel we were to check in to, but which allowed me to grab as many tourist related brochures and maps as possible, just so I could get my bearings. From the brochures I discovered that Sanya used to be (and to a certain extent, still is) an official Communist Party retreat venue, with hefty discounts (but of course) for government officials and dignitaries from what’s left of the Communist bloc. There were German, Russian and Korean versions of the brochures.

Back on the van for the afternoon, and on which I stupidly sat on the sunny side of, the tourguide took it as a personal slight that her charges were dozing off, and recommenced her chatter while we travelled to a dozen tourist traps disguised as ethnic minority villages of the indigenous Li (Hlai), Miao, Hui, Ah Beng, Ah Lian, Sum Seng, et al. She even broke into song at one stage, a-capella. Thankfully, we didn’t have one of those vans equipped with an infernal mobile karaoke machine.

When we finally did check in at our hotel, a rather well-appointed four star set up, so it seemed from the outside, I was ready to collapse on my bed. And that is when I made the discovery that coconuts were a major Hainan Island commodity. I thought nothing of flopping onto the hotel bed and falling fast asleep. And so I flopped onto the bed, and hit the coconut husk mattress hard.

Apparently, they make almost everything out of almost every part of the coconut plant. There was even a coconut husk ashtray next to the coconut husk covered hotel directory (one of the room service menu items included ‘Fresh Hainan Coconut Drink Product’) . It made sense for me to check where the fire exits were before sleep took hold and I finally rested for the night.

[to be continued… next instalment: our plans to hijack the tour van]