AT THE Meritus Mandarin in Haikou, capital of Hainan Island, I am making hardwork of a sinewy piece of Hainanese chicken, while surveying an empty shell of a building across the road.
'When will the building be completed?' I casually ask Mr Michael Lee, the hotel's Shanghainese director of sales, in between attempts to dissect the chicken. 'Never. It's been there for ages,' comes his quick reply.
In Haikou, half-finished construction wrecks are a more common sight than the coconut trees which have earned it the nickname Coconut City.
They are relics of the building boom and bust that played out in this island south of the Chinese mainland, a Special Economic Zone, in the 1990s.
But I am secretly thankful that Haikou is not quite the go-getting Chinese city of my imagination. Instead, the air is fresh and the mood languid, with surprisingly few bodies invading my personal space on the streets and public buses.
In Lao Ba Cha - or Father's Tea - joints throughout the city, much like Singapore coffee shops without the food stalls, men pay 2 yuan (40 Singapore cents) for an unlimited supply of tea and dawdle in the shops for the whole day.
The women - mostly petite and tanned - are usually the ones doing the hard work, like powering trishaws in the Old Town area or hawking local teas, dried seafood and clothes.
The locals are used to the easy life, what with the plentiful bounty they get on their isle, say the urbane hotel officials, all non-native naturally.
And there is a lot of bounty. Singaporean visitors, buoyed by the exchange rate of S$1 to 5 yuan, often cart home crates of mangoes or dried scallops.
Others even leave with Hainanese brides on their arms - often from Wenchang City, which is as famous for its women as its chicken dish (which spawned Hainanese Chicken Rice as it is known in Singapore).
The island exerts a strong pull over older Singaporeans of Hainanese descent, who return in droves to their ancestral home towns each year.
According to the Hainan tourism authorities, about 16,500 Singaporeans visited the island last year, up from about 6,250 in 2003.
On my flight to Haikou on Tiger Airways, elderly men and women armed with marketing trolleys of Apollo chocolate wafers in shiny red wrappers, cigarettes and beer made up the bulk of my fellow passengers.
Most were headed to visit relatives in coastal cities like Wenchang orQionghai.
As I am not Hainanese, I followed in the footsteps of the tourists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and Russia, and made for the island's five-star beach resorts in Sanya in the south instead.
With its clean sand and sparkling waters, Sanya, the venue for the Miss World beauty pageant from 2003 to 2005, is not a bad place to take a beach holiday.
Near Sanya, I spotted Jawi inscriptions, men and women with their heads covered, and even thought I heard people speaking Malay.
Later I found out that Hainan Island has a sizeable Muslim population,called the Hui people. Also common here are economic migrants from other parts of China, like taxi drivers from Hunan or hotel executives from Shanghai or Guangzhou.
Once a land of exile for disgraced officials and other 'bad eggs', the island now attracts millions of foreign and domestic tourists eager for the warmth of the southern sun. And the erstwhile provider of migrants to South-east Asia is now a magnet for migrants from other parts of China - a nod,surely, to the power of the tourist dollar.
Where to shop
- Stock up on dried seafood products, like dried oysters (about S$19 per 500 g)and scallops (about S$52 per 500 g) from the Dongmen Market in Haikou's Old Town.
- Pick up speciality teas such as the bittersweet Kuding Cha, said to be good for lowering cholesterol, and the sweet-tasting Lan Guiren, reputed to have beautifying qualities, from the shops fringing Boai Road and Jiefang Road.
- Singaporeans habitually lug back mangoes, lychees, rambutans, and coconut products such as coconut sweets or coffee mix with coconut milk. So should you.
What to see
- Hai Rui Tomb (Shugang Dadao, tel: 86-898-68922060) is worth a visit. Pay 10yuan (S$2) to pay your respects to Ming Dynasty official Hai Rui. He was the subject of a play The Dismissal Of Hai Rui, which praised his bravery in pointing out the emperor's errors, an oblique reference to General Peng Dehuai's criticism of leader Mao Zedong. This made Mao see red and helped light the flames of the Cultural Revolution.
Only a small courtyard, but plenty to fuel the imagination.
- Give yourself at least two days in Sanya, three-and-a-half hours drive from Haikou, to enjoy the sea breeze. An express coach there costs 78 yuan one-way.
Yalong Bay is said to be the best stretch of beach there. The perfect backdrop for a picture in your best bikini, as if you were Miss World herself.
- Pay 150 yuan to jostle with domestic visitors dressed in floral shirts and shorts at Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone, a kitsch theme park on the rocks 40kmwest from Sanya.
Another 20 yuan buys you a tram ride to Longevity Valley and Nanshan Temple to see a 108m-tall Goddess of Mercy.
- Sounds silly but you should make the trek here just to boast of having gone to 'the ends of the earth', the literal translation of Tianya Haijiao, a pair of coastal rocks at the southern end of Hainan.
You are likely to find like-minded tourists, and lovers dying to prove their willingness to go the distance. While there, queue up to take a snap with the two rocks, one inscribed with the word 'Tianya', the other with 'Haijiao'. If the two stones look familiar, that's because they are featured on the Chinese two-yuan note.
Where to sleep
- To live it up, try the five-star Meritus Mandarin Hotel (18 Wen Hua Road, tel:86-898-6854-8888, www.wenhuahotel.com), with views of the nearby harbour and downtown attractions. Rates start from 420 yuan a night.
- Haikou Tower Hotel (Bin Hai Road, tel: 86-898-66772990) is a good three-starhotel near the city's financial and business districts. Rates start from 236yuan a night.
Where to eat
- Try Haikou Wenchang Tanniu Chicken Rice Shop (Longhua Heng Road, tel:86-898-66700618) or Haikou Yanjiang Chicken Rice Shop (198 Longkun BeiRoad/Longyang Road, tel: 86-898-66791203) for the 'real' Hainanese chicken rice, known on the island as Wenchang Chicken.
Those used to the tender version in Singapore may find the original too fibrous. Use your hands, like the locals do.
- Hele Crab, so named because it hails from Hele in Wanning County, is said to be one of the top four dishes in Hainan, after Wenchang Chicken, Dongshan Mutton (stewed mutton in coconut milk) and Jiaji Duck (a crispy duck dish).
It is best eaten steamed to savour the sweet flesh and the slightly salty roe. Hainanese crabs, though, are scrawny compared to the Sri Lankan ones Singaporeans are used to.
A lunch for four at popular local eatery Qiong Cai Wang Mei Shi Chun (84,Middle Haixiu Road, tel: 86-898-68963993, with dishes like Hele Crab, Dongshan Mutton and Wenchang Chicken plus soup and vegetables cost around 200 yuan(S$40).
Getting there: Tiger Airways flies daily to Meilan International Airport. Fares start at$59.98 one-way. This does not include taxes of $154.25 (return basis).