The island where Hainanese Chicken Rice was born
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
What to see
Where to sleep
Where to eat
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).
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