China's betel nut-chewin' islanders, the Li people of Hainan

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: June 7th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments

Southern China's Miao ethnic minority

Li Minority_Sanya_hainan With a population of 1.3 billion and counting, China constitutes just under 20% of the world's inhabitants. Making up the vast majority of residents (91.59%) are the ubiquitous Han, leaving just a little over 8% to the 56 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the People's Republic. In Minority Report, we explore the colorful characters, customs and cultures of these fascinating peripheral groups. >>> Beneath the bourgeois society that is slowly making Sanya its home away from home toil the original settlers and cultivators of the land, the native Li people. They drive the Chinese tuk-tuks, they grill the seafood, they sell the smokes out of little corner shops, and the alleys of downtown Sanya are filled with the multi-toned inflections of their Cantonese-influenced native speech. They also chew betel nuts, chill out in hammocks beneath palm trees, and love to sip on wine-laced fruit juice and swap lies about the fish they caught that morning. The Li are island folk and have been so for 3,000-some years, even if they do originally hail from Fujian and Guangdong.

Island style

The first guy I saw out of the airport was a betel juice-spittin' Hainan islander in flip flops and tube socks. He had a three-hair mustache and a kink in his neck that made him lean even when he was standing. He tried to charge me RMB 50 for a RMB 10 cab ride, and when I tried to haggle he just spat out some blood red juice, dropped his shades down over his eyes and ignored me. That's island. Li Minority_hainan_sanya While I was waiting for the Line 25 bus outside of Tianya Haijiao, I watched three kids naked from the waist down watch me as some chickens pecked in the dirt between us. It was hot as sin and the breeze was taking a rest. A hip-swaying mama sauntered across the street and handed me a plastic cup of mango pulp and ice. When I dug in my pockets for cash she waved me off, spat some juice and waddled back across the street. That's island. Things move slow on Hainan island, even when the modern world has encroached as much as it has in Sanya. The Li are making do as best as they can. They are street-level hustlers making as much cash as they can off of the tourists, and they are builders of new homes (using cash from the land they sold to resort developers). It's not easy. For some of us, the "Li village" set up by the government is just too much. Fake homes, fake dress, fake smiles on fake dancers as overfed tourists snap pics and take video with their (fake?) iPhones. But when I look around, I'm the only one with a screwface on. The dancers are making the money it takes to lift a family out of poverty and they feel no shame performing traditional dances for money.

Evolution of a backwater

Li Minority_hainan_sanya The Li are not the only minorities here and the Han aren't the only arrivals. When the original Yue people arrived in pre-historic times, they encountered naught but wild forest fowl, boar and a coastline of cliffs, sandy beaches and oysters that would become famous over time for their pearls. It was not until after the fall of the Qin and the rise of the Han Dynasty a little less than 2,000 years ago that the Mainland re-established formal contact with the island. At that time, Hainan was known as a place of exile and a source of some of the best pearls in the Old World. The subsequent dynasties called Hainan Qiongzhou (Qióngzhōu, 瓊州) or Zhuya ( Zhūyá, 珠崖), in reference to the pearls and cliffs. For centuries Hainan remained a remote extension of Guangdong Province, itself an on and off again extension of the different empires that came and went with the years. The native Li were joined slowly by a Miao minority that migrated from Guangxi and the sons and daughters of exiled officials whose bloodlines mixed in with the natives until they too became, in effect, Li. It wasn't until modern times that the island received large waves of migrants and refugees from the wars and political conflicts and economic duress that China suffered for the past 250 years. Ming dynasty rebels, fleeing from the Qing; foreign merchants, tearing open the doors of the tottering empire; Nationalist soldiers—first as invaders and then as refugees; Japanese soldiers; Communist guerrillas; Hui and Cantonese merchants... slowly the percentage of Li-controlled land went from around 100% to 55%, where it hovers today. Most of the land that remains to them is in the mountains and jungles of the central and southern part of the island—right where the new tourist boom is hitting the hardest.

Tropical paradise and tropical home

Li Minority_hainan_sanya The newest development in Sanya's tourism boom is the massive buildup happening right now in Haitang Bay, just east of the famous Yalong Bay resort strip. Haitang Bay is the megalith to Yalong's stele. More land, bigger buildings, faster construction, more advanced infrastructure and a grander vision. Yalong Bay brought Sanya onto the event circuit scene—Miss Universe, BRICS, yacht club races, etc.—but Haitang Bay is destined to be the next step: Think G8 for example... the Great Summit between the West and the East... or first contact with aliens, perhaps? And when the aliens do come, they can sit back and film local Li minority bamboo dances in eight separate minority villages that will be interspersed across the Haitang Bay development zone. Eight. Model. Villages. With all of the kitsch and klatsch that that entails. (Anyone been to Lijiang lately? Like that, but bigger, faster, louder, more). It's all in the plan. Contrast that with the last remaining strongholds of island style, authentic Li life, deep in the Wuzhi Mountains (Wuzhi Shan) north of Sanya. The destinations, the travel agents involved and the people who go there couldn't be more different. "When I came to Sanya in 1993, there was one bus for the whole southern part of the island," said Gansu native Caddie Lu, founder of SunnySanya. "And it ran whenever it wanted to." Caddie worked in the tourism agency for more than 10 years—as a travel agent and in sales and marketing for the Gloria Regent resort—before starting her own travel agency and hotel in 2006. She spent a good year struggling to keep the business because her plan was to market the "real Sanya" to a very different type of traveler than the ones we commonly see on the streets and beaches of Hainan. Li Minority_hainan_sanya "We had a very hard time, there were weeks when I had only one guest," she said. "But I knew there was a market for the type of hotel that was close to the beach, was clean, had a good Western breakfast, and had an internationally trained staff and was not out-of-control expensive." In effect, the classic hostel you find up and down southeast Asia and pretty much any town in Europe. The first hurdle she had to overcome were the tour groups who dominate travel to Sanya. The basic approach of the tour group operators is to tell a hotel: "we can fill your place up every day, but we will only give you RMB 60 or RMB 70 per night, per person...." They then take the tourists out and basically try to fleece them with every scam in the book. This is the type of tourism that makes everything a commodity, killing the small-time artisan, the local authentic culture and anything that has any soul whatsoever. "I knew there was a market, so we struggled and made it and now most of our guests are family or FIT (free independent travelers)." One look around her hostel and you are convinced that indeed, that market exists. Young Chinese couples, young foreign couples, a family of four (with grandma) and various single travelers with guide books and breakfast sit quietly in the garden of her small hotel. Some of them ask for tours, but most leave during the day and come back at night to relax in the garden and check out the day's haul of photos. "For me the best places to go are in the far west or into the middle where the mountains and rivers are," said 23-year-old Sichuan native Wang Qing, who was spending three weeks in Sanya hostel-hopping. "The tourist places are not really for me. You don't really get to see the real Sanya." One of Caddie's favorite tours is up into the Wuzhi Shan area, where she takes visitors up to a Li minority village that is, as yet, relatively untouched (for better or for worse) by the modern tourism boom that is turning the beaches into luxury resorts. "The life hasn't changed there much," said Caddie. "It's a good chance for people to see what this island was like before the tour groups took over. It's still alive, that old culture and in my experience, that's what stays with people when they leave here. "
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