Qīngmíng Jié, also known as “Tomb Sweeping Day” is a special occasion observed by some Chinese families. It’s a time for them to visit the gravesite or temples to pay their respects to their ancestors. Unlike Singapore, countries like China, Hong Kong and Taiwan all recognized it as a national holiday with most people taking the day off from work/school to travel to their ancestral grave sites. All these years, my family’s custom simply saw us paying respects to our ancestors at the local temples. This year was different. My parents felt that the time was ripe for my sister and I to trace the legacy of our ancestors and so in April, we booked that flight to sunny Hainan island…
What does being Hainanese really mean? I don’t understand the dialect and neither am I able to speak it. The only Hainanese thing about me is that I like to eat roasted Chicken Rice. But then again, despite its name, I learnt that this popular dish was actually invented by Singaporeans. The closest version is the 文昌鸡 (Wen Chang Chicken) which bears close resemblance in appearance but not in taste. Upon arriving at Haikou (better known as “Coconut City”), we were warmly greeted by three of my distant cousins (met them for the first time!) who took their day off from work to be our ‘guides’. Good weather, checked. The traffic situation in Haikou reminds me of being in Bangkok. Rules here are practiced half-heartedly. Cars and motorbikes cruise in all directions. Ferrying a family of three to four on a motorbike is also normal.
Getting Around Haikou City
Personally, I feel that Haikou embraces both modern and old vibes. On the modern side, you see modernized architecture, high-rise condominiums, interlining expressways and a couple of shopping complexes. Streets are also lined with a variety of food stalls selling their homegrown fruits – betelnuts, coconuts, jackfruits and lychees. The people’s love for BBQ seafood is also widely seen here. As you drive around at night, bustling night markets and colorful neon lights illuminate the streets. I recall feeling so in tuned with a character in the Chunking Express movie. Never mind that I had to squeeze with four other passengers in the car, the warm glow of the neon lights was simply a sight to behold.
Conversely, much of the old city remains unchanged. Some of the buildings still reflect the colonial influence with tiled roofs “flying” or upturned. Technology adoption here remains slow. The 4-stars hotel which I stayed surprisingly had really poor WiFi signals and zero facilities like the gym or swimming pool. Since smoking is also not prohibited indoors and outdoors, it’s hard to find a spot in Haikou where you can dwell in fresh, clean air.
Throughout the trip, my family really felt the warm hospitality and generosity expressed by my distant Uncle and his wife. To say we were well-fed at every meal is an understatement. I feel that the people in Hainan or traditional Chinese in general enjoy entertaining guests in decent places like restaurants. It’s their way of building and strengthening “关系” – Guanxi or relationships, one of the most powerful elements in Chinese culture. This term expresses the relationship of one person to another, almost like an obligation built overtime by a reciprocation of social exchanges and favors.
By establishing this type of relationship with someone, the other party is implicitly agreeing to be also available to reciprocate when the need arises. After dinner on the first day, an old friend of my Uncle (who was coincidentally dining at the same restaurant) actually foot the dinner bill and joined us for a bit before leaving. I also noticed that most of the table arrangements were already pre-booked by my Uncle’s family. Being surrounded by chatter and laughter while dining in a private room is also a typical ambience throughout the trip.
Hainan people love to eat. The style and taste of cooking is similar to Singapore’s. My only gripe is their habit of not eating rice. Originally, I thought the staple food in China was rice. I love rice! So naturally, I was mentally prepared to see bowls of rice (and lots of steamy xiao long baos) on the table. But no! I kept seeing an assortment of meat, vegetables and tofu dishes. Once again, I said hello to the 文昌鸡 (Wen Chang Chicken) and still no sight of rice! Maybe because everyone assumed there was enough food on the table and rice was not necessary. Everyone but me. So, I courageously signaled to the waitress for a bowl of steamy grain goodness. Ah…now that’s what I’m talking about!
I shall end Part I of my Hainan travel encounters here and leave you with more snapshots of this city. Stay tuned for the highlight of this whole trip in Part II where we’ll escape civilization and travel to Qionghai Village and meet the rest of my distant “Pang” relatives.
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(All photos taken by my sister and I)