Discovering Hainan: China’s island of romance

One of the greatest rewards of being a frequent traveler is the joy of discovering new information that often leads to new experiences.

Discovering Hainan:  China’s island of romance

One of the greatest rewards of being a frequent traveler is the joy of discovering new information that often leads to new experiences. Having learned this early on in my career, I treat every trip as if it were a blank canvas. I have but one rule: show up at the airport on time. Wherever my ticket takes me, I’m fully immersed in the experience the moment the plane takes off. As a guest to a destination, I’m keen to say yes to every opportunity that is offered to me, except situations that can potentially put others or me in harm’s way. This is a formula that has worked for me more than it has failed. Even in less desirable outcomes, there were always lessons learned.

Before my trip to Hainan, I had absolutely no idea about the place except what former World Travel & Tourism Council president and CEO Jean Claude Baumgarten had told me during our chat in 2011. Baumgarten, post-WTTC, was hired as a consultant for Hainan Tourism and by his account, it was “China’s tropical island.” That much I knew.

In my previous article on Hainan, I touched on what I felt was an unnecessary move by Hainan Tourism officials in marketing Hainan. I stand by what I said that such a move is doing more damage to Hainan than good. You can read the article here:

That article aside, Hainan has gifted me with so many wonderful discoveries that it has taken me some time to really digest it all. Yes, it is a tropical island and has everything all other tropical island destinations have to offer. But, it has its own unique flair, setting itself apart from the others. There are folklore, customs and traditions as well as tourist sites that I’ve discovered and they reek of one thing – Hainan is home to China’s storied land of affection. Or simply, China’s island of romance.

There was no better ambassador of this message than our tour guide who for the purpose of convenience went by Mark, because his Chinese name is very hard to pronounce. One of the first few things he told attendees of the three-day post-World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit tour was that he recently got married. Unbeknownst to him, sharing this info would serve as the catalyst to my Hainan discoveries that when connected together makes Hainan China’s island of romance. According to him, it is in Hainan’s tradition that a man who wishes to pursue a lover has to go through a rigorous test – he must stand outside of the woman’s house and sing! If she fancies his voice, only then will he be invited in.

“Do you want to hear me sing?” asked Mark. Naturally, my tour group was curious and unanimously said, “Yes!” Our guide then proceeded to sing a “traditional Hainan love song.” The sheer boldness of singing in front of an international group of people he had only known for a mere ten minutes made me attentive, curious and envious all at the same time. I didn’t understand the song, but I was captivated. Watch the video below to see what I mean.

Our first stop was the Li And Miao Ecological Cultural Tourism Area of Ganza Ridge Areca Valley (called Binglanggu), where I learned about Hainan’s aboriginal group called the Li people. It was an excellent tour starting point and an important one, because Li people are the earliest inhabitants of Hainan Island, dating back 7000-3000 BC of the late and middle Stone Age. Aside from learning about Li people’s history and religion, there were specific traditions that stood out, such as their marriage practice. The Li family is typical of a monogamous patriarchal family in which the husbands control the economic power, and arranges labor and production, and is the representative in social functions. The wife is integral in production labor and is regarded highly as well.

What makes the Li marriage particularly curious is the courtship that takes place before the wedding and in itself, the wedding. Li people’s unique courtship is whimsical and long-standing. In the museums, there were historical proofs of this. Mark was not kidding! By age 15, Li people can select their future mate through “antiphonal singing.” Basically, when a boy likes a girl, he goes to her house and sings his heart out. If she likes his singing, he gets invited in, which is the first step towards marriage. According to written record, very little is paid attention to financial status and family background, as long as the husband has ample betrothal gifts (such as betel nuts, betel leaf, tobacco, rice, silver and most importantly, present a new dress which he himself prepared. The wedding in itself entails an elaborate event with one very specific requirement – a music band.

Li people’s simple approach to romance has remained consistent, transcending time through music. The fact that Mark, the tour guide, is still singing the same song is a manifestation of this influence by Hainan’s earliest inhabitants. The Binglanggu tour allows them to showcase this musicality through a brief stage show, which tells the story of the Li people through songs and dances.

If the Li people provided some hints of Hainan’s romantic past, a stop at Yanoda Rainforest Tourism Zone showed China’s island of romance in its present day form. Yanoda is a haven for romantics with lots of opportunities for couples to profess their love and commit them through pictures. Yanoda provides a magnificent backdrop as well as romance-theme photo sections (nothing says we belong together more than being photographed with your significant other inside a giant ring).

Loveless? Don’t fret. At Yanoda, there are designated areas to wish for love or to get “blessed” for love. There’s even a wishing bridge to place wishes on. If praying for love is a bit of a stretch, there are plenty of people around and finding one who is in the same boat may require one simple step – say hello!

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Yanoda’s natural setting has been enhanced by various elements making it a worthwhile stop for nature lovers and adventure-seekers. The rainforest is home to various species and offers a diverse flora and fauna that is sure to keep you busy clicking your camera. It does also involve a lot of walking to keep you on your toes. It even has a zip-line feature to get your adrenaline going.

Deeply embedded in Hainan’s history is the culture of romance, and there’s no better proof of this than the old Chinese adage that the site, Tianya Haijiao (translated: the end of the Earth), is referring to. The site is not particularly the most scenic of places nor does it offer a hospitable beach. Quite the contrary, the beach is rocky and swimming is most definitely a challenge. To appreciate this spot, one needs to discover of the backstory.

According to Chinese folklore, Tianya Haijiao derives its name from the reference by ancient Chinese people as the place where the end of the Earth meets the sky/heaven. The site’s remoteness eventually became synonymous with romance as the greatest gesture of affection. The mark of true love is enduring the test of time and space. For Chinese people, that is similar to traveling to Tianya Haijiao to either follow or wait for the love of their life. “I will follow you to Tianya Haijiao” is not merely a line from a poem for Chinese people, it is the most important promise one can ever offer a love interest

These days, Tianya Haijiao is a symbol of a long-lasting and successful marriage, making it a popular wedding and honeymoon spot among Chinese couples and spectators alike. Whether you are marrying the love of your life or hoping to meet him or her, Tianya Haijiao provides quite the setting for it. It is a rare testament for a tourist site capability to draw people in based on substance, not on superficial merit. For me, seeing the crowds was affirmation that China’s romantic side resides in Hainan.

All over Hainan, heart-shaped objects can be found. They come in many forms and can be found even in the most random places. One in particular, there was a giant heart placed in the middle of a vacant field. I’m not sure if there was a connection to be made with respect to its location or just another display that seeing it means I was in China’s island of romance. Given all what I have learned about the island, I chose to believe the latter.

In line with China’s romantic side are hotels that are perfect for couples and families. Hainan has managed to blend nature and its hotel inventory harmoniously with what may seem like an organic experience is really the end-result of a well-thought out plan. Case in point: Narada Tropical Resort. This property, located in Baoting (some 90 minutes from Sanya International Airport), is the ideal retreat in that it offers the best of so many worlds, with romance and rejuvenation topping the list. Guests have at their disposal a variety of hot spring treatments as well as a meditation session with a world-renowned tai chi master (see him in action in the video below.)

To appreciate Hainan means one must appreciate China as a whole. In all the sites that we visited, there was always a crowd. So, expect a crowd if you go. For me, seeing Chinese tourists in droves authenticated my experience as a genuine one. If romance is the product, I’m buying it, because the Chinese themselves are the main consumers. To witness that even to this day, Tianya Haijiao still holds such deep meaning as an honored tradition is a moving experience. No rollercoaster or theme park can fabricate the kind of heartfelt connection I experienced visiting all the sites I went to.

This is a personal preference resulting from a humanistic view – that the so-called connected world has turned devices into a human vice, thereby obliterating the need for casual conversations. When was the last time you said hello or just smiled at someone while waiting to board a flight? Since the advent of “touch” technology, airport lounges have become a place to expect human decay to be at play. Where else can you find more people connected to their devices rather than establishing contact with the person next to them? Hainan’s story is remarkable because it thrives on the exact opposite – people interacting with each other to build connections that become stories passed on through generations. Hainan’s past is in the present as will the present be in the future. The Li people, Yanoda and Tianya Haijiao are certainly not going anywhere as long as the Chinese people believe that a mere song can turn two strangers to lovers.

Hainan has left an indelible mark in me in that it truly celebrates the simple things in life where a song is not just a song. It can very well be the basis of a real life story about meaningful transitions or even life-changing situations such as romance and possibly marriage. To bear witness to this as a tourist is compelling, as one has to pay attention, to listen and to partake, if necessary. Although I’m not in the market for marriage, I’m ever grateful that a place called Hainan exists. It is a place where one can sing and dance to their heart’s content. To be in the moment no matter how silly it may seem. I know that I did that to the fullest extent and without reservation. The stories, the sites, the people form a culture that is very much connected by heart. To put it simply, Hainan is love made in China.

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