Nanyang cultural heritage thrives in Hainan

By Chen Shumin / HICN / Updated: 13:24,22-August-2021

Walk through the arcade architecture of the Old Street in Hainan’s Haikou and Wechang with their rows of arches and columns, and you will meet Southeast Asian history in Hainan. The coffee and tea houses with their aroma and delicious snacks reinforce the flavor of Nanyang, the Chinese name for Southeast Asia, and the colorful dresses and dances add to the exotic atmosphere. The legacy left by the early Hainanese, who ventured across the sea to Southeast Asia to make their fortune and returned home bringing a new knowledge, culture and outlook, thrives across the island, giving it its unique characteristics.


The arcade buildings (also called qilou) along the old streets across Hainan have their distinct characteristics. In Haikou they are spectacular, graceful in Wenchang, and splendid in Danzhou. Most of them were built by the successful businessmen who returned from Nanyang, thus giving the architecture its exotic and lofty look. The baroque buildings with their concave-convex cornices and the graceful arched windows create an atmosphere of grandeur.

Built in the mid-19th century, the arcade buildings in Haikou reached their peak in the 1920s and 1940s as shipping and commerce flourished. As more and more overseas Hainanese returned and built their homes in their hometowns, the buildings gradually integrated a Eurasian style with the characteristics of Southeast Asian culture. They stand on narrow pavements, flanked by parapets, terraces meant for leisurely recreation, and quaint window lattices.

An arcade building in Haikou’s Old Street. (Photo by Liu Sunmou)

A prosperous commercial district, the Qilou Old Street in Haikou is where Hainan's political and commercial celebrities in modern times hang out.

Similar buildings can be seen along the Old Street in Wenchang, one of the three arcade streets in Hainan. It was built in the early 1920s, when a large number of overseas Hainanese returned after decades of hard work and accumulation of wealth to invest in buildings. They constructed rows of two- or three-storied arcade buildings along the Wenchang River, combining Chinese and Western architecture. The bronze statues in the street tell the story of their journey to Nanyang.   

An arcade building in Wenchang’s Old Street. (Photo by Feng Shuo)


In the early days, the Hainanese were famous for running cafes and tea houses in Southeast Asian countries. When they returned home, they brought back the food and eating habits of Nanyang, enriching the palate of locals and boosting Hainan’s innovative catering industry.

A Nanyang coffee house in Zhongyuan Town, Qionghai, Hainan. (Photo by Zhang Jie)

For example, the staple food of the Hainanese used to be rice and grains. Now it also includes bread. For daily beverages, in addition to traditional hot water and coconut juice, Hainan people now relish coffee, black tea, milk tea, fruit tea and other Southeast Asian concoctions. Laobacha (which literally means grandpa's tea accompanied by an assortment of snacks) has become a popular tea drinking culture in Hainan to be enjoyed with friends and relatives.

The overseas returnees brought the coffee drinking culture with them to Hainan. (Photo by Yuan Chen)

A result of the fusion of different cultures is the amalgamation of Hainan cuisine and Southeast Asian cuisine, creating unique dishes such as the coconut milk beef brisket curry, a specialty in Wanning, where many residents are returnees from Indonesia. The spicy flavor of the thick Indonesian curry is mellowed by coconut milk, bringing out the flavor of the beef and adapting it to local taste.

Chicken curry is a typical Southeast Asian dish. (Photo by Yuan Chen)

 Southeast Asian snacks in Wanning. (Photo by Yuan Chen)

Culture & Life

In Xinglong, a town in Wanning, the overseas Hainanese returning from different countries spoke different foreign languages and the “Xinglong Mandarin” that emerged from this melting pot shows the inclusiveness and unity in the local culture, combining Mandarin with the Hainan dialect and the Hakka accent.

Overseas returnees from Indonesia living in Xinglong. (Photo by Zhang Jie)

Besides their language and accent, the overseas returnees in Xinglong wear Southeast Asian clothes and decorate their homes in the same style. Men wear batik shirts in the colorful Malay style while women have permed hair and wear bright lipsticks. At key festivals, many women wear the Southeast Asian sarong, which gives the illusion of being in a foreign country.

When you visit an overseas returnee, the host will invite you to ring the small gong hanging at the door with a wooden mallet, which is an Indonesian custom. Also, the returnees love dancing. During important festivals, especially the Chinese New Year, whenever someone shouts, "Come out and dance,” they will put on their gorgeous clothes and dance to their favorite songs as long as they can.

Overseas Hainanese do a Southeast Asian dance. (Photo by Song Guoqing)



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