The fragrant history of coffee in Hainan

By Nicki Johnson / HICN / Updated: 21:21,19-June-2021

In Hainanese, coffee is known as “gebi”, and it’s often drunk black, or with a little sugar to cut the bitterness and add a sweet aftertaste. Some people enjoy it with a bit of milk or even condensed milk, which gives the beverage a rich, mellow flavor.

Coffee plays a large role in the cultural history of Hainan. Since the very first Robusta coffee seed was planted on the island by an overseas Hainanese merchant returning from Malaysia, coffee has begun to permeate the lives of the people of Hainan, drop by delicious drop.

Coffee cherries. (Photo by Deng Yu)

When you are here in Hainan, why not stop by one of the popular local “Daddy Tea” shops and order a steaming hot cup of “gebi”, fixed just the way you like it? Try a few of the specialty snack foods on offer, chat with your friends, daydream, sit in a sunbeam, and enjoy the relaxed, unhurried pace of island life as you sip your rich, aromatic coffee. Ahh, that’s true luxury.

 

Three generations of Fushan Coffee

Every holiday, the parking lot at the Fushan Coffee Cultural Village is filled with cars bearing license plates from all parts of the vast country of China. Everyone flocks to Fushan to get a taste of the original flavor of Hainan.

Behind every cup of perky Fushan coffee stand three generations who toiled to plant, roast, and prepare the beans. In Fushan, they grow Robusta coffee beans, which originally hail from the Indonesian island of Java. In 1933, the overseas Chinese Mr. Chen Xianzhang brought a handful of these magical beans back with him, where he planted and nurtured them as they adapted to the local conditions in Hainan. In 1976, a local Fushan resident named Xu Xiuyi convinced his whole family to invest in his newly opened coffee plantation, where they founded a joint company.

Xu Xiuyi’s son Xu Shibing inherited his father’s business, and soon it began to develop and expand. By 1986 the company had a registered geographic trademark, and in 2010 it was named a “Nationally Protected Geographic Mark Product”. The Fushan Cup International Barista Championship has now been held here a total of eight times, bringing together coffee experts from around the world to learn about and discuss the fine art of brewing excellent coffee.

Drink Qionghai “gebi” and taste the culture of Southeast Asia

Step into Qionghai’s Zhongyuan Town, and the many colorful buildings will instantly transport you across the South China Sea. Here you’ll find the “Old Southeast Asia Café”, where travelers from all over join locals as they sit in the slanting afternoon sun and savor each invigorating cup of coffee.

Old Southeast Asia Café in Zhongyuan Town. (Photo by Zhang Jie)

In Qionghai, the locals caught the coffee fever way back in 1908. The “Annals of Qionghai” record that in the 34th year of the reign of the Qing Emperor Guangxu (1908), the overseas Chinese He Linshu brought coffee seeds back from Malaysia and test planted them in a small area, where he was happily able to successfully grow coffee!

In the Old Southeast Asia Café, a strong Southeast Asian influence can be seen in each tiny detail. Here, a collection of antique objects from both the local countryside and from faraway across the sea have been burnished to a shine. Windows from different eras create a scene of picturesque disarray, and a group of mis-matched stones sit atop a low wall.

The aroma of Xinglong Coffee awakens the senses and renews the mind

In every Xinglong lane, you’ll see people clutching cups of coffee. Practically everyone here is addicted to the drink - it’s become a way of life. The town only has around 30,000 residents, but they support over 200 local coffee shops, each with its own unique ambiance.

Xinglong Coffee. (Photo by Yuan Chen)

As one of the three main hometowns of the nation’s overseas Chinese, Hainan is closely linked with these world travelers and the coffee they have come to love. Starting in the 1950’s, overseas Chinese returned to the Xinglong Overseas Chinese Farm from 21 different countries and regions around the globe, bringing with them coffee cultivation techniques, coffee bean processing methods, and a strong tradition of coffee drinking. They have had a great influence on the customs of the local people, and turned Xinglong into one of the main coffee producing regions of Hainan.

Xinglong coffee beans. (Photo: Yuan Chen)

Fresh coffee cherries must go through around ten steps of processing before they turn into the magical elixir known as coffee. They have to be picked, peeled, air-dried, de-husked, air-dried again, sifted, sorted, selected, and finally roasted and brewed - but the end product is 100% worth the effort, wouldn’t you agree? 

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