Time-honored adventures of the Hainanese in Southeast Asia

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

The people of Hainan have a long tradition of trading and doing business in Southeast Asia, or Nanyang. The geographic features and socio-economic conditions in Hainan, including natural disasters and wars, drove generations of its people to venture out across the ocean to Southeast Asia to make a living. A large number of trade guilds developed subsequently, helping the island to adopt an export-oriented development model.

The emigrants left their hometown, went far to a foreign country, and made a living or realized their dreams there. The trend of generations of Hainanese or overseas Hainanese availing of the opportunities created by global economic and cultural development to carve out new living spaces and job opportunities for themselves has become a unique characteristic of the island with the passage of time.  

These daring people have played an important role in promoting the maritime business culture of the Hainanese across the world, and their spirit of adventure has encouraged others in various fields.

An aerial view of Qinglan Port in Wenchang, from where many Hainanese historically set out for Southeast Asia. (Photo by Yuan Chen)

In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when China developed its relations with foreign countries unprecedentedly with frequent exchanges, especially with Southeast Asia, Hainan, located at the center of the South China Sea’s central and western routes, boasted rich native tropical products. It established close, extensive ties with many Southeast Asian countries, which enabled the Hainanese to emigrate to these countries.

By the end of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the trade between Hainan and Southeast Asia had reached a considerable scale. During this time, the island’s products, such as agarwood, betel nuts, rosewood and galangal or Siamese ginger, became frequent bulk exports shipped by sea.

Although the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Government implemented a strict sea trade ban policy, it was unable to cut off private trade. Thanks to Hainan’s unique geographic conditions, its trade with Southeast Asia continued to thrive.

Wenchang’s Puqian Port, one of the major ports from where Hainanese used to set sail for Southeast Asia in the past. (Photo by Feng Shuo)

In 1730, when the sea trade ban was partly lifted, another tide of emigration occurred from the island. Groups of adventurers went to Nanyang by sail boat or fishing boat from Puqian Port and Qinglan Port in Wenchang in northeast Hainan, as well as from Tanmen Port and Bo’ao Port in Qionghai on the east coast of the island.

When China’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression started in 1937, a number of Hainanese fled to Southeast Asia with their families to avoid the upheavals that would follow when the Japanese troops invaded the island.

In addition, statistics show that Hainan saw another increase in emigration since China’s reform and opening up began in 1978.



The Old Street in Puqian Town, Wenchang (Photo by Feng Shuo)

The emigration from Hainan to Southeast Asia is one of the three major waves of migration in the history of modern China (1840-1949). The other two were from Shandong Province in east China to the northeast and from Shanxi Province in north China to the northwest.

According to the records, the three cities and counties in Hainan with the highest number of people venturing to Nanyang are Wenchang, Qionghai and Wanning. Today, almost every village on the eastern coast of Hainan has relatives living overseas and the links with these overseas relatives are still going strong.

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