An American in Hainan: seeing and believing

By Xie Jianing & Tao Xing / Beijing Review / Updated: 11:11,14-September-2021

Tommy Coleman picks tealeaves at a farm in Wuzhishan, Hainan Province, on July 19   

By posting attention-grabbing snippets on China's short video platform Douyin, it took an account going by the name Hainan Boy only eight months to grow a following that evolved from three in November 2020 to 72,000 on September 6.

The account comes courtesy of Los Angeles native Tommy Coleman who has been living in China since 2006. The videos he uploads, in which he speaks standard Chinese, Hainan dialect as well as English, usually go pretty heavy on the tongue-in-cheek humor. All in good spirits.

The content is mainly based on Coleman's life in Hainan, including local delicacies, traditional customs, beautiful landscapes, and basically anything and everything related to culture and daily life in the southernmost Chinese province. For example, he introduced what he likes most about Hainan, noshing on some steamed buns stuffed with mushrooms. He also shared with followers his experiences of learning the Hainan dialect and making friends with local residents.

"On my last birthday, I got to thinking about my time in China and in Hainan specifically. And I decided to do something," Coleman told Beijing Review. For the longest time, he had wanted to learn to speak Hainanese, but just kept putting it off.

"Since that very day, I have been studying," Coleman said. To inspire himself, he started documenting his daily activities on Douyin.

"I am so grateful that I started learning Chinese all those years ago. Over the years, I have learned that if you really want to immerse yourself in a culture, it's imperative to learn the local language and dialect," Coleman said. "I have had so many fascinating and meaningful experiences while learning Chinese and now the Hainan dialect. Plus, I've made some great friends along the way."

Streaming to the world 

Coleman arrived in Hainan in 2010 and now volunteers as one of the overseas communication officers with the Hainan International Media Center, an organization that helps present Hainan to the outside world.

"My family and friends back in the U.S., as well as international audiences on social media, can discover all kinds of cool things that are happening in Hainan and China through my sharing," Coleman said. He has influenced their views on China and many of them are deeply attracted to its stunning sceneries and would love to come visit.

As Hainan eyes the worldwide market, it has become more active in international exchanges. In order to effectively improve officials' foreign language skills and their capacity in international communication, the government of Haikou, capital of Hainan, organized an English training course for local administrators and invited Coleman as a teacher.

As of today, many government employees in Hainan have improved their English skills as well as their ability to apply it to their work, according to Coleman. "They have been doing this for about four years now and I am amazed at how hardworking and determined they are," he said, "They are very eager to not only learn the language but to learn how to use it to help promote Hainan, the Hainan Free Trade Port (FTP) and China by large. It has been very exciting to see them grow."

Living in China, and residing in Hainan all these years, has brought Coleman a tremendous amount of happiness. "Hainan is an amazing place on so many levels, and I am proud to have the opportunity to share the beauty of this island and its people with the world," he added.


Tommy Coleman tries his hand at ancient instruments in a museum in Ledong Li Autonomous County, Hainan Province, on July 20 (COURTESY PHOTO) 

A miracle island 

In recent years, great changes have taken place in China, and Hainan exemplifies this significant progress, according to Coleman.

In more than a decade, he has witnessed numerous changes. "I could go on for hours about all the fantastic changes I have seen in Hainan and other parts of China," he said. One particularly eye-catching aspect is the rapid development of high-end infrastructure.

Propelled by the nation's reform and opening-up policy, Hainan has taken big leaps in terms of evolving its transportation and telecommunications infrastructure. Take the example of the island-wide high-speed loop railway that has been up and running since late 2015. Forty pairs of trains run on it every day, serving around 30 million passenger trips a year. With it, travel time from Haikou in the north to seaside resort Sanya in the south has been cut to 90 minutes. The two cities are more than 300 km apart on the line.

Another outstanding feat is that of Haikou Meilan International Airport—the eighth five-star airport in the world recognized by Skytrax, a London-based international air transport rating organization, and the first one on the Chinese mainland. The airport saw a passenger throughput of 24.21 million in 2019. This number is expected to reach some 35 million on an annual basis by 2025, according to the airport authorities.

In 2010, when Coleman first visited Boao Town in Qionghai, also marking his first trip to Hainan, it took him some five hours to reach his destination from Haikou. He had to take a taxi, then a bus, then transfer onto a minibus, and finally, he caught a motor-taxi for the last leg of his trip to the hotel.

"Currently, it takes a mere 45 minutes by high-speed rail. You can even fly there," Coleman said, "And this is only one of the amazing achievements I have witnessed firsthand."

Moreover, Hainan is not only developing rapidly, but in an ecologically sustainable manner. In the past, any given bus would come with heavy exhaust emissions. Today, all of the buses are pollution-free. Additionally, there are more and more electric vehicles and hydrogen-powered cars on the road, according to Coleman.

"The changes have been dramatic and pretty awesome," he added.

Since the release of the master plan for the Hainan FTP in June 2020, the island has been exploring new paths for future growth. According to the plan, Hainan will become a globally influential and high-level FTP by the middle of the century.

"In the past 15 years of living in China, I have seen so many awesome moments here, from Beijing's hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 to the rollout of different types of new policies," Coleman said, "Also, there are various programs to attract domestic and foreign talents alike."

"I think the future in China and Hainan is like the island's weather—it's bright and sunny. And I for one am really looking forward to it," Coleman concluded.



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