Haikou used to be where Chinese from Hainan Island started their journeys to Southeast Asia to make a better living and where they plowed some of their money back as investment. Now that history is coming alive in the form of an old commercial hub in its early 20th-century enchantment, write Raymond Zhou and Huang Yiming.


The newest part of Haikou happens to be its oldest, with its decades-long wear and tear stripped away and its former glory re-emerging.


A grid formed by five streets, with about 200 sotto portico buildings occupying 25,000 square meters, is being renovated, one street at a time. Like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, this district is soon to be the brightest spot when it dusts off long years of neglect.


Haikou, capital of Hainan province, was first built in the late 14th century to fend off marauding pirates. It was encircled by a 1,850-meter wall that is 5.7 meters tall and 5 meters thick with four gates and many towers.


In 1924, the wall was torn down to make room for commercial development and urban expansion. A hub gradually took shape as winding streets were lined up with shops, hotels and all kinds of retail venues. It was mostly the result of investment poured in from Chinese expatriates who had made money overseas and wanted to explore opportunities back home.


Many of them had been working and living in Southeast Asia, known as Nanyang in Chinese. The architectural style they chose was reminiscent of the prevalent style in Nanyang, which is a form of East-meets-West called qilou, or sotto portico as preferred by bilingual publicity brochures of the Haikou government.


Actually, qilou, with its most distinctive touch from Spanish or Italian architecture, has more than two styles. It is a fusion of European, Chinese, Indian and even Arabian architectural elements. A qilou facade may give the first impression of being exotic, but on closer examination may contain many Chinese motifs such as engraved dragons and phoenixes and auspicious flowers. But above all, qilou has a columned and covered porch available to all pedestrians. It provides shelter from the elements and effectively functions as a sidewalk during frequent rains. At the same time, the space is fully utilized with merchandise spilling out from the stores proper to attract impulse purchases.


A five-story building on Deshengsha Street was a landmark when it was erected in 1935. For the ensuing 26 years, it was the tallest building in Haikou, and also a luxury hotel that attracted the local high society and visiting dignitaries with its entertainment attractions including ballroom dancing, movie screening and coffee shops. It was built by Wu Kunnong, whose father made his fortune in Saigon, Vietnam, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Much of the building materials were shipped from overseas.


Overseas Chinese not only brought back exotic architectures, but also lifestyle options such as coffee and tea. The teashop is said to be an invention of the forebears from Nanyang. It gained in popularity to the point it has now turned into a local ritual – with people, young and old, congregating in teashops and chatting for as long as a whole day. "We have a slower pace of life here," says one Haikou youngster whose greeting is "Come to tea with me." And now this form of relaxation is affectionately called "old daddy’s tea".


Many cafes and teashops are now revived. Coffee connoisseurs should take time to sample the local brews as Hainan is famous for some of the best coffee beans in China. They taste different from the name brands popularly available in supermarkets. But you may grow to love their special aroma and buy packets of the instant kind as souvenirs for your friends.


There are also traditional temples nestled among the busy shops. One is dedicated to a legend who purportedly lived 1,500 years ago and was remembered for her management of the jurisdiction. People call her "Madam Xian" and she is said to have used her supernatural powers in the mid-19th century to drive away pirates. More accurately, it was her statue that exuded that power. And now, every spring, people would come to her temple to pray for peace.


"These old streets are Haikou’s biggest cultural legacy," says Zhao Aihua, deputy director of the organization responsible for preserving historic Haikou. They were rundown and most turned into hardware stores in recent decades. "While other cities tore down their dilapidated buildings, we did not have the money for it, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. We did not awake to a sense of heritage protection until after the year 2000."


The pace of renovation was unhurried. "We did only one-and-a-half streets in three years, and some people were impatient. We want to get it right rather than get it fast. That is the responsible way of handling this historical site," explains Zhao. For example, experts were hired to find out the original colors of the walls and only old materials and old craftsmanship were employed to ensure authenticity.


"Every street in the district will have a museum, which will be free to all visitors," adds Zhao. All this requires 550 million yuan in government spending, and the overall cost is even higher, about 4 billion yuan. But as the district regains its former splendor, locals are rediscovering it as if it’s the lost soul of the city, and a sense of pride wells up as they walk down the pedestrian-only streets.


SOURCE: China Daily


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