Minority Report

An explorer is on a mission to preserve an ethnic Li village on China’s Hainan Island – but do the residents want their homes saved? asks Simon Montlake; photography by Luke Duggleby
The winding, paved road into Hongshui village makes a final swing to the left before plunging to the lush valley floor. From this vantage point, a cluster of thatched-roof mud houses appear to float like Shredded Wheat in a green bowl of rice paddies and coconut palms. Wong How Man stands on the hillside and peers through a sheet of tracing paper at the village below.

On the paper, a hand-sketched map shows a cluster of houses near the road. Wong turns to Ildiko Choy, the architect who drew the map, and points to the zone. ‘We need to secure these houses,’ he tells her.

Contrary to appearances, Wong isn’t a land speculator or property mogul. He’s a veteran explorer of China’s far-flung regions who has spent the past two decades trying to preserve what he finds, not only the flora and fauna, but also the indigenous cultures that thrive there. His Hong Kong-based group China Exploration and Research Services (CERS) has its fingers in many pies, particularly in the ecologically and culturally diverse province of Yunnan. Among his pet projects is breeding pure Tibetan mastiffs, one of the world’s oldest dog breeds.

Now Wong is taking his first steps on Hainan, a lopsided pear-shaped island to which ancient Chinese emperors used to dispatch disgruntled courtiers. It was known as an ‘island of no return’, a tropical sinkhole where China’s writ ran ragged and the natives were none too welcoming. These days, its reputation is more benign: China’s new middle class flock to its sandy beaches for winter sun and its favorite showcase is the annual Miss World beauty pageant, which burnishes the image of ‘China’s Hawaii’.

For a 59-year-old explorer whose achievements include pinpointing the true source of the Yangtze River in 1985 and leading expeditions in Tibet for the National Geographical Society, tourist-friendly Hainan isn’t exactly virgin terrain. But Wong knows that China’s rapid development can be ruinous for indigenous cultures, particularly when modernity is dangled in front of impressionable youth. That includes the Li people, who are among 55 ethnic minority groups officially recognised in China.

About 1.2 million Li live on Hainan, which has a population of almost eight million. Traditionally, the Li are farmers, hunters, fishermen and traders. Their textiles are notable for the use of traditional dyes and fine brocades. However, those traditions are vanishing, as most Li live in towns and have lost much of their own language and culture through assimilation with the dominant Han Chinese.

But a trip to Hongshui village is a step back in time. Tucked into the foothills of Hainan’s southwestern mountains, it sits on the banks of the small river that lends the village its name. Its residents are subsistence farmers who grow rice and vegetables, and raise pigs. Bisected by a creek, the village is a dense thicket of thatched houses surrounded by rice paddies. The only visible brick structure is the four-room school. The final 12 kilometres of the road that ends at the village was paved in 1997, cutting the drive-time to the provincial capital, Haikou, to five hours.

What drew Wong to this spot was its traditional architecture, which features mud-walled, thatched-roof houses that stay cool during Hainan’s sticky summers. Last March, he marveled at finding one of the last remaining intact Li villages. Then his jaw dropped as he was told that local authorities planned to tear down the village and replace it with modern brick houses. As a conservationist, the Hong Kong native saw a rare cultural treasure earmarked for destruction. His entrepreneurial senses were also tingling: wouldn’t tourists pay top dollar to spend a night in an authentic Li village such as this? That house could become a Li museum; that one, a research archive; and how about a gift shop?

Four months later, Wong was back in Hongshui with a team of experts – the architect, two filmmakers and a Swiss social anthropologist – to map out his vision. He had also begun calling on sympathetic government officials in Hainan to lobby for a renovation plan that would leave a sizeable cluster of original mud huts intact. Wong, a dapper man with flashing hazel eyes and a greying mop of hair, seemed confident that his pitch would work.

‘I don’t take on battles that I don’t expect to win,’ he tells me. Sure enough, within days, he had charmed local officials into making a concession: 14 houses would be set aside for conservation
and tourism, overseen by CERS. Another zone of houses was earmarked as a community centre. The remaining 40 or so might also be spared, he was told, if land for new houses could be found nearby.

But not everyone was included in the charm offensive. Left in the dark were the Li villagers who had lived for generations in mud huts and were eager to swap them for modern homes. Their anticipation had been growing since 2006, when the village chief had called a meeting in the schoolyard to announce the ‘transformation’ of the community. Excited residents began collecting stones for the foundations of their promised brick houses.

So when Wong’s group showed up last July toting carloads of equipment, it seemed like their prayers were finally being answered. ‘Are you here to build us a new house?’ asks Lin Chungxian, as she invites me to sit on a buffalo-skin stool inside her family home, which doubles as the village shop. Cobwebs hang from the latticed wooden rafters, and there’s a motorbike propped against the wall. ‘You’re here to discuss the transformation, aren’t you? That’s what the village elders are saying.’

As mud-encrusted pigs snuffle in the backyard, Lin points to the walls patched with faded newspaper. ‘I don’t like this place, look at the wall, it’s full of holes. We want new houses,’ she says. Villagers knew that other Li hamlets had received new homes and had been waiting for years for their turn to come. Still, nobody was sure when it would happen, who would build the houses or how much it would cost.

That’s because in China, information flows in a trickle (propaganda, on the other hand, comes in torrents). Government policies are typically drawn up without consulting villages in rural backwaters such as Hongshui on what lies ahead. Local officials ‘openly look down on the ethnic minorities and consider them “backward”, primitive and uncouth in every way in which they’re not exactly similar to the Han Chinese in their daily lives,’ says Jonathan Unger, a sociologist at the Australian National University in Canberra who has studied ethnic minorities in China. As a result, he says, many groups ‘have taken on this perception and regard themselves as poor, second-class Chinese – and they want to escape this’.

Naturally, Wong takes the opposite tack. But he’s also learned numerous lessons over the past two decades when it comes to getting things done in China. He reasoned that it was the government’s job, not his, to announce the news. Besides, he knew he had to move quickly to cut deals with home owners in the conservation zone before they became too greedy. Rumours were already flying that a Hong Kong businessman was buying up property.

After breakfast, he gathers the team around a white trestle table and assigns duties. As well as studying the village’s indigenous architecture and customs, he asks them to document social and economic conditions. Later, he will assign staff members to negotiate leases on houses that would eventually be given back to the community once the project is running smoothly.

‘If people are curious, what should we tell them?’ asks a CERS staffer. ‘Tell them that we’re here to help the government to improve their living standards,’ comes the reply. For international aid groups that stress lengthy consultations with ‘stakeholders’ over rapid results, such an approach would be anathema. Wong laughs off the comparison. ‘I’m not a great believer in democracy,’ he tells me.

A better comparison is a venture capitalist who provides seed money and expertise before turning over an asset to local custodians. In their rush to modernise, villagers may not see that their authentic old houses have a value that can generate income, while preserving their culture for future generations. As more visitors come, Wong predicts that young Li will take greater pride in their ancient traditions. ‘Our agenda is for them, even if they don’t see it,’ he says. 

Some residents of Hongshui had heard that there might be a preservation order on their houses and seemed sympathetic to the idea. ‘If we keep them, maybe they can be used in a TV show or movie in future,’ suggests Lin Zecheng, an ex-soldier who farms rice and rubber. Much more baffling was the idea of tourists wanting to slum it; villagers say that they doubt that outsiders would pay to stay there.

Of greater concern is the village’s falling birthrate. Mr Lin – no relation to Ms Lin the shopkeeper – is the father of one of only two babies born in the past two years. As a result, enrollment at the primary school is down: only 20 children study in its four grades, down from 26 in 2006. More women are moving to cities for work and fewer are returning to marry local men and raise families.

Such choices weren’t available to Lin’s grandmother, Han Jinhua, who puts her age at 98. Her generation endured the Japanese occupation of Hainan. After the Japanese left, Li fighters joined Communist troops to drive out the Nationalist army. Like many elderly Li women, she has thin blue lines tattooed on her face, ankles and wrists, a vanishing custom that is said to have deterred outsiders from snatching girls. ‘I felt so much pain. It felt like my eyeballs were falling out,’ she says of being tattooed as a young girl.

This and other ancient customs are fading rapidly. Fewer young women are learning how to weave mats or sew traditional clothes that are no longer worn on a daily basis. Many Li struggle to perform a native song or dance, and celebrate only Chinese festivals, while televised dramas of robed Chinese warriors have replaced Li folk tales. Even keeping traditional houses intact is a challenge, as it’s difficult to find the native grass to replace the thatch. The grass grows after fields are burned, a practice that the government has forbidden. Unoccupied houses quickly fall into disrepair because it’s the wood smoke from stoves that keeps the mud walls from rotting.

Wong is undeterred, however. He plans to experiment with a plastic layer beneath the thatch to increase its lifespan. His team has installed air conditioners in their rented huts and begun sketching ideas to turn them into villas. Exhibit huts would showcase the area’s natural charms as well as Li cultural artefacts.

Wong’s dream is to create jobs in the village that would give its youth a reason to build a life there. ‘There are alternatives to just dismantling and integrating into society at large,’ he says. ‘This is an example of diversity. We talk of biodiversity. I think cultural diversity is a gift from God.’

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