The World of Chinese - - NEWS - BY HATTY LIU


On the ar­chi­pel­a­gos of the East China Sea, is­lan­ders catch China's first rays of dawn. But while the sun may be set­ting on these fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties' liveli­hoods, there's new hope at the prospect of tourism from mil­len­ni­als who see their iso­lated ex­is­tence as an al­ter­nate—and at­trac­tive—life­style choice

On evenings when the East China Sea is balmy and stirred to the right con­sis­tency by a pass­ing storm, a chem­i­cal process causes the micro-plank­ton off Hua­niao Is­land (花鸟岛) to glow like tiny blue bea­cons on the tide. Chi­nese travel writ­ers some­times call this the “flu­o­res­cent sea” (荧光海) or, if feel­ing cre­ative, “the blue tears of the ocean.” Lo­cals don’t have a name for it.

“We used to just say, ‘Hey look! The night sea is crim­i­nally bright (贼亮z9il­i3ng)!’” says Ms. Ye, a mid­dle-aged shop­keeper on the is­land. “Young peo­ple came and told us, ‘this is flu­o­res­cent sea.’ None of us are much ed­u­cated—those who don’t do busi­ness with young peo­ple, like me, prob­a­bly still don’t know!”

Hua­niao, lit­er­ally “Flower Bird” Is­land, sits at the north­ern­most point of this wind­blown ar­chi­pel­ago of around 400 isles known as the Shengsi Is­lands (嵊泗列岛). It’s ge­o­graph­i­cally closer to Shang­hai than the city that ac­tu­ally governs it—zhoushan, Zhe­jiang province—but in prac­ti­cal terms, it’s miles from nowhere.

Just 35 nau­ti­cal miles from in­ter­na­tional wa­ters, Hua­niao and its sur­round­ing isles are fa­vorite des­ti­na­tions for tourists who jour­ney at least 24 hours to be the first in China to catch the sun­rise. But the is­lands’ in­con­ve­nience and iso­la­tion is al­ready caus­ing na­tive res­i­dents to mi­grate—most icon­i­cally in the case of Houtouwan vil­lage on Shengsi’s east­ern­most is­land, which has been vis­ited by nu­mer­ous news crews in the decade since be­ing aban­doned and pic­turesquely re­claimed by the vines.

But for younger hol­i­day­mak­ers, it’s like re­dis­cov­er­ing an Eden. On Wechat mo­ments, trav­el­ogues on, and live-stream chan­nels, Hua­niao emerges as 360 de­grees of sun-kissed coast­line and post­card views. There are no cars on the is­land, so its only road is al­ways bliss­fully empty, an art­fully wind­ing back­drop against which al­most ev­ery tourist will pose, hair pur­pose­fully tou­sled and arms splayed open.

The mise-en-scène is com­pleted by oc­ca­sional wild­flow­ers, a har­bor of gen­tly bob­bing boats, and the clus­ter of white­washed, blue-trimmed build­ings—re­painted in a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to mimic the Greek is­land of San­torini—in the larger of the is­land’s two fish­ing vil­lages. In the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, let­ting ev­ery­one know you’re far from the madding crowd is half the point of the jour­ney.

As Ms. Ye tells it, the is­land is starv­ing for young peo­ple. Yet the pha­lanxes of back­pack­ers do­ing the cir­cuit of whim­si­cally-named sights—a 147-year-old light­house, the ruins of Hua­niao’s own aban­doned vil­lage, moun­tain caves, and two boul­ders named “Man­darin’s Hat” and “Bud­dha’s Hand”—are not ex­actly the end-goal for of­fi­cials in charge of de­vel­op­ing tourism on the is­land. “They want the is­land’s own young peo­ple to re­turn, from Shengsi [“base is­land”], from Shang­hai, where they’ve gone to look for jobs or more in­ter­est­ing things to do. They want them to see that it’s a lu­cra­tive place to set up a tourism busi­ness, so they’ll come back and open up guest­houses,” says Chen, my host and owner of Misty Is­land Charm guest­house, above the is­land’s South Beach.

Chen, who is in his 30s, came back to the is­land with his wife, a Hua­niao na­tive, to start the busi­ness soon af­ter they’d mar­ried. A decade later, their story is still al­most unique.

In­stead, the guest­house trade is dom­i­nated by a group that lo­cals re­fer to as “those six places”— es­tab­lish­ments started over the past three years by young main­land vis­i­tors who be­come so en­rap­tured by the place that they de­cided to stay. Wang Yuewei, the first of the six to ar­rive back in 2014, says it was easy to get a 10-year lease on one of the many houses left empty by own­ers who’d left the is­land. All that re­mained was to fix them up ac­cord­ing to the tastes of trav­el­ers from his own “post90s” gen­er­a­tion: Quirky mu­rals,

Scan­di­na­vian fur­ni­ture, shelves of nau­ti­cal-themed knick­knacks and post­cards and books.

“It’s an ideal to­ward liv­ing,” Wang says, ex­plain­ing why he stayed. “You start with the ideal—‘i want to live by the sea’—and then you find some­thing that lets you make a liv­ing while you do it.” Yet in the off-sea­son when the sea churns, the air is foggy, and the back­pack­ers stay away, he and other young hote­liers also shut up their houses and leave, win­ter­ing on the main­land in cities like Ningbo and Shang­hai, or abroad, where they be­come ad­ven­tur­ers cat­a­logu­ing the ex­otic places of the world.

It’s May 1, La­bor Day, the of­fi­cial end of the Oc­to­ber-april fish­ing sea­son in the East China Sea. This af­ter­noon, in the lull be­fore the start of the tourist sea­son in late May, Mr. Ying has the wa­ter­front prac­ti­cally to him­self. Sit­ting in a brightly painted skiff parked on the beach, he stares into the dis­tance and talks of fish.

“Twenty, 30 years ago, you could cast a net and you couldn’t pull it back up be­cause it’s full of fish,” he rem­i­nisces. “You’d sail out to sea and they’d come up to here—” he knocks on the side of his boat to il­lus­trate— “but there is very lit­tle fish now.”

On Hua­niao, the sea has long been the rea­son for every­thing. Ac­cord­ing to Ms. Ye, some of the is­land’s early set­tlers, in­clud­ing her an­ces­tors, had been ban­dits and coastal pi­rates flee­ing jus­tice on the main­land; the treach­er­ous wa­ters kept them safe from the law and sup­plied them with food and oc­ca­sional ship­wreck plun­der. In 1870, the Bri­tish built Hua­niao Light­house at a strate­gic route from the Pa­cific to their new treaty ports in the Yangtze River. At 16.5 me­ters tall, it re­mains the is­land’s only land­mark of note, pow­er­ing up at dusk year-round to il­lu­mi­nate what’s still one of the busiest ship­ping routes in the world.

In the present day, the sea is of­ten a source of iso­la­tion and in­con­ve­nience, brought on by its dwin­dling prospects as a means of sub­sis­tence. Of all the world’s ma­jor bod­ies of wa­ter, the East China Sea suf­fers most from the ef­fects of over­fish­ing, ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture. The Shengsi ar­chi­pel­ago has had a neg­a­tive pop­u­la­tion growth since 1998. Ac­cord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus, more than 60 per­cent of res­i­dents in Shengsi county are over 40. The lo­cal fish­er­men as­sure me that I’ll never see an­other mariner un­der that age, that the younger gen­er­a­tions have no abil­ity or, in­deed, in­ter­est in fish­ing— and why should they, if it’s hard work that pays so poorly?

Hua­niao has just shy of 1,000 full­time res­i­dents across two vil­lages, not count­ing a small mil­i­tary base on the

is­land, and there’s not a child in ei­ther com­mu­nity, ex­cept those who come to see their el­derly relatives dur­ing school hol­i­days—the is­land’s only school, a pri­mary school, closed down in 2015. It has since be­come a nurs­ing home.

Run­ning er­rands off any of Shengsi’s out­ly­ing is­lands is a multi-day project. From Hua­niao, it’s two hours’ boat ride to Shengsi’s base is­land, the only place where one can col­lect parcels, shop for food, see a doc­tor, or catch an­other ferry to Shang­hai or Zhoushan. Pe­ri­odic gales can shut down all cross­ings for days at a time. Res­i­dents bud­get at least one night’s stay each time they leave their is­land and of­ten wait for se­ri­ous symp­toms to ap­pear be­fore they’ll make the trip to the base is­land’s sole hos­pi­tal.

In the fish­ing sea­son their rou­tine re­mains stub­bornly old-fashioned, with men set­ting out to sea each calm day in painted boats, and women do­ing the heavy-lift­ing on­shore: clean­ing, sorting, tow­ing in the lines. In the tourist sea­son, fish­ing fam­i­lies re­pair their boats, cast nets, and cook for the young hol­i­day­mak­ers who take up lodg­ings in their homes. Fresh catches from the sea—the ubiq­ui­tous yel­low croaker, oys­ters, the oc­ca­sional suc­cu­lent swim­mer crab or squid, along­side plate­fuls of man­tis shrimp—are still the is­land’s call­ing card in spite of the dwin­dling ocean stock. The un­spec­i­fied “vegetable” dish on of­fer at most fam­ily restau­rants, on the other hand, refers to whichever vegetable hap­pens to be at hand.

These days when the boats still sail, it’s of­ten for a dif­fer­ent rea­son. I learn that the painted skiffs moored off the pier in Hua­niao, as well as the iri­des­cent fleets back on the base is­land, aren’t just per­ma­nently sta­tioned for beach­go­ers to take pho­tos—they’re wait­ing to take pay­ing guests out to en­joy a “fish­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.” For around 200 RMB a head, vis­i­tors can keep what­ever they catch, which isn’t usu­ally much. But the vil­lages stay in busi­ness, and boats take their lines out to see, day in, day out.

And res­i­dents like Mr. Ying get to pre­serve their way of life. He tells me of his large fam­ily—“five broth­ers, two sis­ters”—who’d come from gen­er­a­tions of fish­er­men but have al­most all left the trade. When I ask about the dif­fi­cul­ties of liv­ing on the is­land, he says the big­gest chal­lenge is that fish doesn’t fetch as high a price as it did. Dur­ing off-sea­son, Mr. Ying lays nets around the beach to catch fish and clams to eat. “So do you ever leave here?” I fi­nally ask. He thinks for a bit. “Yes, in the fish­ing sea­son I go out to sea to fish, but that was be­fore; there’s not much fish now.”

I try to change the sub­ject from fish. “What about when you don’t fish? Do you do other things out­side the is­land?”

“Oh, sure I go, I go to lots of places,” Mr. Ying’s face splits into a wide smile. “I’ve been to Ningbo, and Shang­hai, to sell my fish.”

A “boat is like the clothes you wear. Some peo­ple like red, so they wear red. You paint the boat what­ever you like, ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent,” Mr. Li, an el­derly fish­er­man fix­ing buoys on the pier, tells me. Like ev­ery­one else, he’s been re­peat­ing bleak prog­nos­ti­ca­tions about the is­land’s fu­ture in fish­ing, but when I ad­mire the daz­zling col­ors of the boats, he comes alive. “It’s like dress­ing your­self up to go out; a boat doesn’t look nice when it’s old, so we paint it of­ten so it looks bright.”

It’s an apt sum­mary of the di­rec­tion tourism is tak­ing in Hua­niao. The gov­ern­ment seems to have taken cues from “those six places” when mar­ket­ing to post-90s youths. Be­sides lit­er­ally cov­er­ing every­thing in a bright coat of paint, a sec­tion of the road in the main vil­lage is be­ing con­verted into a main street, lined with win­dow boxes, vin­tage bi­cy­cles, post­card shops, and cafes (none of which are yet open for busi­ness).

“Of course you can have a vi­sion, ‘I want this is­land to de­velop in such and such a way,’” says Chen. “But it doesn’t just hap­pen like that. [The is­land] is chang­ing, but one step at a time.” His mother-in-law is more op­ti­mistic, cit­ing the ex­am­ple of a neigh­bor­ing is­land: “Do you know Dongji Is­land? They had no peo­ple ei­ther, then they de­vel­oped tourism, and sud­denly all the peo­ple came back!”

“It doesn’t ex­actly work like that,” Chen tells me apolo­get­i­cally af­ter she leaves. The new­found pop­u­lar­ity of Dongji likely has less to do with of­fi­cial di­rec­tives than its ap­pear­ance in the 2014 road-trip movie The Con­ti­nent, the di­rec­to­rial de­but of for­mer celebrity blog­ger Han Han. “Spe­cial peo­ple, mag­i­cal land/the first to feel the winds off the sea…/you are par­adise on Earth…/and we will never leave” go the lyrics of “Is­land An­them,” a song Han Han penned for the film’s sound­track.

The sea con­tin­ues to bring peo­ple to Hua­niao: It’s not un­com­mon to hear tourists grilling lo­cals about which is­lands to visit, com­plain­ing that the wa­ters around Shengsi it­self are too close to the Yangtze Delta to shed its brown silt. “Yes, the sea around Gouqi [Is­land] re­ally is blue,” I over­hear a lo­cal man pa­tiently ex­plain to a woman by the ticket win­dow. “You can go to Hua­niao too. They also have sea there.”

And if the new vis­i­tors’ re­la­tion­ship with the sea is shal­lower than be­fore, it re­mains en­thu­si­as­tic. As I flip through the travel al­bums that Wang and his guests share with me, their care­fully cu­rated an­gles, iri­des­cent fil­ters, and tire­less search for flat­ter­ing ex­pres­sions and back­drops re­minds me of old Mr. Li down at the har­bor—like him, they are search­ing for ways to ex­press an ad­mi­ra­tion for is­land life.

That night, we go down to the beach to­gether to see the flu­o­res­cent sea, though it’s not yet the ideal sea­son. The whole vil­lage is dark, ex­cept for the even-tempo sweep of the light­house beams; it’s crim­i­nally cold. The place seems like any or­di­nary vil­lage in the Chi­nese coun­try­side, home to left-be­hind el­derly and pre­car­i­ous ways of life. Yet it still has the abil­ity to cap­ti­vate out­siders. “Look! Look over there,” my com­pan­ions run across the sand, point­ing. “The sea, it’s so bright!”

Leav­ing next morn­ing, a Cat­e­gory-9 storm be­gins to form be­hind us. It will shut down all trans­porta­tion to Huainiao for the next three days, leav­ing the ques­tions of its dif­fi­cult past, chang­ing present, and splen­did plans for the fu­ture to be set­tled an­other time.

Boats moored off the beach of Shengsi’s base is­land are a pic­tureque back­drop for photo-takers, oc­ca­sion­ally tak­ing vis­i­tors on fish­ing trips

Vis­i­tors came to Hua­niao for stun­ning sea views and a sense of seclu­sion

On the far side of the is­land, away from tourist de­vel­op­ment, Light­house vil­lage pre­serves Hua­niao’s orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­ture and fish­ing econ­omy

Whim­si­cal sign­posts are part of the is­land’s youth­ful makeover

Call­ing it­self “the No.1 Light­house of the Far East,” the Hua­niao light­house still op­er­ates year-round

Yel­low croak­ers are the main­stay of din­ner ta­bles all over the is­land

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