CO­CONUT COUN­TRY

在海南文昌的东郊,椰子是一切之本

The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY HATTY LIU

Sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered 360 uses of the co­conut—and the fruit is one of the chief ex­ports of China's south­ern­most prov­ince, Hainan. When the real es­tate bub­ble and over­crowded beaches of the is­land be­come too much, step back in time to Dongjiao, a com­mu­nity of farm­ers and re­tirees where King Co­conut still rules supreme

A strong wind blows pleas­antly from the sea… as I grow old, all I ask is not to go hun­gry In a val­ley of my own, noth­ing else is im­por­tant —“Dan’er” by Su Shi

As the folk­lore in Hainan goes, “Co­conuts have eyes.” Be­fore fall­ing off its tree, a po­ten­tially deadly dis­tance of up to 50 feet, an over­ripe nut ap­par­ently peeps at passersby through the holes on its husk, so it can avoid the in­no­cent and pun­ish the guilty.

On my first night in the Dongjiao Co­conut Grove, Mrs. Pan, a farmer­turned-seller of sou­venirs, re­lays this lo­cal wis­dom to me in lilt­ingly ac­cented Man­darin. She re­as­sures me that I have noth­ing to fear from the over 500,000 palms that pop­u­late one of Hainan’s old­est co­conut plan­ta­tions, lo­cated on a penin­sula out­side the city of Wen­chang, on the is­land’s east coast.

“These ‘king co­conuts’ are from our own an­ces­tors’ trees; we’ve farmed them for 100 years with­out any prob­lem,” she beams. But look­ing up at these mon­archs on their perch, grow­ing so densely that they blot out the light with their over­lap­ping leaves, I am not so sure; we are in their coun­try.

There was a time in the not-sore­cent past when al­most all of China’s south­ern­most prov­ince could be called co­conut coun­try. Even to­day, when for­mer plan­ta­tions and wild groves have given way to sprawl­ing in­vest­ment prop­er­ties and high-end re­sorts, the palm is still ubiq­ui­tous along any road and beach­side on the is­land. In some sense, it’s the world’s tallest in­va­sive species. The com­mon the­ory states that co­conuts (tech­ni­cally a “drupe,” rather than a nut) prop­a­gated to all the trop­i­cal re­gions of the world by sim­ply fall­ing off their trees, rolling into the ocean, and catch­ing the cur­rent to the next des­ti­na­tion where they could plant them­selves on the beach.

It’s one of the few types of veg­e­ta­tion that has man­aged to es­tab­lish them­selves in the shal­low, storm-pelted soil of Hainan. As Mrs. Pan tells it, the com­mu­nity pro­duces lit­tle of their own food to­day—just a few va­ri­eties of veg­eta­bles grown in the elab­o­rately ir­ri­gated fields seen on the way to Dongjiao, brack­eted on all sides by more co­conut groves. Fre­quent ty­phoons and poor drainage kill most ri­val plants that try to set up camp. Co­conut palms, on the other hand, can sur­vive out here with­out fer­til­izer.

On the drive into Dongjiao, hand­painted signs flash by, hypnotizing re­minders of all the ways this co­conut coun­try lives off its sig­na­ture fruit: pure co­conut wa­ter, freshly cut; co­conut milk pressed on de­mand; all-nat­u­ral co­conut hand-oil; co­conut­stewed chicken—as seen on CCTV! —and two-for-one co­conut-shell spoons, bowls, and stat­uettes; co­conut­frond bas­kets. At a meet­ing of the Food and Agriculture Or­ga­ni­za­tion in the 1960s, sci­en­tists tal­lied 360 uses of the plant, from fronds to trunk to root. One is al­most lulled into agree­ing that co­conut-based crim­i­nal jus­tice doesn’t sound so far-fetched.

Com­pared to all the other uses of the fruit, co­conut-based tourism has a much shorter his­tory, yet it has come to dwarf the oth­ers in im­por­tance to the lo­cal econ­omy. The re­cent global ma­nia for co­conut wa­ter not­with­stand­ing, farm­ers don’t make much more from sell­ing the fruit than when tourism first de­vel­oped on this coast in the late early 1990s. For each co­conut that’s shaved, frozen, and shipped from Dongjiao, a planter earns 1 to 2 RMB, depend­ing on the va­ri­ety—the same price for which a vis­i­tor could pick up a fresh co­conut from the road­side in the early days. The 6 to 8 RMB per co­conut paid by tourists to­day is the only real prof­its that grow­ers make from di­rect sales, says Pan; that, and the sym­bolic cap­i­tal of their “an­ces­tors’ fruits” be­ing en­joyed across the coun­try.

In some ways, to­day’s fas­ci­na­tion with co­conuts harkens back to the be­gin­nings of the main­land’s re­la­tions with Hainan it­self. For­mally in­cor­po­rated into the em­pire un­der the reign of Em­peror Wu of Han (汉武帝), the south­ern ter­ri­tory was re­ferred to as Zhuya (珠崖), lit­er­ally “Pearl Cliffs,” for the pearls that were found on its coast. It was not known at the time that the ter­ri­tory was an is­land, nor how far south it stretched; for 700 years af­ter its dis­cov­ery, maps de­picted Hainan as a coast­line with oc­ca­sional south­ward pock­ets where the armies made in­roads against the abo­rig­i­nal Li peo­ple, who fiercely guarded the moun­tain­ous in­te­rior. The jew­elry worn by the Li sup­pos­edly gave rise to the is­land’s other an­cient name, Dan’er (儋耳, “Heavy Ear”).

In the fol­low­ing mil­len­nium, the is­land’s role as a des­ti­na­tion for ex­iled of­fi­cials gave rise to its con­flict­ing rep­u­ta­tions: both a for­saken back­wa­ter, and a place of ex­otic and rare beauty. Dis­graced min­is­ter Yang

Yan of the Tang dy­nasty (618 - 907) stood in the for­mer po­si­tion, writ­ing en route to his lonely ex­ile: “A dis­tance of 10,000 li/ Thou­sands do not re­turn/ The prov­ince of Ya [Zhuya]/ To live there is to be at the gates of Hell.”

The op­po­site im­pres­sion is given in the poem “Dan’er,” by the well- known Song (960 - 1279) literati Su Shi, at the time of whose ex­ile the is­land was be­gin­ning to be known as Qiong (琼, “Jade”)—a nick­name it re­tains to­day—for the white cliffs of one of its in­te­rior moun­tains.watch­ing a thun­der­storm on the is­land at dusk, Su wrote,“lean­ing on the rail­ings, I en­joy na­ture’s spec­ta­cle/ A rain­bow arches from the clouds/ A strong wind blows pleas­antly from the sea…as I grow old, all I ask is not to go hun­gry/ In a val­ley of my own, noth­ing else is im­por­tant.”

Su never got his wish, as he was re­called to the court a mere three years later at the ac­ces­sion of a new em­peror—but it’s dif­fi­cult not to com­pare Su’s re­tire­ment plans to the vis­i­tors who flock to Hainan to­day. There are an es­ti­mated 1.1 mil­lion el­derly vis­i­tors among the prov­ince’s an­nual vis­i­tors—67 mil­lion last year— among them first-timers brought to the re­sorts on pack­age tours, and “snow­birds” from north­ern China, who es­cape the win­ter weather each

HAND-PAINTED SIGNS FLASH, HYPNOTIZING RE­MINDERS OF ALL THE WAYS THAT CO­CONUT COUN­TRY LIVES OFF ITS SIG­NA­TURE FRUIT

year to stay near the beaches for months at the time. Pan greets one as she walks in to browse the sou­venirs— Dr. Liang, a re­tired physi­cian from Sichuan prov­ince, who has been win­ter­ing here for more than 10 years.

“I’m not in­ter­ested in co­conut spoons any­more,” Dr. Liang an­nounces, pick­ing up one carved from san­dal­wood. On her jour­ney past the sou­venir stands each morn­ing, Dr. Liang has picked up more co­conut and seashell mem­o­ra­bilia than she can count. Ten years ago, there hadn’t been any ven­dors, she tells me; the plan­ta­tion was sim­ply a set of ad­join­ing vil­lages where peo­ple farmed co­conuts and fished on oc­ca­sion. The farmer who now hosts her ev­ery win­ter was the first in his vil­lage to open his home to pay­ing guests; back then, none of his neigh­bors un­der­stood why.

Nev­er­the­less, lo­cal govern­ment of­fi­cials had al­ready sighted the Dongjiao’s nat­u­ral po­ten­tial as a va­ca­tion­ers’ par­adise. In 1991, a year be­fore the south­ern city of Sanya, now Hainan’s main tourist mag­net, be­gan build­ing its first re­sorts in Ya­long Bay, de­vel­op­ers broke ground on the Prima Re­sort at the place where Dongjiao’s co­conut groves ran into white-sand beaches. The con­struc­tion was re­mark­ably un­der­stated, and quite eco­log­i­cal for a tourist at­trac­tion of the 90s; the builders sim­ply in­stalled a pier, some wooden cab­ins among the palms, and a sprin­kle of thatch-roof ca­banas and ham­mocks on the beach. With a ready-made blue sea, white sands, and wav­ing co­conut trees, the re­sort looked like a brochure of trop­i­cal va­ca­tion clichés with­out even try­ing.

In the early 2010s, though, the balmy winds changed. The de­vel­op­ment of Hainan took on a manic, deaf­en­ing pace, fu­eled by greed and graft. To­day, nei­ther agriculture nor tourism is the main econ­omy on this prov­ince, which in­stead de­rives over 50 per­cent of its GDP from prop­erty in­vest­ment, rank­ing as one of China’s top three real-es­tate bub­bles, along with Bei­jing and Shang­hai. In April 2018, the prov­ince placed a cap on prop­erty pur­chases across the whole is­land— and lo­cal of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly been cited for cor­rup­tion by the coun­try’s feared Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of Dis­ci­pline In­spec­tion since 2013 (to date, though, none of the guilty is known to have been felled by co­conuts).

Wen­chang’s of­fi­cials made their own con­tri­bu­tion to the saga in 2011, when con­struc­tion be­gan on a bridge and ar­ti­fi­cial is­land, 400 me­ters south of the Prima Re­sort. The project was re­port­edly for the dual pur­pose of stop­ping ero­sion of the coast­line and pro­vid­ing yet more land to de­velop into a “world-class re­sort area” with ho­tels, theme park, and ma­rina. To­day, how­ever, the 0.2 square-kilo­me­ter is­land is still empty, its only cur­rent ac­com­plish­ments be­ing mud­dy­ing the beach and wa­ter in front of the re­sort.

While they com­plain of the loss of their sea views, even lo­cals aren’t sure what’s go­ing to hap­pen next. “I think they built this is­land to put apart­ments on it,” claims Dr. Liang’s host Mr. Wang, pro­pri­etor of an ad hoc re­tire­ment home for the snow­birds— more or less a large farm­house with rooms for monthly ren­tal and mah jong tables in the cor­ri­dors. “The sea used to be right out­side my prop­erty; it was so beau­ti­ful. We fought this de­vel­op­ment for a long time, but what can we do?”

The an­swer, it seems, is to play up the lo­cal an­gle to any ex­tent pos­si­ble. The ob­struc­tion of Prima’s open sea views may have ac­tu­ally saved Dongjiao from the over­com­mer­cial­ized fate of Sanya’s Ya­long and Hai­tang Bay—if those are in­deed the only two op­tions for de­vel­op­ment in to­day’s China—and this grove has be­come oddly frozen in time. To walk around the plan­ta­tion is to pick one’s way around co­conut trees and the moun­tains of the drupe stored in the clear­ings, ready to be taken to the chop­ping block and con­sumed— the va­ri­eties range from the earthy indige­nous one known only as “co­conut,” to the smoother-tast­ing red-skinned Thai species.

Co­conuts are ad­ver­tised and sold at ev­ery con­sum­able stage, from the young and green to the old and fleshy—even co­conuts that have

WITH THE BLUE SEA, WHITE SAND, AND WAV­ING CO­CONUT TREES, IT LOOKED LIKE A BROCHURE OF TROP­I­CAL VA­CA­TION CLICHÉS WITH­OUT EVEN TRY­ING

sprouted. The lat­ter is eaten as a lo­cal del­i­cacy: As the co­conut ma­tures, the juice is soaked up by the spongy, fi­brous flesh in­side the brown seed, which Dongjiao planters call the “co­conut egg.” There’s also an ope­nair diner in Dongjiao, beloved by the re­tirees room­ing at the farm­houses nearby, that made its name stew­ing Wen­chang’s sig­na­ture chicken—a pre­cur­sor to Sin­ga­pore’s Hainan Chicken Rice—in milk pressed from grated co­conut flesh. The nut-sweet milk, bub­bling around ivory glob­ules of meat and fat, brought CCTV doc­u­men­tary crews sniff­ing for a look in 2014.

On the bridge from Dongjiao back to the city, one passes by the fu­ture site of the Wen­chang Co­conut Carv­ing Cul­ture Expo Gar­den, now the work­shop of a small fac­tory pro­mot­ing a thou­sand-yearold hand­i­craft that the provin­cial her­itage pro­tec­tion cen­ter warns is “in dan­ger of ex­tinc­tion.” When the com­plex is fin­ished, says Mrs. Ye, Mrs. Pan’s taxi-driver neighbor, farm­ers who pro­duce their carv­ings in the more re­mote vil­lages will fi­nally have some­place to show­case their work, and teach work­shops. “The roads are too dif­fi­cult; it’s too far to take any­one to see [the crafts­men] in their homes now,” she says.

Mrs. Pan is ply­ing her co­conut trade again as I get ready to leave the plan­ta­tion. “How about some co­conut oil to take home to cook with? Some more co­conut egg for the road?” she sug­gests. I point to a meal she’s pre­pared on her own ta­ble, and say I’d rather have what she’s hav­ing.

“This? Oh, this is baozi,” she smiles, ges­tic­u­lat­ing with one of the steamed buns. “I have co­conut ev­ery day, so I wanted some­thing dif­fer­ent. Yes­ter­day I had co­conut. To­day baozi.”

And to­mor­row? “To­mor­row, I think I’ll make some noo­dles.”

Co­conut­stewedchicken, a now fa­mous lo­cal meal that was fea­tured on CCTV

A tourist en­joy­ing the cool af­forded by the co­conut's shade in Dongjiao Co­conut Grove

Guilty, be­ware! Co­conuts ripen on the branches of a tree in Hainan

Hainan farm­ers get to work peel­ing the co­conuts, which can have hun­dreds of ap­pli­ca­tions

Yelin Bay, a pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion in­side the Dongjiao Co­conut Grove

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