'Olympics? What's that? I've never heard of it' says island villager

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

Surrounded by clucking hens and scavenging pigs, Hu Yamei sits outside her modern, tiled home at the heart of Yazaitang, in the village where she was born 97 years ago.

A member of Hainan's Li minority, who make up about 14 per cent of the island's 8.4 million population, Ms Hu reflects on how life has changed since the hunter-gatherer existence of her youth.

'Life now is much, much better than it used to be,' she says, speaking in the Li language as her son translates into Putonghua. 'When I was young we used to kill deer in the forest and pick berries to eat, or go to the sea to catch fish. My shoes were made of hard gourd and we lived in a hut made of mud with a coconut thatch roof.

'Life then was tough. But now the village gives us food and vegetables - we don't have to worry about that.'

Dressed simply, with a single engraved silver bangle around her wrist, she recounts the confusion that greeted the Japanese invasion of 1939.

'In those days, this was an entirely Li area - we had never heard Putonghua and the Han Chinese were strangers to us. When the Japanese came, we thought they were Han. We were so scared we ran into the hills and lived there in the caves to escape from them. We were terrified they would make us work as labourers on the railway we saw them building.'

When the Communists took control of Hainan a decade later, she recalls how they kicked out the local landowner and handed over the land to the new village commune. 'I wasn't used to the system at first, but I had my own piece of land for the first time, so I was satisfied. I suppose I began to feel I was Hainanese, rather than just Li, when the new government gave us land.

'I don't know very much about the rest of the island, but I know there is a city called Haikou because I went there in 2002 with my grandson to take part in a show celebrating old age.

'I remember there were so many towering buildings and bright lights. It was the first time I had stayed in a hotel and the bed was so soft I was worried I would fall out of it ... the windows and door were shut but I could feel an icy wind blowing. I had never heard of air conditioning.'

How does she feel about the torch arriving in Hainan this month? 'Olympics? What's that? I've never heard of it.'



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