Hong Kong friends often ask me to name the best Hainanese chicken rice restaurant in Singapore. Visitors to the Lion City love the dish for good reason but it’s not my favourite Singapore speciality and not something I crave whenever I go back home. (Nyonya laksa, on the other hand …)
Hainanese chicken rice as it is made in Southeast Asia is not found in the province of Hainan.
Separated from the mainland by the 30km-wide Qiongzhou Strait, Hainan was settled by Han Chinese as early as the Qin dynasty (221-207BC), when the newly unified Chinese empire placed the island under the authority of the Xiang commandery, which probably included present-day Guangxi and northern Vietnam.
Throughout history, its remote location made it an ideal place of exile for disgraced officials (the Song-dynasty poet Su Dongpo was banished to Hainan in 1094) and a haven from wars on the mainland (hundreds of thousands of war refugees fled from southern Fujian to Hainan in the late Song period, their Minnan language eventually evolving into Hainanese).
In the late imperial period, Hainan remained a prefecture of a larger province but, in 1931, it was made a special administrative region with a chief executive who answered directly to the central government of the Republic of China. The island was finally made a province in 1988.