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Damon Liu, building his dream homestay, Found, on Langkawi island. Southeast Asia has attracted Chinese travellers for centuries, and a new generation of mainlanders are abandoning the rat race to set up shop down in ‘Nanyang’ – despite Covid presenting unique challenges. Photo: Thomas Bird

The Chinese entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia who’ve abandoned the rat race for sun, sand and scuba diving – but it’s not been easy

  • Southeast Asia has long attracted southern Chinese immigrants, but now young, northern mainlanders are abandoning China’s extreme work culture for a slower life
  • Whether opening a cafe in Bali, scuba instructing in Thailand, or building a guest house in Malaysia, following their dreams has been tough during the pandemic
Asia travel

Visitors and residents in Bali’s Canggu district are spoiled for choice when it comes to dining, and now, Shaanxi-style biang biang noodles have been added to the mix, courtesy of an émigré from northern China.

The “Nanyang”, as the Chinese have long dubbed Southeast Asia, has attracted migrants from China since the Song dynasty (AD960-1279). Yet the majority sailed from southern provinces.

Mandarin-speaking, wheat-eating Li Yang, then, is a rarity in Indonesia, where the bulk of “Chindos” can trace their family line back to Guangdong or Fujian provinces. Nevertheless, she is part of a growing number of northern entrepreneurs willing to exchange the familiarity of home for the opportunities, and lifestyle perks, of Southeast Asia.

Li hails from Liaoning province and the vast Songliao Plain.

Canggu, on Bali’s west coast. Photo: Shutterstock

“It can get just as hot in the summer,” she says, of her village, Hujiafang, which is surrounded by corn fields, flanked by the Hun River and located some 6,000km (3,700 miles) north of Bali. “But in the winter it’s much colder than here, of course.

“I lived there until I was 17, then I went to college in Xinjiang [in northwestern China]. But I dropped out after a year and went to Shenyang [Liaoning’s provincial capital] to work in a cafe instead,” Li says. The mid-2000s were a time of easy mobility in mainland China and Li then landed a job at a magazine in Beijing.

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“Looking back, I think the time around the Olympics was a very open period. Plus, I was young and enjoying a new kind of lifestyle.”

As the decade turned, Li, and many of her peers, started holidaying abroad.

“The first country I went to was Vietnam,” Li says. She began flying south regularly after that and, in 2014, discovered a passion for scuba diving in Malaysia, having had to learn to swim before donning a tank and mask.

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“For my 30th birthday I decided to travel longer than usual. A friend suggested we go to Indonesia. It was the only major country [in the region] I hadn’t visited because it felt so far away,” she says, of Southeast Asia’s largest country, a seven-hour flight from Beijing.

Li touched down in West Nusa Tenggara province and Lombok worked its magic. “I started meeting like-minded people. My world view changed and less than a year later I moved [permanently] to Indonesia.”

Five years later and Li is the proud owner of Yang’s Chinese Kitchen, a northern-style noodle restaurant housed in a bamboo-adorned shack flanked by rice paddies in Canggu, a setting that couldn’t be more different to northern China.
Li Yang’s restaurant, Yang’s Chinese Kitchen, in Canggu, is flanked by rice paddies. Photo: Thomas Bird

“I’m not a trained chef, so I just make what I know,” Li explains, while wok-frying some bean sprouts in her open kitchen. But she says she is passion­ate, both about cooking and free diving, which she learned on the island of Gili Trawangan, located between Bali and Lombok.

“I opened my first restaurant on Gili Trawangan in 2018, making dumplings, noodles and other things I like. I didn’t worry that most people’s idea of Chinese food was Cantonese, I’m happy to chal­lenge this concept with my cooking.”

Despite her can-do attitude, building a business has not been easy for a northerner abroad who cannot rely on a diaspora for support. When the pandemic struck, it hit hard.

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“We had two years of Gili-T with no work,” she says.

Li moved to Canggu in 2021, a fast-growing tourist district where foot traffic is more reliable. She is enjoying having a steady flow of customers who come to sample her classic northern fare, wolfed down to a Beijing alt-rock soundtrack.

“Some people say I’m a hippie,” the red-haired, dungaree-sporting restaurateur confesses, “but it’s not about fitting a mould, I like it here, the countryside reminds me of home after years living in big cities. Plus, I believe in what I do, I know my food is tasty.”

Li at Yang’s Chinese Kitchen. Photo: Thomas Bird

Thailand-based diver Lukia Lu was another Chinese visitor to Southeast Asia who was seduced by the marvels of the deep.

“I grew up in Shizuishan,” Lu says, of a city located in the desert region Ningxia, 1,000km from the coast. “The main industry is coal mining.”

Lu endured a childhood of climatic extremes; scorching summers, bitter winters and spring sandstorms that turned day into night. Like many people who grew up in the reform era, she gravitated to the booming east coast.

Lukia Lu moved from China to Koh Samui in Thailand to establish a new life as a dive instructor. Photo: RenYu Mermaid and Underwater Art Centre

“I arrived in Shenzhen with 2,000 yuan (US$280) and found a job on my first day, as a brand consultant for Italian luxury brand Giada, which had a shop in the Shanghai Hotel, in Futian district.”

Within a few years, Lu had bought a car, started an overseas investment company and was regularly flying to Europe on business trips.

“I worked so hard I sacrificed my health and neglected my partner,” she confesses.

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In 2017, when Lu was living in Shanghai, a holiday she’d planned in Paris fell through, leaving her with the rare luxury of some free time.

“I’d tried scuba diving once and always wanted to learn. So I went to Koh Tao,” she says of her decision to head to Thailand’s diving mecca. “Basically, for nine days I lived like a diver; wake up, dive, lunch, dive, sleep, repeat.”

The experience was transformative and on returning to China, Lu found she could not readjust to corporate life.

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“I explained to my business partner that this was what I wanted to do. He was very understanding.”

Lu established a new life on Koh Samui as a dive instructor, with a bit of freelance Mandarin teaching, tour-guiding and real-estate consulting to help pay the bills. Things were going well until her father fell ill in late 2019.

“I left everything and rushed back to China to take care of him.”

Fishing boats at Bangrak Pier on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock

The pandemic struck soon after.

“I tried to find work but the business I used to do had dried up with the pandemic. The only job I found was teaching a PADI Mermaid course in a dive pool in Shanghai.”

Launched in 2020 to cater to the “desire to imitate the underwater abilities of mythical mermaids”, the course exploited a new craze, which combines cosplay with underwater photography and free-diving skills, that was sweeping the country.

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“I stayed in China, dividing my time between Shanghai and Ningxia, until the Sandbox scheme in Phuket enabled people to come back to Thailand after a 14-day quarantine. I touched down in October 2021, took a breath of fresh air and tasted home.”

Lu is now rebuilding her life in Koh Samui.

“My house had turned into a zoo while I was away and I had to give it up.”

Lu is trying to enjoy some down time now she’s back in Koh Samui. Photo: RenYu Mermaid and Underwater Art Centre

Yet business is booming again in Thailand, as Lu notes, “Many dive instructors left during the pandemic so there’s plenty of work.” And Lu has brought her mermaiding skills back with her, developing a sideline by photographing people in full costume in resort swimming pools.

“I’m trying not to work so hard,” she says, sitting poolside in the Tembo Resort, “to look after my health.”

Not every northern Nanyang-o-phile has been able to return to paradise.

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“I’m still in China, trying to make a bit of money,” says Damon Liu, who hails from Henan province, via telephone. “It’s difficult because they keep locking places down, you can’t plan ahead, as you may end up in quarantine somewhere.”

Liu grew up near the provincial capital Zhengzhou, and, after a two-year stint as a soldier in Wuhan, set off to make his way in the world.

“I started off as a doorman and ended up working in the jewellery business,” entrepreneurial Liu explains. “When I had a bit of money, I started travelling.”

Langkawi’s SkyCab cable car. Photo: Shutterstock

Liu visited several countries before touching down in Kuala Lumpur in 2013, a holiday that would see his life forever changed.

“I couldn’t believe I could speak Chinese in a foreign country. And the food was delicious, I remember my first taste of Indian banana leaf rice.”

From the Malaysian capital, Liu travelled to Penang, in the west of the country, before visiting the resort island of Langkawi.

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“I rented a motorbike and drove around and I thought, ‘This is so beautiful, not to mention cheap.’ Even though there were some hotels, it had a natural, uncommercialised charm.”

In 2015, Liu returned to Malaysia to attend a wedding and started dating Ester Lee, a Malaysian of Chinese descent. Although their romantic involvement has not endured (Liu has since married and fathered two children in China) their business relationship remains intact.

“My English is not so good so Ester helps me communicate with people,” Liu explains.

In 2018, Liu decided to make his Nanyang dreams a reality and bought Hidden Langkawi, a bar and restaurant on Tengah Beach.

“I focused on renovation while Ester developed the menu and managed staff,” Liu says.

Hidden proved a big hit, its waterfront terrace becoming one of the go-to places to watch the island’s famous tangerine sunsets. Emboldened, Liu started work on his next project, a guest house he would build from the ground up, called Found.

Customers enjoying a sundowner at Hidden Langkawi, the beachfront bar and restaurant that Damon Liu acquired in 2018. Photo: Thomas Bird

“I stayed in Langkawi for three years, from 2018 to 2021, and was overseeing the construction of Found. But when the pandemic struck, getting to and from China became more and more difficult,” Liu says. “When I eventually flew home to see my family, I got stuck and have been managing my business interests remotely since.”

Found has been finished in Liu’s absence and is already welcoming guests. But despite China’s strict zero-Covid policy and overseas travel restrictions, Liu plans to return to the “Jewel of Kedah” so his family might one day experience his “paradise found”.

“China is so busy, it’s tiring. I hope one day we’ll all be there, breathing fresh air, drinking coconut milk and enjoying a slower pace of life.”