The elderly ‘migratory birds’ from the north ruffling feathers in tropical Sanya over winter
Hundreds of thousands head south to escape the bone-chilling cold, but locals from the resort town say they’re putting a strain on limited resources
Every year at the end of September, 71-year-old retiree Yu Lingqi makes his way from his hometown in northeast China to the tropical island province of Hainan.
Yu has done this for the past 12 years and is one of an estimated 400,000 elderly “migratory birds” who head south for the winter to escape the brutal cold.
He stays at the 48 sq m flat he owns in the resort town of Sanya on Hainan – billed as “China’s Hawaii” – and returns to Daqing in Heilongjiang province in April, when the weather is better.
“I feel comfortable in Sanya because the weather is so warm and the air and water is clean,” said Yu, who used to work for a state-owned oil company. The warmer weather is also good for his rheumatoid arthritis, which is made worse by the cold. Yu said it hasn’t bothered him at all in the past decade.
It’s easy to see why Yu and many other affluent Chinese retirees want to escape the winter in the northeast, where temperatures can plunge to minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 Fahrenheit). Located at the southern end of the island, Sanya, with its palm-fringed beaches, sees average temperatures ranging from a balmy 20 to 30 degrees Celsius in the winter months.
The numbers started growing about a decade ago and now the northeastern dialect can be heard everywhere in Sanya over winter. And as in other places where mainland Chinese now visit in bigger numbers – including Hong Kong and tourist hotspots overseas – not everyone is happy about it.
Locals say the visitors are putting a strain on limited resources, particularly public transport, and there has been increasing tension between the “migratory birds”, as local media call them, and Hainanese. Video clips of arguments are regularly posted on social media, where locals leave messages calling for those from the northeast to “get out of Hainan”.
Fu Zhu is from Dongfang in the west of the island and works as a tour guide in Sanya. The 29-year-old said the resort town did not have the resources to cope with all the visitors over winter.
“Their coming has seriously affected our living quality,” Fu said. “We don’t like them coming here.”
Fu said he had also seen some of the elderly people behaving badly. “They move down here to take advantage of our warm climate, but they’re not grateful at all. And with so many people from the northeast coming here at once, it creates chaos and ruins the charm of the place,” Fu said.
In 2014, the number of elderly “migratory birds” over winter was put at 400,000, Thepaper.cn reported, citing an aged care group in Sanya.
The permanent resident population of Sanya at that time was 590,000.
Some 200,000 of those visitors were from Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang. Many of the others are from Jilin and Liaoning provinces, also in the northeast. Some buy holiday homes in Sanya, others rent flats for the winter months.
Sanya’s deputy mayor told the news outlet that the influx was good for the resort town.
“If these hundreds of thousands of people from northern China left Sanya, the city would become a ghost town overnight,” Li Boqing was quoted as saying.
But for locals like Fu, they would be happier in the “ghost town”. He said there were often arguments when people tried to squeeze onto crowded buses, and particularly when students could not get onto a bus to get to school.
Video clips shared online showing visitors helping themselves to vegetables, fruit and flowers from farms in the area have also inflamed the situation.
“They just want to make these small gains at other people’s expense,” Fu said. “This can also be seen when they queue for discounted goods at supermarkets. It happens all the time. They’re retired, so they can wait but the rest of us are working, we don’t have time to stand in line and we miss out on the cheaper stuff,” he said.
The tour guide said he was insulted when he heard the line “Sanya, city of Heilongjiang province”, used by some of the elderly visitors when arguing with Hainanese.
“They think they’re the saviours of Hainan’s economy and so they can do what they like,” Fu said.
In the most recent incident, a woman from the northeast was detained for 10 days after she hit a 70-year-old cleaner with a broom during an argument at a market on Monday, according to a Sanya Daily report. A video clip shows locals at the scene hurling insults and yelling “Shame on you, beating an old woman” at the woman as she was handcuffed and taken away by police.
The clash between north and south was laid out in the Heilongjiang Morning Post in 2013, when it listed some of the behavioural problems to avoid because they were causing resentment in Sanya. They included speaking loudly in public, rushing to take up bus seats, drinking heavily and then fighting, taking flowers from the roadside, and buying up too many products in duty-free shops.
The problem came down to a difference in culture between the two regions, Zhu Anping, a researcher from the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the newspaper.
“Attitudes and the language people use are quite different. People in the northeast tend to speak quite loudly and they also tend to speak their minds ... so they could easily cause offence in the south,” he was quoted as saying.
But many places around the world grappled with social issues around migrants, temporary or permanent, arriving in large numbers, said Wei Xiang, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ National Academy of Economic Strategy.
He said Chinese cities including Sanya should learn from multicultural countries and try to integrate the newcomers in the local community.
“People from the northeast are having these disputes with local Hainanese firstly because they’re putting a strain on public resources in this small resort town, and secondly because there is a culture clash,” Wei said.
He suggested the Hainan government embrace the influx of elderly residents over winter as a boost to the local economy and provide more resources to cope with the numbers instead.
“Hainan could make some adjustments and turn Sanya into a haven for aged care,” he said.
But tour guide Fu was not keen on the idea, even if it was good for the economy.
“If these old people can’t behave themselves, they’re not welcome here,” he said.
For Yu though, he is quite happy staying at his flat near Bailu park, in downtown Sanya. In fact, he can’t see what the fuss is about – he believes there is more interaction between the locals and the northerners now than when he first started going to Sanya. Back then, he said they rarely communicated because they did not understand each other, but now the dialects have become more familiar.
“In recent years, we’ve been living harmoniously,” he said. “I don’t feel that we are excluded, or that there’s any strong sentiment against us.”