Haikou’s dynamism is rooted in its past
Chief administrative city of Hainan’s history is a tale of adventures, influences and smart business savvy
The city of Haikou was historically a place where adventurers dived for pearls along the coastline and Ming dynasty soldiers guarded against pirates. It was an important port during the imperial period, and traded with many nations nearby as part of Guangdong province.
The city rose to greater prominence during the early 19th century, when the British opened Haikou up as a treaty port and sought to establish greater trade by sea with Hong Kong and the islands of the South Pacific. Those efforts were hampered by pirates, and eventually the British gave up trying to exploit the riches of Hainan Island through their treaty port.
During the war torn years of the 20th century, the Japanese, communists, and nationalists vied for control of the area. Hainan was taken by the communists in a daring amphibious assault in 1950, after which Haikou became the chief administrative city of Hainan and once again a busy, bustling port in the South China Sea.
In 1988, Deng Xiaoping, the late paramount leader who kick-started China’s economic miracle, made Hainan an official province and a special economic zone, relatively free from standard central planning procedures, and able to experiment with new economic models. For the next two decades, Haikou slowly developed and grew, and is now poised to make its mark as a premier port city in one of the most beautiful regions of the world.
The Hainan Museum in Haikou should be your first stop when you arrive in the city. The displays on ethnic minorities and 20th-century history are particularly informative and trace the development of the island from its time as “the end of the known world” through to the resistance against the Japanese and the current economic boom the island is experiencing. It’s a great place to get perspective on Haikou and the surrounding region, and learn about the city’s place in the wider world. Displays are in Chinese and English, and it’s free to enter.
The many influences of the past several centuries are also readily apparent in the different styles of architecture in Haikou. Perhaps the most well-known of Haikou’s unique cultural identity are the arcade houses, or qilou, as they are known in Mandarin. Arcade houses are buildings that have awnings extending out over the pavement, creating a covered pathway and an arcade for shops and restaurants.The arcade houses are a charming blend of Southeast Asian, European, and Middle Eastern styles that create a special feel to the old city of Haikou. Interestingly enough, the qilou were built primarily by locals returning from overseas during the early 20th century – which may explain the buildings’ mixed styles and heritage.
The Qilou Old Street are arcade buildings concentrated in the main walking commercial district of the city, centred round Boai Lu, Zhongshan Lu, Xinhua Beilu, Deshengsha, and Changdi Lu. The area is functional; markets containing all manner of goods carry on a brisk business into the night, after which the stalls close up and are replaced by small seafood restaurants. The small stalls and the barbecue stands serve fresh catch from the sea deep into the night. Night markets can also be found around Hainan University and along the People’s Bridge, connecting Haidian with the mainland, and there you can find not just seafood but also a local favourite, chaobing, similar to a tropical fruit and ice sorbet.
The city’s most beautiful temple, Wu Gong Temple, is located just within the old administrative district of Qiongshan. The temple commemorates five government officials who were exiled here during dynastic times – a common occurrence that helped shape the culture and identity of Hainan Island for many centuries.
Also within the city centre are a number of parks, such as Wan Lu along the coast, which are perfect tropical oases within the burgeoning city centre. Several beaches stretch out east and west from the port, and are lined with cafés and restaurants that are open late. Holiday Beach is the most visited, but Baishamen and Guilinyang also have much to offer anyone looking to stretch out in the sun and enjoy the tropical weather. Heading inland to the Volcanic Cluster Geopark is another great day trip back in time – back to 2 million years ago when these volcanoes were first formed.
A natural counterpart to the Hainan Museum is Tonggu Ling, an outcrop along the coast the overlooks the city and provides a grand view of the port of Haikou and the surrounding area. Just as the museum gives visitors a deeper look into the history and identity of Haikou, viewing the city from the silent heights of Tonggu Ling will give visitors the perspective to understand where the city comes from, and where it is headed.