The Needle in the Sea: Simon Worrall Sets Sail for a Southern Island to Meet a Man Fighting the Looters of China's Underwater Treasure

Article excerpt

It isn't easy getting to Hailing Island. As ever in China, there is the language barrier. I have been told to head for Yanjiang, a provincial city about three hours south-west of Guangzhou, or Canton, as it used to be. But the receptionist at my hotel hears the name of the city as Zhangjiang. Finally, after much poring over maps, we get the right place.

But how to get there? My intention is to go by bus. The receptionist insists this will be too complicated--and too dangerous. I might be robbed. So, after much further discussion, I negotiate with a taxi driver to drive me for the princely sum of 1,400 yuan--nearly [pounds sterling]100. Welcome to the new China.

It is more than twenty years since I have been here. In 1984, I took a job as a so-called "foreign expert"--very foreign, not very expert--teaching English at a university in Manchuria. It was less than a decade after the Cultural Revolution. People still dressed in Mao suits and caps and got around on old-fashioned Phoenix bicycles or "the number 11 bus", a colloquialism meaning your own two feet. The only shops were Soviet-style department stores.

It is a bewildering experience to arrive back in China two decades later. Motorbikes have replaced the rivers of bicycles that used to flow through the streets. There are skyscrapers, Mercedes Benz cars and neon lights, and hookers in every hotel. Yet as we leave Guangzhou and head into the interior, it is much as I remember it. Hibiscus bushes line the middle of the highway. Peasants in bamboo hats pull wooden handcarts beside rice paddies and fishponds. A bare-chested man with skin the colour of teak holds three water buffaloes on a web of chains on the grass at the side of the road.

It takes more than three hours to reach Hailing Island. Finally, we cross a causeway and a choppy, grey sea appears. Billboards decorated with leaping dolphins and girls in old-fashioned bathing suits appear at the side of the road.

Hailing Island is a popular holiday resort (think Seaton by the South China Sea). On the island's main drag there are numerous restaurants with pink plastic furniture and exotic fish in tanks. Roadside stalls sell beach umbrellas, suncream and garish towels. Holidaymakers, many of them from Taiwan, pad along in flip-flops, eating ice creams.

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I am not here for a holiday, though. I have come to meet a man called Zhang Wei, head of China's marine archaeology unit. An energetic man of 52 with a winning smile and a mop of black hair, he drives an Audi and dresses in smart western clothes. Dangling from a silver chain under his pink cotton shirt is a chunk of jade worth more than [pounds sterling]1,000. His cellphone rings incessantly.

"We estimate that there are 2,000 ancient shipwrecks in the territorial waters of China," he says, as we sit drinking "Kungfu" tea from thimble-sized cups at the marine archaeology unit's base, which doubles as a hotel. In a classroom below us, a group of students, including two from Kenya, pore over barometric tables. …