Minority Report: The Cultural Traditions of the Li People Hainan Island, China, Are Rapidly Disappearing as They Are Assimilated by the Dominant Han Chinese. but Now Veteran Explorer Wong How Man Is Trying to Save One of the Island's Last Traditional Li Villages from the Bulldozers

By Montlake, Simon | Geographical, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Minority Report: The Cultural Traditions of the Li People Hainan Island, China, Are Rapidly Disappearing as They Are Assimilated by the Dominant Han Chinese. but Now Veteran Explorer Wong How Man Is Trying to Save One of the Island's Last Traditional Li Villages from the Bulldozers


Montlake, Simon, Geographical


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The winding, paved road into Hongshui village makes a final swing to the left before plunging to the lush valley floor. From this vantage point, a cluster of thatched-roof mud houses appear to float like Shredded Wheat in a green bowl of rice paddies and coconut palms. Wong How Man stands on the hillside and peers through a sheet of tracing paper at the village below. On the paper, a hand-sketched map shows a cluster of houses near the road. Wong turns to Ildiko Choy, the architect who drew the map, and points to the zone. 'We need to secure these houses,' he tells her.

Contrary to appearances, Wong isn't a land speculator or property mogul. He's a veteran explorer of China's far-flung regions who has spent the past two decades trying to preserve what he finds, not only the flora and fauna, but also the indigenous cultures that thrive there. His Hong Kong-based group China Exploration and Research Services (CERS) has its fingers in many pies, particularly in the ecologically and culturally diverse province of Yunnan. Among his pet projects is breeding pure Tibetan mastiffs, one of the world's oldest dog breeds.

Now Wong is taking his first steps on Hainan, a lopsided pear-shaped island to which ancient Chinese emperors used to dispatch disgruntled courtiers. It was known as an 'island of no return', a tropical sinkhole where China's writ ran ragged and the natives were none too welcoming. These days, its reputation is more benign: China's new middle class flock to its sandy beaches for winter sun and its favorite showcase is the annual Miss World beauty pageant, which burnishes the image of 'China's Hawaii'.

For a 59-year-old explorer whose achievements include pinpointing the true source of the Yangtze River in 1985 and leading expeditions in Tibet for the National Geographical Society, tourist-friendly Hainan isn't exactly virgin terrain. But Wong knows that China's rapid development can be ruinous for indigenous cultures, particularly when modernity is dangled in front of impressionable youth. That includes the Li people, who are among 55 ethnic minority groups officially recognised in China.

STEP BACK IN TIME

About 1.2 million Li live on Hainan, which has a population of almost eight million. Traditionally, the Li are farmers, hunters, fishermen and traders. Their textiles are notable for the use of traditional dyes and fine brocades. However, those traditions are vanishing, as most Li live in towns and have lost much of their own language and culture through assimilation with the dominant Han Chinese.

But a trip to Hongshui village is a step back in time. Tucked into the foothills of Hainan's southwestern mountains, it sits on the banks of the small river that lends the village its name. Its residents are subsistence farmers who grow rice and vegetables, and raise pigs. Bisected by a creek, the village is a dense thicket of thatched houses surrounded by rice paddies. The only visible brick structure is the four-room school. The final 12 kilometres of the road that ends at the village was paved in 1997, cutting the drive-time to the provincial capital, Haikou, to five hours.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

What drew Wong to this spot was its traditional architecture, which features mud-walled, thatched-roof houses that stay cool during Hainan's sticky summers. Last March, he marveled at finding one of the last remaining intact Li villages. Then his jaw dropped as he was told that local authorities planned to tear down the village and replace it with modern brick houses. As a conservationist, the Hong Kong native saw a rare cultural treasure earmarked for destruction. His entrepreneurial senses were also tingling: wouldn't tourists pay top dollar to spend a night in an authentic Li village such as this? That house could become a Li museum; that one, a research archive; and how about a gift shop?

Four months later, Wong was back in Hongshui with a team of experts--the architect, two filmmakers and a Swiss social anthropologist--to map out his vision. …

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Minority Report: The Cultural Traditions of the Li People Hainan Island, China, Are Rapidly Disappearing as They Are Assimilated by the Dominant Han Chinese. but Now Veteran Explorer Wong How Man Is Trying to Save One of the Island's Last Traditional Li Villages from the Bulldozers
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