I began my Hainan trip in the capital city of Haikou, on Sunday, with plans to head down to the beach town of Sanya, Hainan’s main attraction, on Monday. I thought that since my plane landed in Haikou, I might as well explore the city a bit and see what it had to offer, not abandon it for greener pastures—or sunnier beaches—right away (this is the nerdy historian in me speaking). Sunday’s weather, however, didn’t cooperate. The morning seemed promising: though it dawned a little hazy and overcast, I thought maybe that would burn off and the sun would come out, as often happens in Southern California. I optimistically planned to spend the afternoon reading on the beach. But as I was on the bus out to Holiday Beach, rain started spattering the windows and the clouds settled in for the day. I took a long walk along the sand before I had to admit that the rain showed no signs of going away and I was getting awfully cold. I boarded the bus back to Haikou.
Getting rained out, though, allowed me to return to a neighborhood I had briefly walked around early that morning before my disappointing jaunt to Holiday Beach. On my hotel map, it’s identified as Haikou’s “old colonial district,” a remnant of the city’s 19th-century history as a port inhabited by foreigners like the British, French, and Americans. Much of the area is filled with crumbling white buildings turned partially black by mold and Haikou’s impenetrable wall of humidity. All of the structures are built with homes on the top two or three stories and shops beneath an arcade below, the overhang providing pedestrians shelter from Haikou’s intense sun and frequent rains. At first, the district reminded me of Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic—full of graceful, European-influenced architecture that deserves to be preserved, but hasn’t yet felt a restorer’s hand.
But then I walked up to a street blocked off by a barricade and identified as “Zhongshan Street” (named after Sun Zhongshan, more commonly known in the West as Sun Yat-sen). Zhongshan Street is a pedestrian shopping zone paved in cobblestones and lined on both sides by buildings similar to those I’d passed elsewhere in the neighborhood. The façades on Zhongshan Street, however, showed no signs of mildew or erosion from the elements; their perfectly flat exteriors sported a fresh coat of whitewash and colorful shutters closed over the upper-story windows. Planters filled with palms and other greenery stood at intervals along the street, and every few hundred feet there was a life-size sculpture reproducing scenes of life in Ye Olde Haikou. Zhongshan Street is Haikou’s contribution to a trend popular in cities across China these days: rather than embarking on large-scale historical preservation, the city builds a reproduction meant to serve as a “Best of” model of its past. Harbin, for example, now has replicas of its famous “Chinese Baroque” style, which Jay Carter has written about for The China Beat, and Beijing has re-created its historic Qianmen district, which Ian Johnson decried in a New York Review of Books essay on the city.
What I found so interesting about Haikou’s reproduction street is that there’s still plenty of historic architecture remaining in the blocks around it; at least some of the time, in my experience, cities demolish the old buildings and construct these pedestrian streets as a kind of consolation prize for those who protest against the eradication of the past. But at both ends of Zhongshan Street, there are decaying old houses and shops in dire need of a thorough rehab. The original and the reconstructed live—for now—side by side, though I wondered if building a reproduction street was designed to give Haikou city officials some leeway to order the demolition of older structures at some point in the future.
I wanted to take a closer look at Zhongshan Street when I returned to Haikou in the afternoon, to see how well (or poorly) the reconstruction effort had been executed. By the time I got back there, a small exhibition hall had opened and I could check out a display of before-and-after photographs. What surprised me when I examined those photos was that the new buildings are nearly exact copies of what stood there before the renovation, down to ornamental details and even, in a couple of cases, slogans from the Cultural Revolution that have been repainted in a faint shade that mimics what they would look like after forty years of exposure to the elements.
This attention to detail is commendable; I like the idea of maintaining the unique attributes of a building, rather than replacing it with something generically “Chinese” as has been done in Beijing’s new luxury hutong communities. But a stroll down Zhongshan Street still replicates a walk down Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. more than it resembles one through the surrounding Haikou neighborhood. The building façades are too flat and their colors too even; no one lives on their upper stories, so the street lacks the liveliness and activity that residents would give to it. This was especially noticeable on Sunday, the first day of the Chinese New Year, because almost all of the businesses on Zhongshan Street were closed for the holiday. Aside from a handful of café customers at one end of the block, and a few dozen tourists like me, Zhongshan Street was quiet and empty. There wasn’t even anyone lighting firecrackers, while the rest of the colonial district was filled with the faint smell of exploded gunpowder and shards of red paper.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s actually no perfect way to do historic preservation. Zhongshan Street is the best example I’ve seen in China of a renovation that made a serious effort to maintain the uniqueness of the area’s architecture. Whoever led the restoration understood the importance of preserving the odd arch of a window and the fading characters of a decades-old political slogan. But even then, the best contractor can’t rebuild the character of a street or the personalities that inhabit it once the people are gone. Zhongshan Street isn’t part of the texture of the Haikou neighborhood that it sits in—it’s a sanitized stage for business and tourism that brings down the curtain when the shops close at the end of the day.
If you’re in Haikou’s old colonial district and searching for a latte, Zhongshan Street is the place to go. But if you’d like to see some of the neighborhood’s historic architecture and get a sense of what it’s like to live, shop, and work there, skip Zhongshan Street and get lost in the surrounding blocks, imperfect and timeworn as they are.