China Underground > China History Images > Hainan in Transition: A Glimpse into the Pre-Tourism Era (1999-2000)

Hainan in Transition: A Glimpse into the Pre-Tourism Era (1999-2000)

A Visual Journey of the Recent Past of Hainan Island.

Pictures by Matteo Damiani (1999-2000). The photographs were captured using an inexpensive camera, and one of the film rolls utilized was past its expiry date.

A vivid collection of images offers a rare glimpse into the island’s past, giving a glimpse of Hainan’s transformation. Located in the South China Sea, Hainan Island was standing on the precipice of transformation as the late 20th century approached. Haikou, its capital, traces its history back to being a port city for Qiongshan. This city was a critical strategic point during the Chinese Civil War. The Nationalist forces maintained their position here until the last stages of the Battle of Hainan Island in 1950 when it eventually fell under Communist control.


Venturing away from Haikou, the road leading to Sanya unfolded an ensemble of varying landscapes.

From Hainan to Sanya

Sanya, a city nestled on the southern tip of Hainan, was poised for transformation towards the end of the 1990s. This city was stepping out of its conventional role as a regional commercial centre, preparing to embrace a new identity as a world-class tourist destination. The groundwork for this change was being laid, with modern infrastructure gradually replacing the traditional. As these changes took root, Sanya began to transform from a locally focused hub to a city with an international outlook.


Yalongwan, today synonymous with luxury resorts and sandy beaches, was just starting to gain momentum in this era. The nascent days of Ocean View Resort Yalong Bay, at the time under construction, signified a pivotal transition for this area. The sounds of construction and the promise of future employment began to replace the quiet lull of the sea, indicating the onset of a tourism boom.

The Nanwan Monkey Island Reserve (南湾猴岛自然保护区), despite its name, is a state-protected peninsula nestled within Lingshui County on Hainan’s south coast. Encircled by the waters of Xincun harbour, this sanctuary is dedicated to the preservation of macaque monkeys. With an estimated population of 2,000 monkeys across its 1,000-hectare terrain, it stands as the largest of its kind in China. This sanctuary not only plays an essential role in the protection and cultivation of the macaque population but also holds the unique distinction of being the only nature reserve of its kind globally.

At Xincun Port in Nanwan Bay over 600 distinctive red-roofed houses form a fascinating pattern over the water. These houses are home to the Dan Jia People, colloquially known as the Chinese “sea gypsies”. Despite being a distinct cultural group, the Dan Jia are not an ethnic minority within Hainan but are part of the larger Han nationality. The Dan Jia lineage traces its roots back to the Qin Dynasty, with their ancestors hailing primarily from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces.

Topics: Hainan Island Transformation, Images of Historical Hainan, Haikou Port City History, Sanya’s Evolution as a Tourist Destination, Nanwan Monkey Island Reserve in Hainan, The Unique Culture of Dan Jia People, Journey Through Hainan’s Past

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