Mother had left with the guide for a tour of the heritage park, but I was so hungry I opted to visit the food court first. After browsing the various stalls offering eastern, western, northern and southern-style noodles from around the island, I opted for the one with the ‘time-honoured’ signage, which to me tasted no more authentic than it was well-marketed.
After eating my fill I was still thinking about that drink, but as it turned out the only alcohol served at the Binglanggu Cultural Heritage Park—a quadruple A national tourist attraction on the the outskirts of Sanya— was rice wine fermented by the indigenous Li and Miao People on Hainan island. Though served was perhaps not as appropriate a word as ‘made available for bulk sale’. Tea cup-sized servings of the sweet, tangy alcoholic beverage were given out by the promoters dressed in black and red woven tribal attire for the tourists to sample, and were made available to purchase by the bottle or dozen, depending on how much you could drink, or in mother’s case— how many bottles she could sneak through Malaysian customs before having to slip a little something to the officer on duty.
I gulped down two cups and politely declined any more. If I could be completely honest with the promoter, I would’ve told her I was much more interested in the Li traditional dress she was wearing, an intricately woven pattern of angular shapes with embroidered using multicoloured yarn-dyed fabric. I found out later that those traditional garments were up for sale too, albeit inferior in design and detailing, as souvenirs at the gift shop where you could bring home pieces of Miao or Li culture with you.
Shimmering displays of teapots and cups, along with bowls and decorative plates with chopsticks were for sale too. These were only a few among what seemed like a complete catalogue of every kind of of silverware imaginable, displayed in tiny stores and booths furnished of sandalwood, which with the teak flooring lent the entire floor the feeling that you were in a giant treehouse. I picked out a silver bracelet from the jewellery box, and thought that of all the women I knew, Rei could probably make it work best. Except that when I thought of her now I could not put a face to her name, and all I remembered was that she liked to dress up and was fun to be around, with the natural air she exuded in her blossoming from girl into woman being what drew me towards her to most.
What was it that I actually knew about Rei, or any of the other women I met on dating apps for that matter? Knowing their name, what they did for work, and what they liked to wear was one thing, but as to understanding who they were as human beings, I fell hopelessly short. Being Chinese and able to speak Mandarin meant little when I was essentially a foreigner in this country, one who was only able to penetrate the iridescent bubble of Chinese life only to linger at the outermost surface of its societal subjectivity. Perhaps this was because they saw me only as a huaqiao, someone who resembled them only insofar as my ethnicity and language skills were concerned, but not as an out and out Zhongguoren who bled red, even more so than I already did when wounded.
A Li sales rep approached me with a smile. She had a fairer complexion than most of the tribespeople at the Binglanggu, and with her neatly combed bangs she looked as Han as one could be, except for her set of big, deep set eyes and slightly broader forehead that was not typically Han. She got behind the counter and asked if I would like to try on the bracelet I’d been holding unknowingly for some time now. I felt obliged and nodded.
“That’s probably too small for you,” she said, pulling out a cuff bracelet from a box with simple angular detailing minus the inlays, which really allowed the shape and shine of the silver to stand out more.
“I think this suits you very well,” she said as I clamped the bracelet together, not breaking her smile the whole time.
“Do you think it would suit a foreigner too?”
“Umm… that depends. What gender and how tall? And where is your friend from?”
“It’s for me. I’m from Malaysia.”
“I see, oh you’re a huaqiao! Are you here on Hainan for travel?”
“I’m here for a xungen trip actually, my father is from here.”
“Oh! You’re a fellow Hainanese tongbao then, deserving of a warm Lizu welcome now that you’ve come back to your laojia! Are you going to the bamboo dance ceremony?”
“That depends. Will you be doing the dance?”
“No not today, but some really hot ayis will be!”
“Guess it’s my lucky day.”
“It may well be. Wearing that silver bracelet, you’ll have all the good fortune of our people with you, at all times.”
Running my fingers over the greyish-white engravings gave me a strange sensation, something in between security, satisfaction and silliness. Looking at the subtly carved grooves I was able to appreciate the craftsmanship of the indigenous Li people, and reflected dull within the polished surface, was the silhouette of a woman gazing back at me. Having it on sure felt good.
“Does this come with a free gift?” I asked, reaching for my wallet.
“Where have you been?” mother asked just as I entered the tribal courtyard, “You just missed the erhu ensemble, and the man playing the nose flute! They say his range is over three octaves!”
“But shouldn’t that be predetermined by the range of the instrument itself?”
“I don’t know son, but it sure was impressive! Did you see the old ladies knitting those yarns, with their feet pressed firm against the wooden poles? I’m certain that’s the same fabric they use for sewing their traditional collarless dress. Absolutely lovely! Oh, what’s that you’ve got there?”
I showed her the bracelet in the box. She looked unimpressed, which was oddly unusual of her.
“What’s this supposed to be?”
“A silver bracelet, Ma. Don’t you find these intricate carvings cool?” I asked, pointing them out to her lest she missed them.
“They’re alright, I guess. But what is it?”
“What do you mean? It’s a bracelet, you put it on your wrist and hope for the best.”
“I mean, what are the local beliefs associated with wearing it? Is it supposed to bring you luck or wealth? Maybe safeguard and watch over you on your travels?”
“I don’t know, Ma. I just like the way it looks on me. Would be best if it could exponentially reduce my repellence of women, or not add to it at the very least.”
“It’s not a magic bracelet, son. Even the tribespeople know that much.”
“Never mind, dear mother. We must remember that one has to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”
“What…? Are you quoting Mao or something?”
“It’s Kant, Ma.”
“Alright alright. Believe what you want, you don’t have to start swearing, ok? Let’s go look for Wang Shifu. Tell me, how long does it take to smoke one cigarette anyway?”
The erhu and flute ensemble of the Li people gathered just as we were leaving the courtyard. No soundcheck or tuneup was necessary for the elderly flute quartet and erhu trio, only a few claps from the conductor and they went on their way, playing a predominantly pentatonic melody with an indistinct harmony if there was one. Their all-male lineup was fluid, and played flawlessly for all I knew. I wondered if they were lauded as rockstars within the community of tribespeople, and whether or not they possessed tendencies to accidentally OD on betel nut or rice wine, possibly even have their own access to groupies?
We paused when we came to a lookout point, and allowed ourselves a moment to take in the vast, green cultivation of palm and coconut trees that stretched across the many acres below us. Across the horizon where the green melded into various hues of orange, blue and grey lay an ocean, set ablaze by a westward moving sun that induced the mildest of melancholias, present but barely noticeable until one gave it to the sheer power the sublime before them.
It was hard for me to imagine a life on Hainan island. At that point, it was hard to imagine myself staying in China for much longer.
“So dad was from here?” I asked her, maybe almost too casually.
“Not here here, but further north up the island.”
“You didn’t feel the need to tell me earlier?” I asked, watching the invisible wind rustle through the coconut estate.
“I didn’t really feel it was so important,” she said, turning towards me, “you’d grown up without a father and have continued to do well enough without ever knowing where he was from.”
“Yeap, I don’t disagree. That’s why this whole xungen thing is a so confusing for me. I don’t understand why you thought it was important for me to do it.”
“You’ll understand some day, son. As for right now, isn’t it reason enough that your mother misses you?”