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The homecoming with friends from Australia...

HAINAN ISLAND: A RETURN TO ANCIENT CHINA WITH WILLIE PHUA

The invitation was all too alluring: “I want you to visit my village in the countryside of Hainan island. I would love to bring my Aussie friends to share this with me – to experience living in a Chinese village as I did as a boy.” It was a summons to experience a part of ancient China rarely visited by tourists and we leapt at the opportunity.

Twelve months after the invitation, 24 people, including many of those Australian friends, in December 2009 bumped over the back roads of rural Hainan to visit Bai Siew Swee (White Tree Village.) It is the village of Willie Phua, former ABC cameraman in Asia for over three decades. We weren’t to be disappointed.

There was no shortage of advice on hand – the group included four former ABC foreign correspondents in Asia and four former ABC cameramen, plus family and friends. But much the same experience can be found by anyone hiring a bicycle or motorbike, or even better, a car with driver, and heading into the backblocks.

Getting there is half the fun. Gongpo is a kind of Chinese ‘west west’ town, two hours from the capital Haikou, seemingly stuck in another era. Carts pulled by plodding water buffalo amble down the main street bringing the harvest to town. It was a Saturday, so gaudy wedding cars came by shattering the calm with horns and exploding fireworks. 

On one side of the road, a barber’s shop with two chairs alongside a dentist’s surgery also with two chairs, all fully exposed to the passing parade, inviting footpath gawkers and unhelpful comment. Over the road, a store of abundance spilling produce into the main street. Hainan, we are told, has the world’s best coconuts.

The happy storekeeper wipes thick dust from demijohns of cider ‘champagne’ and Chinese red wine so we can read the label. A armoury of fireworks is stacked to the rafters. Before long ‘Pork Chop’ Phua (“there’s a pork chop of goodness in every glass”) raids the produce store of its coldest beer to slake the thirst of the Australians. The onslaught of the tourists doesn’t disturb the locals in the slightest, who happily pose for photos smiling broadly. 

Then on to the final leg of the coach journey on a dirt road past waddling geese, water buffalo and rice paddies as we near Bai Siew Swee. Our host Willie Phua covered every major news event in Asia in his career and is long retired from the news business and lives quietly in Singapore with wife Cindy.

His mother Phua Tan Tee once toiled these Hainan fields. His father, who was often away working in Thailand, found a job in Singapore and Willie Phua, aged five, and his mother left Hainan island for good in 1933 and set up their home in booming Singapore, while his father was a cook on a British tanker. Hainan then was a dangerous place wracked by insurgency and war lords.  But Singapore soon proved just as dangerous. Willie Phua remembers the first Japanese bombing of Singapore.

Emotional attachment to China, but Singapore is home

Willie Phua has an emotional attachment to China and its people, but China is not his home: “Singapore is my home. Australia is my second home”, he laughs.

 

Bai Siew Swee is a neat, attractive village; brick houses standing within protective solid walled compounds on a timbered hillside. Chicks scattered underfoot as you walk.  Then suddenly, deafening fireworks with clouds of smoke welcome Phua and his guests.

Surprisingly little has changed since Willie Phua lived here so long ago. He points to the room in which he was born, the yard with chooks pecking the cobblestones and the outdoor oven and woks, where the small boy fell and badly pieced the roof of his mouth with a sharpened bamboo stick, to be healed by the village herbalist. Life was hard for his mother, but it was not poverty, Williew Phua tells us.

Perhaps the greatest changes to the village since Phua left at the age of five is the coming of electricity and an outside toilet where water is pumped from a distant well. A few light globes dangle by cords and there’s the occasional fan in the three houses of the Phua compound, but little else in the way of appliances.

Today distant relatives live here.Willie Phua has brought with him paintings of his mother and father and a small altar is laid out below the family shrine with offerings, including steamed chicken. With burning incense in his clasped hands, he prays especially to his mother, whom he loved dearly.

As a girl Phua Tan Tee had her feet bound “to make them more beautiful and to prevent her from running away”, as he recounted in the book Capturing Asia. But she was lucky to escape the binds at a young age, probably so she could work the fields.

The gathering not only brought together Phua’s Australian friends, but three other members of the Phua dynasty of cameramen who all worked for the ABC – his cousin Phua Tin Loon, who lived here briefly, Loon’s son Joey Phua, now working for international networks out of Singapore, and Tan Suan Ann, who worked with Willie Phua in the ‘sixties and still a photographer in Singapore.

Bringing his Australian friends to his village was the fulfilment of Willie Phua’s dream of being able to share his life experience. “You know, it’s quite emotional for me really” he says. “The village changes a little over all those years, but not much. It’s just as humble or primitive as the day I left, with a few exceptions like the power and the running water. The people are happy because they grow their own food and there’s nothing to worry about in the world.”

From Australia to Sanya in search of another lazy Susan.

The town of Gongpo near Willie Phua's village

Fireworks welcome to Bai Siew Swee village.

Phua Tin Loon and Willie Phua at home in Hainan.

Guests, mostly from Australia, at Bai Siew Swee.

Willie Phua honours his ancestors at his homecoming.

Willie and Cindy Phua at Bai Siew Swee.

Willie Phua with a distant relative outside his home.

A rewardiung homecoming for the boy from Hainan.

Willie and Loon with people from his Hainan village.

The town of Gongpo, where water buffalo have right of way on the main road.

Top left, Willie Phua with a village elder and Australian resident from Hong Kong, Mark Pinstone, with Cindy Phua at Bai Siew Swee on Hainan island. Centre, a local villagers relaxes and bottom left, part of the group, mainly from Australia, who accompanied Willie and Cindy Phua and Phua Tin Loon and family back to Hainan in December 2009, pictured at Days Hotel, Sanya beach resort..