Hainan: tea vs coffee

China is an empire of tea. You normally don’t associate her with coffee, unlike the neighboring Vietnam. Yet, tucked nearby where these two countries border on the South China Sea, is an island where both Camellia leaves and Coffea beans play a culture-forming role: Hainan.

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning other “teas” (or tisanes) of Hainan: liangcha, kudingcha and zhegucha. So read until the end. Let’s immerse into what’s brewing!


Camellia sinensis is grown in several locations around the island. I narrowed them to two that seemed prime – and visited both. Oh, and then one more.

A fishy crater

Baisha Green Tea 白沙绿茶 is produced by the state-run Baisha Farm 白沙农场 which grows mostly tea and rubber. The area holds a special status of a Li autonomous county. People of this ethnicity were consuming wild tea leaves centuries ago already, but the history of Baisha Green itself is short – it commenced with the farm establishment in 1958.

I based myself in the county seat town, Yacha 牙叉镇. The farm is just a few kilometers away, so I went there on foot. I quickly reached the first rows of tea bushes, on the way passing a man digging and then peeling deliciously-looking large bamboo shoots. The weather was great and people were working on the plantation, giving me opportunities for nice pics.

Several dozens of shutter clicks later I looked for the respite from the sun and something to snack on in the Baisha Farm settlement. It’s a place of the kind that seems busy and relaxed at the same time. You look left: people sow seeds, mototaxis carry commuters, trucks transport the harvest back and forth. You look right: time has frozen and you only hear the electric fan’s humming.

A man with a kid daughter sat with me out of curiosity. Upon hearing I’m a foodie, he disappeared and then reappeared with a jar of “fish tea” 鱼茶. Let not the name confuse you – it has nothing to do with tea. It’s rice fermented with fish and sometimes other ingredients. It’s also called “fish acid” 鱼酸, the name printed on the jar. It smells sharp and the taste is a real punch of yeasty sourness. Many may find it unpalatable, but for the Hainanese Li and Miao people, it’s a representative dish. I was already several steps away when I heard:

“Uncle, uncle! Father says he wants you to take it!”, said the girl handing me the jar.

Baisha tea is sometimes advertised as being grown in a metorite crater. If true, then this applies only to deluxe batches or blends: the fields I’ve visited in person are outside of the crater. The internet articles about it are usually illustrated with aerial photographs of utterly different locations (think: Arizona desert) so researching it can be confusing. But open Google Maps, search this phrase: “峨剑岭” and click the satellite view: the green rim will appear to you.

For long time since its discovery, it was thought to be an impact crater, but never really confirmed and not listed on the Earth Impact Database. Some recent studies have it questioned, suggesting erosion or magma intrusion instead. It was the first crater found in China so it’s too big a deal to be easily debunked. All the local promotional materials boast of the “unexpected visitor” from 700,000 years ago. Of cosmic origin or not, the locals believe that the soil has magic properties.

Five fingers crossed

I arrived to Shuiman willing to climb Wǔzhǐshān. At 1,840 meters, the “Five Finger Mountain” is the island ‘s tallest peak. Yet, my dream couldn’t be fulfilled. Foreigners were temporarily not permitted to enter. Dismayed, but hey, I’m here for the tea!

The area is notable for wild tea trees that puzzle the scientists with unique characteristics. It has been proposed to identify the plant as a separate variety of C. sinensis, different than assamica, pubilimba, etc. The full name would be Camellia sinensis var. shuiman”.

The rural township of Shuiman 水满乡is composed of several villages that sit at the southwestern foot of the Wuzhi Mountain. Shuiman tea 水满茶 (or Wuzhishan tea) is not a single brand. The few plantation companies manufacture and label tea independently. Both green and black teas are produced.

I decided to walk from village to village, enjoying the bucolic scenery and snapping Mt. Wuzhi from different perspectives. Some roads transition into a gooey yellowish brown clay that voluntarily clung to my Scarpa boots.

There was almost no traffic, but I managed to hitchhike a motorbike for the final few kilometers to the Yē Xiān Tea Garden 椰仙茶园. The place is run with adherence to organic farming principles. The buildings seemed deserted, but someone from the family that manages the garden soon appeared to show me the products and brew some teas for tasting. At the end, they gave me a lift back to the main village. From there I took a bus to the main town of Wǔzhǐshān City, where I was based.

Farewell, Five Finger Mountain! One day I’ll be back to stand on your summit. Figers crossed.

Wading in mud

I have also visited the less significant Baoting Tea Valley Scenic Area (保亭茶溪谷景区). Breaking down the name will reveal its character. Firstly, it’s in Bǎotíng County. Secondly, it’s a valley. Thirdly, it’s a tourist attraction.

A multi-million yuan project, it was still between development phases at the time of my visit. Tea park, tropical forest park, minority culture park (Bǎotíng holds a status of a Li and Miao Autonomous County) were pending for an addition of outdoor activities, plastic dinosaurs and a zoo.

I entered from Mao’an Village 毛岸村 on the main Sanya-Wuzhishan road. My trek was rather modest but conducted in a stormy mayhem. The wind destroyed some of the kitchy decoration, like the faux tree trunk gate, and the stream broke its banks. The place was dead, save me and the excavators clearing the mudslides. My raincoat protected me from getting wetter than wet. At least I took selfies with teapot monuments (one of my personal fixations).


China per se is not a tropical country, but her southern peripheries are more than suitable for coffee planting. Nevertheless, the first attempts came surprisingly late. While the Dutch introduced the crop to Indonesia and the Spanish to the Philippines in 1690s and 1730s respectively, it did not grow on Chinese lands until the late 19th century. The first try came with an Englishman from Manchester who brought arabica seedlings to Taiwan in 1884. In a few years, independent attempts have been made in several other areas, including Yunnan – from where the lion’s share of Chinese coffee comes today.

The history of Hainan’s coffee is inseparable from the activity of the Overseas Chinese. During the first decades of the 20th century, a few big companies have been established and coffee started to be planted on the island on large scale. Many of those first trials were not successful, usually due to both poor management and weather conditions.

The breakthrough came with Mr. Chen Xianzhang 陳显彰 , who in 1935 brought several bags of robusta seeds from Indonesia and planted them in Fushan. In the fifties the industry gained endorsement of the Communist government. In 1951 the “Xinglong Overseas Chinese Collective Farm” has been established. Next to many crops, including sisal and lemon grass, coffee was also introduced.

The political turmoil of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, together with plant diseases and pests, has led to the destruction of the industry. The plantations had to be gradually recreated in the 1980s. To take Fushan as an example, it started with the determination of one farmer, Mr. Xu Xiuyi, then embraced by the Chéngmài County government that supported growing coffee by distributing free seedlings. By the end of the decade, the area was back on the track. The 1990s brought shortages but the present century seems to be marked by business rejuvenation and coffee agenda. That includes coffee tourism, symposia and international barista contests.

The two aforemention regions/brands – Fushan and Xinglong – remain the most resilient black gold hotspots of Hainan. I went to both localities and visited the on-site museums.

Fushan Coffee 福山咖啡

Red volcanic soil, favorable humidity, sufficient temperatures and illumination made Fúshān Town 福山镇 of Chéngmài County 澄迈县 a natural candidate for coffee cultivation.

A visit to the Fushan Coffee Museum 福山咖啡文化馆 starts, quite perplexingly, in a 5D cinema room displaying a volcanic eruption animation (the comments found over the internet were usually of the “ahh that’s where the mammoth budget went” kind). The rest is mostly text and infographics. The display may not be the prettiest one but it is very informative. The showcased subjects include history, processing technologies, brewing and serving styles, health effects and flavor analyses.

The most arresting are the historical sections. Among them is a part that comes to grips with the “first coffee in China” controversy. It is ike a hybrid piece of a scientific essay and delightfully nerdy investigative journalism printed on large boards. All to get closer to the truth: “who was first”, Taiwan, Yunnan or Hainan?

While the antecedence of Taiwan (I mentioned the 1884 endeavor made by a man from Manchester earlier in the article) is left indisputable and even backed by the researcher’s investigation, he challenges 1892 as the year usually given as the time of the introduction of coffee to Zhukula village (朱苦拉村) in Binchuan County of Yunnan Province. According to the author’s research, Alfred Lietard (田德能), the French missionary who planted coffee near his church in that village, did so much later – in 1904.

Yunnan’s Zhukula is often considered – and advertised as – the earliest coffee-growing location in China. Dethroning it could mean that Hainan had coffee earlier: the first trees on the island were planted in 1898 by Kuang Shilian 邝世连, a farmer from Wenchang County who brought some coffee seeds from Malaysia. Alas! Interestingly enough, in another place in that same museum, we learn about an earlier case in Yunnan. Jingpo (Kachin) people (景颇族) that live on both sides of the Burma-Yunnan border apparently introduced some coffee to Ruili in today’s Dehong Prefecture earlier than all the aforementioned examples. Ouch.

The researcher’s effort is not in vain nevertheless – it’s not really about “who was first” but about “let’s stick to the facts”. Plus entertain Kasper’s inner nerd. Digging through muniments – including church archives; interviewing the descendants; comparing the trunk diameters and leaf sizes… I can just applaud.

Fushan/ Chengmai is home to a significant number of centenarians and this fact is also mentioned in the museum – obviously, it is suggested that their longevity may come from coffee drinking.

Xinglong Coffee 兴隆咖啡

The Overseas Chinese (华侨 huáqiáo) are ethnic Chinese that inhabit another country. They hold the citizenship of the country of residence but often live in diasporas. Most trace their ancestry to the southern coastal regions of China and speak languages (mostly dialects of Min and Yue) and upkeep traditions (like Mazuism) derived from these lands. “Returned Overseas Chinese” (归侨 guīqiáo) refer to the OC that have resettled to China, be it after one or after twenty generations of the family already rooted in the “new” homeland. Such “returns” happen from ideological, economical or cultural reasons – or all combined.

From 1949 to 1979, Xinglong 兴隆 in Wanning City 万宁市, a settlement arose from a “Overseas Chinese Farm”, received a total of 12,000 of Returned Overseas Chinese, most from SE Asian territories. The first were fleeing British Malaya – and many were members of the Malayan Communist Party. Then came a larger wave that was escaping Indonesia which in 1959 implemented policies aimed against non-indigenous population. Late seventies brought newcomers from Vietnam troubled with the Sino-Vietnamese War.

The settlers brought various crops. Next to farming, the state-run enterprise has been also conducting scientific research on coffee and other tropical plants. Today the area is home to hot springs and a tropical garden popular with tourists. I came to taste coffee and visit the museum.

Nominally Xinglong Coffee Culture Expo Park 兴隆咖啡文化博览园, it is a hybrid of a touristified product showroom and a modest museum. I was alone so I had to be co-opted to a group. The guide briefly introduces the history, production line and heritage of the “unique Southeast Asian craftsmanship” of charcoal roasting. The packagings are lovely and the array of coffee products made in Xinglong is surprisingly wide. They even do their own civet coffee (kopi luwak).

Apart from the Returned Overseas Chinese, the region is inhabited by some Hlai (or Lí, 黎族) natives. While the immigrant majority drink coffee with either condensed milk or sugar, the Li add medicinal plants to their drink, such as betel nut (槟榔) or Alpinia oxyphylla (益智). Wanning is the largest producing area and called “the hometown of China betel nut”. Another thing the city is known for is the longevity of its residents.

As you see, both Fushan and Xinglong abound in two things: coffee and centenarians. Can this be a coincidence?


If Hainan is associated with laid-backness, then the “Old Dad’s Tea” embodies this fact.

What is lǎo bà chá 老爸茶? A teahouse or a restaurant, a time of the day or a kind of a meal? It’s all these things and more: a lifestyle.

In some respects laobachas are closer to Hongkongese cha chaan tengs than to, let’s say, Sichuanese teahouses. Both tea and coffee can be served, as well as Ovaltine, Milo and so on. Some visit for a breakfast of noodles or dumplings, others drop just for a piece of cake or a single baozi. What most seek is a lazy afternoon. Like in a French café or an Arab shisha parlor, people come here to socialize and relax. Some spend hours on smoking cigarettes, reading newspapers, chatting or just staring at the ceiling fan.

The establishments are really simple, not to say poor. Plastic chairs, no decoration, no menus. Whether tucked in city center back alleys or lining a riverbank in a small town – they may have no signboards but you will recognize them by their ambience.


The cooling liangcha

While traversing the island, I’ve seen many liángchá shops, kiosks and stands. They are as common here as in Guangdong, Guangxi or Hong Kong.

Liángchá 凉茶, or “cooling teas”, is a family of herbal infusions made from various leaves, seeds, fruits, barks and roots. More than a hundred of species is used, some wild and some cultivated. No matter if it’s a stationary liangcha “bar” or a mobile liangcha vendor push cart, the list of choices is always stupefyingly long. It’s a whole different planet of medicinal and botanical terms you may have never heard. It would be intimidating if not the fact that you usually already know what you want, or – if you are not a Traditional Chinese Medicine expert – you can just ask: “something for hot weather, please”, “I have a cough”, or “what reduces the phlegm?”

Most blends are bitter in taste and of black-to-brown color. Commercial, sweetened liangchas, sold in cans and plastic bottles, are available in every single shop not only in the South but all around the country. Due to the growing scale of this phenomenon, it’s sometimes described as “Chinese Coca-Cola”. Nothing gravely erroneous about this comparison: consider the similar color of the liquid and the fact that the original formula focused on (and was named after) the medicinal properties of coca leaf and kola nut. We could also easily reverse it and call coke the “America’s cooling tea”.

The bitter kuding tea

Valued for medicinal properties (digestive, memory improvement, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol), but also drunk as a substitute to green tea, is Kǔdīng chá 苦丁茶. This herbal tea is infused from the leaves of tall trees which species belong to the holly (Ilex) genus (and therefore are a very distant cousin of yerba mate). It’s not uncommon in other places, but prevalent here, in Guangxi as well as in Sichuan (where it can actually refer to a different species of Ligustrum genus). The name translates as “bitter spikes” and the leaves are indeed often sold in a nail-like shape. They can be also rolled into balls or other form. The flavor can be described as bitter to bitter-sweet. The Hainanese source it from either the mountainous interior (Wuzhishan) or from Chengmai County.

The unique zhegu tea

Last but not least – zhègū chá 鹧鸪茶, “partridge tea”. This one is special. It’s made from leaves of a tree that is not only native to the Hainan Island, but basically found almost (?) exclusively here. The plant’s scientific name is Mallotus peltatus. It grows in several spots, but the Hainanese traditionally identify it with one single locale: a rocky hill near Wanning – the Dongshan Ridge.

According to a legend, a bird catcher once come across a wounded young partridge while venturing to this area. It seemed that the bird is destined to die. The man left. But when he passed the same spot several days later, he saw the baby partridge again – healthier, and together with its mother, feeding it with some leaves. The man started to think that the plant must possess magical powers. He collected some and rushed home, to his seriously ill son. Thanks to the herb, the boy eventually recovered. The news soon got out and the leaves became known as “partridge tea.”

During my visit to the mountain (I am writing more about it HERE), I photographed the zhegu bushes garden and tried the brew as a part of a meal that inlcuded the locally famous goat meat (which deliciousness is said to derive from the zhegu-rich diet of the animal). The infusion emits an aroma that can be described as herbal or vegetal. It tastes medicinal but refreshing, slightly fruity with a hint of saccharin-like sweetness.

The health benefits are said to be numerous and include tonifying, detoxification, heat dispelling, improving digestion etc. Dried zhegu leaves are sold tied into strings of tangerine-sized balls, about 20 balls each. This gives them a look of large Buddhist prayer bead necklaces.

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