"Little Shanghai" In Hainan

Chinese version

I arrived in Hainan in September 2012. My cousin brother Zilai presented me a book entitled <About Huiwen> 《会文韵》。I gladly acknowledged the book.  I had a quick browse over the contents which cover most of what any clanman would like to know about Huiwen such as its history, literature, personalities, delicacies and thoughts.  For those clanmen who had left their motherland at their young age and stayed far away, this book will definately touched their soul.  

I selected one article that attracted me:  Baiyan - "Little Shanghai".  In that article the author mentioned about four big banks operating in Baiyan.  These banks were very familiar to me as all of them are operating in Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong too.  The four banks were Bank of China, Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, Chartered Bank and Citibank. Incidentally Hong Kong, Singapore and Penang were the British colonies during that era.  That puzzled me.  

I decided to find out more about the presence of the British banks in Hainan and the Chinese bank in Penang and to explore if these banks had attributed to the unique Hainanese-British relationship in Penang.  In January 2013 with the help of Lin Daoqun, Hou Chensheng and Lin Rigang I met the author, Mr Lin Fangwei.


hainan baiyan
There were two ports in Hainan which facilitated the travel by junks (ancient Chinese sailing vessels) between Hainan and Southeast Asian ports in Singapore and Penang: one was Port Puqian, near Haikou and the other was Port Qinglan, near Wenchang.  Hong Kong served as transit port for those travelling by steam ships from the 1900s.  

Baiyan was about 90 km from Port Puqian, 20 km from Port Qinglan and 6 km from Port Zhangpi.  

bank author 
From left:Lin Daoqun,Lin Zhong,Lin Rinong,Lin Fangwei,Lin Zhengting,Jee Say Hai [Yu Zihai] (Hou Chensheng and Lin Rigang not in the photo)
Lin Fangwei is the author of "Baiyan - Little Shanghai".  The article is published in the book <About Huiwen> 《会文韵》. The chief editor of the book is Lin Fanglue, executive editor: Ou Daxiong, Assistant Editor: Wu Yunqiu.  Jee Say Hai called on Lin Fangwei on 1 January 2013 to find out from him more about the story he wrote about the foreign banks in in Baiyan and the social and economic activities then. 

The following is a translation of the article which appears in <About Huiwen> 《会文韵》
(page 59 -61)

BAIYAN - “LITTLE SHANGHAI”                        Author: Lin Fangwei

During the period ruled by the Nationalist, the locals used to say: the people in Baiyan wore leather shoes and not wooden clogs; they used bags made of cloth and not bamboo and they carried umbrella instead of wearing bamboo hats.  Judging from the sayings we can imagine the glory and prosperity during those years.

Three Foreign Banks

Baiyan township was established during the Ming dynasty.  From the 1820s overseas Hainanese started to build shop houses in Baiyan.  The building structure bore similarity to those commonly seen in Southeast Asia.  As days went on this little town became a centre for business activities.

During the period ruled by the Nationalist government, there were three foreign banks, namely Citibank, Chartered Bank and Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, which set up their operation offices here.  That was quite exceptional in China.  Two or three storeys shop houses lined up along both side of the main road.  Due to its booming business activities Baiyan was nicknamed “Little Shanghai”.

Some of the buildings were damaged and others were destroyed or burnt down during the Japanese occupation of Hainan.  The burnt remnants of a number of two / three storey shop houses at the middle portion along the main road can still be visible today.  Inside the houses there are wild grasses and undergrowth.  The size of the wild vine is as large as a man’s arm.   Part of the two popular teahouse building had collapsed.   A few houses are being used as a timber processing factory. 

The site where Citibank once occupied can be identified with a concrete pillar and its foundation.  There is a slate road on its right.  The use of granite as building materials let one to imagine the luxurious past.  Walking along the slate road, one can see three units two storeys linked shop houses.  The unit in the centre belonged to Hongkong & Shanghai Bank.  Chartered Bank occupied the unit on the right.  All these buildings are now used as residence.  The name of Chartered Bank was still visible on the building few years ago. 

Foreign currencies such as Hong Kong dollars, Malayan dollars and US dollars were used in the local market. 

There was also an office, which attended to remittance and letters sent by the overseas Hainanese.   With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China the office became a branch of the Bank of China.   Today the bank’s name can still be visible on the building.  The office received many remittances and letters from overseas Hainanese.  The office on receipt of the money would then delivered it to the respective recipients.

A Bustling Town

Of the many Hainanese who left Hainan for Southeast Asia, most of them hailed from Wenchang and to be precise many of them were from Baiyan, a little town in Wenchang.  Nearly 80% of the family in Baiyan had direct connection with the overseas Hainanese.  They were involved in many type of businesses.  Besides trading in the local products they also offered imported cigarettes, watches, bicycles, kerosene, biscuits and textiles.  The “Raleigh” bicycles, made in England, were once a hit of the town.  Every day there were lorries and motorcars leaving Baiyan for Wenchang city and Haikou.  

The elderly folks did not identify the imported items according to the brands.  Rather they would identify such items based on the picture or design on the packing and gave it a name. For example, a package of oat printed with an old man wearing a tall hat - they would identify that package as “man wearing hat” oat.  In the same manner imported cigarettes were identified according to the pictures on the packages: “Navy”, “Black Cat”, “Three 5” and the like. 

People from the surrounding towns such as Fenglai, Maihou, Chongxing, Zhangpo etc also came to trade in Baiyan.  The father of Lin Rinong had a eating stall here.  There was a unique way to attract customers: the shop owner would tie some notes or a few packs of cigarettes on the first floor as a prize; the person who could reach for the prize would take it away with him. 

Two Hainanese opera used to entertain the locals.  One would station at the Zhongshan Park and the other would perform under the big banyan tree.  A few of the actors / actresses were favorite of the locals.  The  banyan tree was said to be the tallest among all in this area.  

There was a power station in Baiyan.  Some business premises also had telephone lines.  There was also a clinic set up by Lin Xixiao who graduated from Japan.

English Terms Used By Locals

The glory and prosperity of Baiyan had an impact on the living style and the preference of English words in the daily affairs.  It was a common sight here to see the men wearing suits and the ladies putting up “qi pao” (cheongsam).  There were a few shops selling leather shoes.  The trend for the men was: their clothes and trousers were perfectly ironed and their hairs well oiled with hair cream.  Above all they had the habit of drinking coffee.

The Hainanese who returned from overseas influenced the locals in many ways.  Words and terms from overseas were widely used by the locals, such as “soap”, “film”, “pasar” (Malay word for market), “necktie”, “ball”, “outside” (off court).

Until the 1950s, Baiyan was a centre for political, economic and cultural activities.  From the 1960s the locals moved away from Baiyan and conducted their business activities in Huiwen (a few km away).   Baiyan only returned to its glory, for a short while, during the February festival.  It then faded away.  

The villages around Baiyan are quite concentrated.  The surrounding land is very fertile with a net work of natural streams.  It is hope that Baiyan will one day return to its former glory with modern development.      



Today we can only witness the abandoned buildings.  With the exception of the building where Bank of China occupied, there was no sign of the existance of the three international bank buildings, except what has been described in the article written by Mr Lin Fangwei.

Lin Rigang, a local resident, led the writer and Lin Daoqun for a tour of Baiyan.  This is the main road, the busiest then, with many abandoned buildings.  Though some of them are still occupied by the locals.  the ownership of others can not be traced.   

baiyan jsh


bank china  baiyan coop
This premises was formerly occupied by Bank of China, Baiyan Branch.  It is now used as residence.  The word "co-operative" (合作社)is still visible on this building located along the main road of Baiyan.


bank china Bank of China set up its first Malayan branch in Penang in 1939. It later open branches in Kuala Lumpur, Serenban, Ipoh and Batu Pahat. Due to historical reason all the branches ceased to operate in 1959.
The Bank resumed operation in Kuala Lumpur in 2001 and re-open its Penang branch in 2009. Today there are branches set up in Muar, Port Klang, Johor Baru, Puchong and Kuching. 
<<<< Bank of China, Penang branch: 41-G Cantonment Road, 10250 Penang.
bank china 1959
Staff of Bank of China, Penang branch - photo taken in 1959 at the bank's building in Northam Road (now Sultan Ahmad Shah Road)
bank hsbc scbbank citi
Penang HSBC (left) with Chartered Bank in the background  Citibank, Penang Branch.

Both HSBC and Chartered Bank were British exchange banks based in Penang.  HSBC was established in Hong Kong where it set up its headquarters there.  In 1884 It opened its first Malayan branch in Penang.  It built its first permanent building in 1906 but was destroyed during the Second World War.  Photo shows its newly completed premises after the War.

Chartered Bank was established in the United Kingdom with its headquarters based there.  It set up its first Malayan branch in Penang in 1875.  The bank's current building as seen from the photo was built in 1930.

Citibank, headquartered in the USA, set up its first Malayan branch in Kuala Lumpur in 1959.  Later a Penang branch was open.  Citibank was the first American bank to operate in China in 1902.  

The Past Glory 

Baiyan was known as "Little Shanghai" due to its prosperity and glory.  Besides the Bank of China, there were also three other foreign banks operating there.  That clearly attributed to the booming economic and social prosperty of a special kind, rarely found in other small towns in China.  That development had a great impact on the finance, commerce, trading, emigration trend and the living style during those days. 
hainan huiwen3
Map showing Wenchang (文昌市)、Huiwen Town (会文镇)、Baiyan (白延墟) and the nearby Port Zhangpi (长圮港);the writer's ancestral home is in Jiatun Village(家屯村)

Records of Hainanese migration had always focused on poverty, sufferings and other sad stories. There was hardly any enlightening story (may be none at all) telling the outside world about the glory and prosperity brought about by the four big banks during those days.  Why?  The writer hope to use this platform to gather and share any information about this little town called Baiyan, once an international financial centre but now totallly forgotten:  to explore the impact wtih the British setting up their British banks in Baiyan and the Chinese, the Bank of China in Penang and to understand how the Hainanese had developed a good rapport with the British as compared to other Chinese of Fujian, Guangdong, Chaozhou, Fuzhou and Hakka origin.


Betty's late father came from Baiyan,  a town dominated by the family with surname "Lin" (林).  Her late parents told her that the cultural standard in Baiyan was the highest among the Hainanese. Whether male or female all were educated.  Her late aunty still went to school after marriage.  Her mother if she is alive today should be 92 years old and she knew how to read and write.  Her mother told her that the "Lin" girls from Baiyan suffered in the sense that they could only get husbands for marriage from far away because they cannot get other surname men from Baiyan 

Wenchang Hainanese dialect is the official dialect in Hainan.  Many years ago her lecturer also told her in those days within Guangdong Province (Hainan was under Guangdong Province those days) Wenchang was the third highest literacy area after Meixian (梅县) and Guangzhou (广州) in the whole Guangdong Province.  The Lin clanmen held high positions in the government sector from generation to generation. 
little shanghai
LIM TING YU  (林廷佾) THREW SOME LIGHT ON BAIYAN - DECEMBER 2013                                     

Lim left Baiyan in 1938 at the age  of 12.  According to him majority of the people who lived in this town were by the surname "Lin" (林).   They were very rich and influencial among the people living in Hainan Island.  Usually the best meat and good quality fish were reserved for the "Lins".  The overseas Lin clanmen frequently remitted money to Baiyan to support the building of temple there.  

A Lin family from Baiyan was awarded the monopoly in the catering burisness for the Malayan Railways on board the trains as well as at the railway stations along the route.  He had heard of a story that any Hainanese by the surname "Lin" who travelled by trains would enjoy free meals.  He was convinced that the story was true after he had personally enjoyed free meals on his trip from Penang to Kuala Lumpur.


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