Touring a Buddhist Theme Park With a Chinese Muslim

Two days after I saw a Hainan gibbon, the world’s rarest ape, I found myself trailing a Muslim woman through a Buddhist theme park. The experience came as a surprise: Originally, I had not planned to visit Sanya, the main resort city on Hainan.

Sanya was the capstone of the Chinese government’s efforts to make Hainan over as an island getaway. The city boasts a Ritz Carlton and a Mandarin Oriental, and at dusk the sky turns pink, as though blushing at the boldness of the still-blue sea. However, it wasn’t the hotels or the scenery that had drawn me there. I was most excited for the opportunity to tour town with a Muslim woman with whom an expat had offered to set me up. I had not known that there were Muslim minorities in China besides the Uighurs until the expat told me about the Hui, one of Hainan’s three minorities (another is the Li, which explains Mr. Lis 1 to 4).

Her name was Hua Zhen. For a living, she sold jewelry and seashells to tourists at Dandonghai Bay, where petite Chinese women in modest swimwear share the beach with corpulent Russians with unhooked bras. I waited for her at the entrance of a hotel in an outlying part of town. After I showed my driver the name of the hotel, he consulted his map, called someone on the telephone, and then finally pulled over beside some Hui women to ask for directions.

I was nervous to meet Hua Zhen. We had no shared language, and I worried that I might accidentally run afoul of Muslim custom: I had recently horrified myself and others by hugging a Palestinian student at a summer camp where I worked. So I was relieved when she pulled up on a motorbike, scooted forward, and indicated for me to hop on.

My first glimpse of the Muslim section of Sanya was over the brim of Hua Zhen’s pink straw hat. The area was rural, but like the rest of Hainan, it was under construction. As we buzzed along, the neighborhood grew denser; small alleyways branched off the road and ran like fjords through the white-faced buildings. The neighborhood was organized around several squares paved with pink and seafoam bricks; mosques and gazebos stood at their centers. Hua Zhen stopped occasionally so that I could take photos, and then she treated me to lunch.

The expat had suggested that we visit a large gold and jade statue of the Buddhist deity Kwan Yin near Sanya. It sounded good to me: I had hoped to work a historical site into my trip. But I learned that the statue at the “Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone” was not historical. It was built in 1997. The eight-armed Kwan Yin rests behind glass, like a merchant in a bodega. A stand sells merchandise not 10 feet away.

Admission to the Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone—”a 5-A national tourist attraction,” signs around the park proclaimed—costs more than $20. The price tag was the first sign that things were not quite as I had expected. Nanshan was not a quaint mountainside temple. It was a sprawling complex, where buses disgorged tourists in brightly colored summer shirts.

We entered the park through the “Dharma Door” and attached ourselves to a VIP tour whose guide did not seem to mind. (He must have noticed our intrusion, since I am a 6-foot-tall white man and Hua Zhen wore a headscarf—she was the only Islamic-garbed woman I saw in the Buddhist park, though she seemed to know several of the employees.) We broke off at the yellow-roofed pagoda that housed the Kwan Yin statue. While I poked around inside, Hua Zhen purchased two tickets for a shuttle bus that looked like a choo-choo train and circulated tourists around the park, typical of her generosity. She had a mischievous streak, too, leading me past a “no entry” sign to the private villas, where signposts pointed toward tennis courts and swimming pools.

The buildings at Nanshan were all designed in traditional pagoda style, but as construction sites around the park reveal, concrete skeletons hunker behind the white walls and corrugated roofs. Merchandise stands stretch like sinew between the attractions. Some of their products seemed hatched from Simulacra and Simulation. You could have your picture taken before a green screen and then superimposed onto a background of a site that was already in the park.

A postmodern philosopher could not design a better playground for his disciples. In the United States, we’ve all heard chatter about how Disney is a religion, Walt a god, and Mickey an idol. At the Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone, people actually prayed. They lit incense, made donations, and kowtowed before the statues. A staircase rose between parallel rows of tall, white towers whose high balconies were tended by orange-robed monks. It led to a temple where worshippers crowded with folded hands before a golden Buddha. At the Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone in Communist China, the spiritual and the commercial found a unity of purpose that would leave an American capitalist green with envy.

Hua Zhen insisted that we stop at every attraction, and because I had no real way to protest, I went along. At one point, we stepped off the shuttle to enter Longevity Valley, which had a “Grand Opening” sign in front. A stone walkway wound its way through gardens, but the flowerbeds were hidden behind blowup photographs of Hainan’s centenarians. The Hainanese are apparently a hardy people: There were at least two dozen photos, most of them of women. Their small black eyes were hardened and worn like flintstones; their faces, toothless and overrun by moles. Some smiled, but others looked into the camera as though it were the barrel of a gun. These were people who were born before the Republican Revolution, the Japanese invasion, the Communist uprising, the atrocities of Mao Zedong, Reform and Opening, and Tiananmen Square. The Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone may have been an impostor onto history, but history—the real thing—was right there on these faces.

The path meandered up a gradual slope to a small statue with sticks of incense simmering in front. The centenarians looked on with joy, delirium, exhaustion—whatever expression the camera had fixed. A bird called from the bushes, there was no one else around. I could not help but think of my experience two days earlier in a different valley, where the paths were not paved with stone. There I had seen another old lady, the oldest surviving Hainan gibbon—Lao Tai Tai, the doyenne of Group B.

When the trackers found Group B a few days after I left, Lao Tai Tai had returned to the fold. A few months later, Bosco and the Bawangling workers would conduct a sweeping survey of the forest near Bawangling, hoping to discover new gibbon families. More than 50 workers and volunteers spent six days covering the whole potential range of the gibbons.

But nature had no surprises in store: Group A had 11 gibbons, Group B had seven gibbons, and there were two confirmed solitary adult males, just as there were before the survey. I imagine that my disappointment in New York must have only touched upon the disappointment felt by those who endured six days of leeches and exertion. In an e-mail, I asked Bosco how it felt. “The remaining gibbons are at least alive and kicking,” he replied.

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