Being a tropical paradise, Hainan has no shortage of coconuts. They are big business here. A rich resource also put to good use by creative minds in the world of handicrafts.
Coconut carving is a tradition is deep-rooted in this part of China. Records show that it can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), regarded as a golden age of Chinese arts and culture, when shells were used to make bowls, spoons, and cups.
They grew and grew in desirability. Carvings were paid as treasures to the Imperial Court and, during the Qing Dynasty, milk tea bowls made of coconut shells soon sealed their place at the Emperor’s banquets. On the thin surface of the shell, pines, bamboo, and plums were carved, while the inside was inlaid with silver.
Coconut-carved creations withstood the test of time, becoming household items and gifts and are still very much in demand today. In 2008, the art of Hainan coconut shell carving was listed as national intangible cultural heritage.
Refined through the generations, artists have formed a unique national style and distinctive local designs and colours. Hundreds of items are produced, ranging from intricately and delicately carved shells to one-off jewellery and ornamental items.
Combined with other raw materials, such as tin, silver and shells, coconut materials can be used to form beautiful and bespoke fruit trays and rice bowls as well as tea and wine sets, among others. Vases and table lamps are some of the popular decorative goods.
As well as the carving of shells, coconut palms are given a new lease of life by artisans, along with the wood which can be used as beams in houses, even for things like chopsticks and hairpins.
Reusing the remains of coconut tree, is an excellent example of how communities are making the best use of resources. Turning what would otherwise be wasted into attractive treasures, which also generates income for the creators keeping this traditional Hainan art alive.
Coconut carved goods are not only popular with Hainan locals, but also the visitors who seek them out in souvenir shops. There is a big overseas market for them too, with loyal customers in the likes of America, Australia, Canada, and France as well as 20 other countries.
In Haikou, it is easy to find these coconut gems. Head for the Arcade Streets and you will soon have them in your sights. You may even be lucky enough to see a craftsperson in action, carving one of their latest coconut creations. Remember if you want to buy something, bring cash, as international credit cards cannot be used in the stores.