- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

BEIJING U.S. Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock was a man with a mission yesterday as he stormed through a Chinese department store in search of deodorant, shaving kits and underwear.

He shocked local shoppers by buying enough to protect, shave and clothe two dozen men and women. Under different circumstances, his shopping list may have stretched only to Hawaiian shirts.

The 24 U.S. Navy crew members, caught up in a diplomatic crisis, crash-landed on Sunday into a home away from home. If only they were granted leave from the location where they have been detained since their plane collided with a Chinese fighter, they would discover China's Hawaii boasts all the amenities any sailor could dream of.

The tropical paradise of Hainan Island compares favorably with Vietnam's infamous China Beach, just across the waters of the South China Sea, where U.S. Marines on leave once sought relief from the madness of war.

In recent years, millions of Chinese tourists have flocked south to Hainan, now home to 7.6 million people, to enjoy the sun-baked sand, surf and sex that have made the province one of China's hottest tourist destinations.

It has been a dramatic transformation for a remote outpost of the Chinese empire, once dubbed "the gate of hell." For centuries, criminals were exiled to Hainan to rot amid the "southern barbarians," as China's rulers affectionately dubbed their southern non-Han subjects.

Failed attempts to raise the status of this rural backwater include the efforts of the two Soong sisters from Hainan, Ching-ling and Mei-ling, who married Chinese leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek.

Once Chiang fled mainland China in 1949 for Taiwan, the one Chinese island larger than Hainan, the latter became a national defense outpost for the Communist-led People's Liberation Army because of Hainan's strategic position in the South China Sea.

The heavy military presence proved a dead weight on the island's development, lifted in 1988 when Hainan won provincial status and dispensation as a Special Economic Zone to pursue carte blanche every loophole offered by China's experiment with capitalism.

Hainan soon garnered a reputation as a free-wheeling island where anything goes. Rampant smuggling, open prostitution and underground casinos brought many immigrants to fuel heady boom-bust cycles.

Four military bases remain, but the PLA also is cashing in on the tourist boom, as British businessman Patrick Horgan discovered last month on a diving holiday with his girlfriend in Sanya, close to the Lingshui airbase where the spy plane is grounded.

"We knew our dive company was under the military when we were driven into their barracks," said Mr. Horgan in Beijing.

"We changed into our wet suits right next door to a parade ground where guys in camouflage outfits were doing martial arts, with rifles in their hands."

It was an appropriate vista. For years, Hainan was known nationwide for its one major cultural inspiration, the gun-toting ballerinas of "The Red Detachment of Women," a revolutionary ballet in which a poor woman joins Communist guerrillas.

These days, local wags say poor country girls can join only the "Yellow Detachment of Women" yellow is to the Chinese language what blue is to English.

Hainan's massed ranks of prostitutes, from the capital, Haikou, to Sanya's top beach, Yalong Bay, longer than Hawaii's longest beach, are stealing sex tourists from Thailand and the Philippines.

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