Financial Times Weekend Magazine: "Golf’s secret boom in Hainan, China"


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Financial Times Weekend Magazine cover story about the highly secretive development of the world's largest collection of golf courses on southern China's Hainan Island. By Dan Washburn (

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Financial Times Weekend Magazine: "Golf’s secret boom in Hainan, China"

  1. 1. January 2/3 2010 FT Weekend MAGAZIne Golf ’s secret boom The sport that dare not speak its name takes China by stealth sketch How bureaucrats gatecrashed my wedding dear economist Why should I pay for my rich partner’s dinner? road test Porsche breathes new life into the 911 Turbo
  2. 2. Letter from Hainan By Dan Washburn Photographs by Ryan Pyle Planet Golf On the once-pristine tropical island of Hainan, off China’s south-eastern coast, the world’s biggest golf club is taking shape. Which is curious, given that few people play the game and there is a ban on building courses A worker repairs a fairway at the Meilan golf course, one of the many under construction on Hainan Island >
  3. 3. Letter from Hainan A rare glimpse of the 22-course Mission Hills Hainan golf complex, showing ( from left) the clubhouse and hotel I f you are flying into Haikou from tHe west, you can see it. sit on tHe rigHt-Hand side of tHe aircraft and look out of your window. It’s there. Viewed from above, this vast swathe of land may not look like much – fuzzy green vegetation, shadowy pockets of volcanic rock, incongruous veins of reddish brown soil – but in a couple of years it will make history. Locals refer to this area by its code name: Project 791. Soon, most people will know it as Mission Hills Hainan, the largest collection of golf courses in the world. The scope of the multi-billion-dollar project is staggering. It occupies 80sq km of forest and shrubland – an area the size of Hong Kong island – in north-east Hainan, the island province long touted as China’s answer to Hawaii. Once completed, it will feature 22 golf courses, at a stroke doubling the number on Hainan today. It’s been in the works since 2006 and for more than two years, thousands of workers have been clearing trees, Imagine also features the world’s largest clubhouse, Asia’s largest spa and, for good measure, the continent’s The tournament course is stunning. With its irregular lines and eroded sand traps, it manages to appear rugged and natural, even In China, And Ken Chu flies in every two weeks to monitor progress on the project. moving soil, building greens, fairways, clubhouses and luxury hotels. playing into largest tennis centre. though there is little natural about it. Incorporated into the design are golf remains In reality, this will be the world’s only self- And yet aspects of the project remain as mysterious as the island on a waterfall, Towards the end of our meeting, I brought old, overgrown lava-rock walls and archways left over from the land’s an elitist contained golf city. Its 22 courses will cover every which it sits. In fact, the man most closely connected to the Mission Hills up Hainan. I asked Chu how many courses previous occupants, along with some mature lychee, ficus and acacia style imaginable – from links to desert to Augusta- venture in Hainan denies its very existence. around Mission Hills had planned there. It was the first trees that managed to elude the clear-cutter. The result is a landscape pursuit, like perfection – and include some decidedly When I first met Ken Chu, vice-chairman of Mission Hills Group and a volcano, time I saw him flustered. “We, um, it’s not so that looks like it has been there for decades, maybe centuries, not linked to non-traditional designs. Picture yourself playing one of the most powerful men in China’s burgeoning golf industry, I was much on the course development,” he stumbled. months. A drive along the cart path, made from crushed lava rock, has into a waterfall, through a cave, around a volcano, wearing yellow plastic bags over my shoes. Our interview was to take place or over a “Actually, we haven’t even started. We haven’t the flavour of a Jurassic safari – that is, until you see the massive hotel corruption or over a replica of the Great Wall. There will be in an $11m villa, one of the many that line the fairways at Mission Hills replica of the even talked about this project. It’s something in and clubhouse looming on the horizon. in the minds multiple town centres with luxury homes and apart- Golf Club in Shenzhen, the Chinese business hub north of Hong Kong. I the pipeline, in discussion, but it’s not purely on The moans of bullfrogs emanating from the marshland along the ments, hotels and spas, shopping malls and streets was told that everyone who entered the show home must don the protec- Great Wall golf. It’s a tourist destination.” 18th fairway are replaced by the ping ping of hammers hitting metal. of many lined with restaurants and bars. The Chus are turn- tive shoe coverings. Shuffling past a white grand piano I took a seat in a “So, it’s just too early to say anything?” I Chain-smoking labourers, skin brown and weathered by the tropical ing countryside into suburbia, no doubt raising living room whose styling might best be described as neo-Liberace. When asked. “Maybe at this stage,” Chu said, “because sun, plug away at the two dramatic structures that form the backdrop surrounding property values and creating thousands Chu arrived, the first thing I noticed was his shoes – stylish, black, leather there’s nothing to talk about.” to the course’s closing hole. Fashioned in Mediterranean Revival style, of jobs along the way. and uncovered. I stood up to greet the 35-year-old mogul and cheap plastic they are white with red and black tile roofs. But why the reticence when I inquired about crackled beneath my feet. tHis was in July last year. wHen i travelled to Hainan in august, i It is all remarkably telegenic, and by design. The talk is that in 2011 the Hainan development? Why does a golf project require a code name? For now, Mission Hills Shenzhen touts itself as the “World’s No. 1”, and discovered tHat not only was tHere sometHing wortH talking the Mission Hills Hainan tournament course will become the new There is a one-word answer to such questions: China. The country’s latest Guinness World Records plays along, labelling the 20sq km, 12-course golf about, but a large part of tHe proJect was nearing completion. Six location for either golf ’s Omega-sponsored World Cup, currently a moratorium on golf course construction was brought in more than five years club the largest on the planet, even though Nanshan International Golf golf courses had been shaped and seeded. Three more – including the fixture at Mission Hills Shenzhen, or of the HSBC Champions, the ago, and is still technically in place. In China, golf remains a prohibitively Club in north-eastern China has 63 more holes. Opened in 1994 by Chu’s showpiece “tournament course” – were even further along. They looked tournament dubbed “Asia’s Major”. That event, with $7m in prize expensive, elitist pursuit – inescapably linked to corruption in the minds of billionaire father, Hong Kong businessman David Chu, this is golf on perfectly playable, lush and green, with local women in rattan hats the money, draws some of the biggest names in the sport and has been many – and, some believe, its expansion runs counter to several of President steroids. Each of the 12 courses was designed by one of the biggest names shape of Tiffany lampshades putting the finishing touches to the white- held in Shanghai since its launch in 2005. Professional Golf Associa- Hu Jintao’s primary concerns: among them the environment, the plight of in the sport, from Faldo to Nicklaus to Norman. Mission Hills Shenzhen sand bunkers. tion representatives, I was told, have toured Mission Hills Hainan. farmers and the widening gap between rich and poor. A project that absorbs > 20 FT.COM/MAGAZINE January 2/3 2010 FT.COM/MAGAZINE January 2/3 2010 21
  4. 4. Letter from Hainan (Clockwise from left) Mission Hills Hainan construction workers playing mah jong; dormitories for future employees of the golf complex; more forest is cleared to make way for the development 20 million acres of open land and directly affects the lives of tens of thou- The official “treasure island”, both for its rich natural resources What’s less certain, though, is whether the provision of 100 golf courses Developers ment to develop in Hainan. According to the sands of poor rural families is bound to create controversy. For Mission and its sun-blessed, palm-lined beaches. Though – let alone the 200 to 300 touted by one provincial official – makes sense newspaper, the document describes a “land Hills, for now, the less fanfare the better. designation poor, backward and corrupt, Hainan had potential, on Hainan, an island with 8.5 million predominately rural inhabitants, do not worry consolidation” project that will “improve the of an area as but it seemed no one could agree for what. only about 3,000 of whom play. While most Hainan courses are fully if a course production and living standards of the local given all tHat, How could sucH an audacious proJect get tHe As China’s middle class continued to grow, its booked during the winter peak tourist season, the insufferable heat and farmers and promote the building of a new go-aHead? wHy would someone even consider trying to open a “wasteland” appeal as a tourist destination came to the fore. relentless rains of summer keep away all but the most dedicated or frugal is empty, as socialist countryside”. golf club nearly one-and-a-Half times the size of Manhattan? And takes no And last year, after decades of false starts, the pro- (greens fees are often heavily discounted during the quiet months). The long as the Hainan bills itself as China’s greenest how could construction go virtually unnoticed and unreported for more vincial government announced plans to make struggling global economy has also taken a toll on business. province, and in many ways it is the tropical than a year? There’s an answer to these questions, too, and it is also China. account of tourism the “pillar” of the local economy, to rival But such quibbles may be missing the larger truth about golf course properties paradise it is touted to be, a literal breath of In the years since the government announced its supposed golf course its ecological destinations such as Phuket and Bali. Golf, once development in Hainan, and throughout much of China: the number of around fresh air for those travelling in from the main- moratorium, the number of courses has nearly trebled to an estimated banned by the communists as bourgeois, is golf courses built has very little to do with the number of golfers available land. But the past several decades of property 600 or so. In China, there is always a way. merits expected to play a big role in this repositioning. At to play on them. With few exceptions, golf courses exist to help sell luxury it sell development and slash-and-burn agriculture And that is especially true in Hainan, where golf is now viewed as a last count, Hainan – slightly bigger than Belgium villas. Developers do not worry if a course sits empty, as long as the have taken their toll on the island’s ecology. vital part of the province’s development. When modern China’s first golf – had 22 courses, although many people believe it properties around it sell. And so far in Hainan, selling homes has not been Like many current golf projects on Hainan, the course opened in 1984, Hainan was four years away from becoming a could easily reach 100 within five years. a problem. Wealthy bosses from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and central Mission Hills development primarily occupies fully-fledged province, and most mainland Chinese still regarded it with China’s coal belt fly in and buy up the villas, sometimes several at a time, acreage that the government has classified as equal parts curiosity and fear. Despite its proximity to the mainland – wHile a negligible percentage of tHe population plays golf, cHina often paying in cash. In China, to own a home on a golf course does not huangdi, or “wasteland”. But this only means that the land was either Haikou, Hainan’s capital, lies just 30km from the southern tip of is one of tHe few places in tHe world wHere golf course construc- necessarily mean you play the game. It’s more about prestige. Golf, like never used by man or is no longer used by man. It doesn’t take into account Guangdong province – for centuries it had been characterised as a tion is booming. “Everyone who is even thinking about golf course design luxury sedans and handbags, is just another way to project your wealth. its ecological merits. “If they only build on true wasteland, then there is no typhoon-prone outpost inhabited by mysterious natives, ruthless pirates, is here in China,” said Haikou-based Richard Mon, vice-president of China During the planning and proposal stage, however, golf is rarely problem,” said one conservationist active in Hainan. “To me, the [Mission banished criminals and exiled officials. Indeed, prior to his expulsion to operations for Schmidt-Curley Golf Design, the US company behind all 34 mentioned. That is how developers get around the supposed national Hills] area next to Haikou is not a wasteland. In Hong Kong, that would Hainan in 848, disgraced Tang Dynasty chief minister Li Deyu famously of Mission Hills’ China courses. “If you’re not, you don’t have any work. moratorium on building courses. “No one calls it a golf course now,” one be a country park, a very nice forest or wilderness park.” wrote that he was being sent to the “gate of hell”. Everywhere else in the world is done.” Golf in modern China is in its infancy industry insider told me. “Instead, it’s a green space or it’s equestrian or it’s This northern section of the Mission Hills land is less than 30 minutes The reputation stuck. One Hainan local said that when he arrived on the – the game here is still four years younger than Sergio Garcia – and the an exercise field. They are creative. But the government knows. It’s just all by car from downtown Haikou and just east of a 108sq km national geo- mainland in the 1980s to attend university, his fellow students were sur- speed of its growth will no doubt be accelerated by its inclusion in the 2016 about loopholes.” logical park built around the crater of an extinct volcano. Both properties prised to discover he didn’t have a tail. But it was also during this decade of Olympics, a move that should give the sport some legitimacy in the eyes of For example, in 2008 the China Youth Daily reported that the word occupy a region long known as the “lung of Haikou” for its green landscape reform that top-ranking officials began referring to Hainan as China’s the once-sceptical Chinese government. “golf ” does not appear in Mission Hills’ agreement with the local govern- and fresh air. Nearly three years ago, a Haikou-based pressure group > 22 FT.COM/MAGAZINE January 2/3 2010 FT.COM/MAGAZINE January 2/3 2010 23
  5. 5. (Left and right) Golfers and their caddies at the Taida golf course, built in the early 1990s; (bottom right) a driving range in Haikou, capital of Hainan believed it had secured around 825 acres of this land to establish a forest “ They might train of trucks carted the red earth to the con- i spent two days Hiking tHrougH villages around tHe mission Hills “No matter government paid him around RMB200,000 park that would help promote environmental awareness. Its members struction site, where it is stored in a huge flat pile site, trying to gauge tHe mood of tHe locals, wHo by and large (£18,000), a very large sum for the average worked on the project for two years, winning the support of the govern- plant trees – that looks like an Arizona plateau. were warm and friendly, quick to invite a stranger indoors or under a if you are Chinese farmer. But Ma knew that his land was ment, attracting investors and brokering a land deal with local villagers. but they also shady tree for a cup of tea or a piece of jackfruit. Most lived in hamlets laid willing worth more – Mission Hills, he claimed, paid But suddenly in 2007, the villagers ended talks. And that is when the like environmental protection, land own- out in maze-like fashion, with narrow stone paths weaving between single- the government five times what he had received group’s organisers first heard about Project 791. destroyed ersHip in rural Hainan is a particularly storey, centuries-old homes, with walls of irregularly shaped pieces of lava to sell or for it – and he wasn’t sure how he’d earn a living “They didn’t even notify us,” a member of the group told me over a pot a mountain murky issue. Last year, in a town called rock and tiled roofs. More and more villagers are doing away with these not, the in the future without his orchard. Although of Pu’er tea. “The government just told the villagers not to work with us Longqiao, villagers protested after discovering old buildings, however, opting instead to use the money they have made some villagers were happy to sell because their any more. All the years working, the money, the energy, all wasted. It was and turned the great disparity between what Mission Hills by selling land to Mission Hills to build larger, multi-storey homes out of government land was rocky, Ma told me of one of his friends a devastating hit. It broke our hearts, and we felt so small and insignifi- it into had paid the local government for their land and brick or cinder block. takes your who had protested and refused. The next day, he cant. We knew we could never defeat them. How can you go against the the amount passed on to them. Some demon- Near the perimeter of the golf site, I met Ma Jiguang, who two days claimed, soldiers had arrived at his friend’s government?” The group was warned not to do anything that might dis- a lake” strators flipped a government car, and military earlier had opened a small shop a hundred yards from where labourers land” property and bulldozed his trees. rupt the Mission Hills project. In Hainan, a domestic non-governmental police were called in to disperse the crowd. Such were building high-rise dormitories that would eventually house thou- A car pulled up on the dirt patch in front of organisation is never truly non-governmental. A good relationship with public expressions of displeasure are often the sands of Mission Hills employees. Behind his one-room cement structure, Ma’s store. In walked a man in white shorts, a the authorities is necessary for survival, and going up against golf, an only recourse for disgruntled villagers, who the 37-year-old Ma had built a brick wall to mark where he felt his white golf shirt and flip-flops. It was Ma’s cousin, industry thought to be lining the pockets of many a government official, usually have no official documents to back up property ended and Mission Hills began. Other than his home back in Li Guanghua, a town-level government official. would not be a wise move. At the Mission Hills site, one completed fair- their claim to a piece of land. All they can do is yell – or congregate on the village, this was the only piece of land he had left. He assured me that Mission Hills Hainan was going to be bigger and better way has already been dubbed the “government hole” due to its popularity fairways brandishing their sickles. “We had fruit trees, so I didn’t want to sell,” Ma said, as weary-looking than the one in Shenzhen. “I have been to the Mission Hills in Shenzhen,” with local officials. Villagers, told that developers are merely renting their land for workers wandered into his shop in search of cold water and beer. “But Li announced proudly. He and about 100 other town and village represent- The lobby group member did not attempt to hide his frustration. “They 50 years, see through the ruse and view this as their only opportunity to they had already claimed it and measured it. What could I do? The gov- atives had travelled there on a week-long expenses-paid trip before the land call this ecological restoration?” he asked incredulously. “Sure, they might cash in. It happens throughout Hainan. At one course site I visited, locals ernment tells you the price and no matter if you are willing to sell or not, deals had been finalised. plant a few trees – but they also destroyed a mountain and turned it into a had hastily built new homes in the construction zone in an effort to claim they take your land anyway. As an ordinary citizen, how can you fight the “Do you want to have a look inside?” Li asked, gesturing towards the lake.” Ah yes, the mountain. It’s true that while certain species of tree and larger payouts. At another site, where villagers were being compensated government officials?” Mission Hills property. “I’d love to,” I said. “But will we be able to get past shrub thrive on this volcanic landscape, the rocky earth is not suitable for for each grave that had to be moved, fresh ones began appearing every Ma, like many I spoke to, said that despite the area’s designation as security? I hear it’s pretty tight.” Li looked insulted. “Who can stop me?” he most forms of farming. It is also not suitable for building and shaping golf morning. Construction on the Mission Hills project was halted for several wasteland, the nutrient-rich volcanic soil was ideal for cultivating fruit scoffed. “Who can stop the government’s car?” n courses, which require a couple of metres of topsoil. The solution? Mission months in 2008 due to land disputes, and various dust-ups have caused trees. The region’s lychees were particularly famous and could fetch a good Hills bought a “mountain” several kilometres from the construction site the site’s boundaries to change more than a hundred times since the price at market. In all, Ma gave up 10 mu (a Chinese unit of measurement Alice Liu contributed to this story. Some names have been changed to and started digging – until the mountain was a hole in the ground. A wagon planning process began. equal to roughly one-sixth of an acre) to the Mission Hills project and the protect identities. Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based writer. 24 FT.COM/MAGAZINE January 2/3 2010 FT.COM/MAGAZINE January 2/3 2010 25