The city of Haikou is situated at the northeastern end of the slightly southwesterly-northeasterly oriented island of Hainan. Haikou became the capital of Hainan and a prefecture level city – as well as a Special Economic Zone – when the island was made into a separate province in 1988. Prior to this, Hainan Island belonged to Guangdong Province on the mainland, across the Hainan Strait from Hainan Island. Haikou, which means "Sea Mouth", is also the island's hub in every respect save at least one: the city of Sanya, situated on the almost diametrically opposite southwestern end of the island, is the island's prime tourist resort.
That said, Haikou is not lacking in charm, even if it is not sourrounded by mountains and even if its temperature is marginally cooler than that of Sanya (the key word here being "marginally" – the spread in average temperatures between the two cities is only 2-3 degrees). Haikou is better known as "Coconut City", thanks to the many elegant coconut trees (coconut palms) that line the streets of the city, and which abound everywhere, providing the city with a picturesque touch.
Haikou has a relatively long, uneventful ancient history, with a more eventful recent history, like the rest of Hainan Island, as the next section illustrates. This is to say that although the island became a part of Imperial China early on, i.e., during the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty, the island remained pretty much unheard of, except for the its role as a place of exile for disgraced public officials and artists (writers, painters, poets, etc.) who ran afoul of the Imperial court, though sometimes such a banishment was more an act of factional rivalry than based on factual circumstances (persuading the emperor to banish a public official or an influential artist who was critical of one's faction at court was a convenient way to appropriate said official's property, to silence the opposition, or to settle old scores, as the case may be).
Another historical event on the island was the retreat of many of the indigenous peoples to the mountainous southwestern part of the island in the face of the influx of ever-increasing numbers of Han Chinese immigrants.
The island of Hainan was annexed by China (made a part of the then area of present-day Guangdong Province) in 110 BCE, when Emperor Wu Di, whose long rule lasted from BCE 140-87, mounted a concerted campaign to secure the lands occupied by the Hundred Yue (Baiyue) people of southeastern China – basically, the lands south of the Yangtze River, especially the area corresponding to the coastal and near-coastal present-day provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), and Guangdong, but in fact, stretching southward into Vietnam's Red River Delta area, which was also under Chinese rule for centuries, and note that earlier, the ancient "Cradle of Chinese Civilization" area was essentially the swath of land located between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, stretching from the middle reaches of these two rivers to the sea, plus a swath of land on the northern side of the Yellow River.*
Thus did General Lu Bode, newly promoted to the rank of Fubo, or "Subduer of the Waves", a fanciful title indicating that the general had become the equivalent of what one in WWII terms would call a field marshal, invade Hainan Island in BCE 110 and subdue the indigenous population there (perhaps waves of them :) ), setting up two prefectures on the island, Zhan'er and Zhuya, plus 16 lesser administrative entities, or counties, among which was Zhuyadaimao County, with Zhuyadaimao Town, which would later be renamed as Qiongzhou, as its seat. The city of Haikou is in fact a rather recent creation, since the main city in such circumstances was often located not on the seashore, but instead farther inland.
This is because it was sometimes the custom in those times not to have the town – especially if the town had important administrative functions – lying so exposed along the coast. Instead, the town would be situated a few miles inland, where it was safer, and sentries could be posted along the shore and leading to the town, so that defensive forces could be mobilized in a hurry should this become necessary.
Zhuyadaimao Town, lying about 5 kilometers from the coast, became the town of Qiongzhou during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. It was first during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty that the piece of geography corresponding to the mouth of the Nandu River was developed into a port, becoming Haikoupu, or Haikou Port, the name Haikou meaning, as indicated, "Sea Mouth", though the "mouth" in question is actually the mouth of the Nandu River, albeit, at the sea, or at the Hainan Strait in this instance.
Little of consequence happened either on Hainan Island or in the city of Haikou over the next several centuries, except for the island's role as a place of exile for problematic public officials and artists, and except for the fact that with the ever-increasing influx of Han Chinese migrants from the mainland during the beleagured Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty period due to nomadic invasions of various Turkic tribes descending from Manchuria, conflicts between the new immigrants and the indigenous tribes on Hainan resulted in the retreat of the latter to the mountainous, southwestern area of the island. It was first toward the end of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty that Hainan Island and the city of Haikou began to be developed.
In 1858, during the eighth year of the reign (CE 1850–1861) of Emperor Xianfeng, the port city of Haikou was elevated to an official foreign trading port and made a part of the neighboring city of Qiongzhou (the name "Haikou" disappeared entirely in fact). Alas, this move was not exactly of Emperor Xianfeng's own volition – it was part of the infamous Unequal Treaties arrangement (specifically, the 1858 Treaty of Tientsin) that was forced upon China by a number of European and North American powers, as well as Russia and Japan. The parties to the 1858 treaties (the treaty involving Hainan, as well as numerous other ports and trade concessions on the mainland, was not an official part of the Treaty of Tientsin, though they are collectively referred to as the Treaty of Tientsin) were Russia, the United States of America, the United Kingdom and France.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), the Japanese conquered Hainan Island and made Qiongzhou (which had absorbed Haikou Port, as indicated) – as they also did with the port city of Sanya to the south – into a Japanese naval base. The Japanese abandoned Qiongzhou, and thus Hainan Island, first in 1945, at the close of WWII in the Pacific Theatre. During their reign on Hainan, the Japanese occupiers were especially brutal toward the resistance movement on the island, putting to death countless numbers of males in retaliation for sabotage actions against the Japanese occupation, in much the same way that Nazi Germany retaliated disproportionately brutally toward sabotage against its occupation forces throughout Europe.
Soon after the government of the PRC came to power, the city of Haikou was separated from the city of Qiongzhou, regaining the Song Dynasty name by which it is known today (note also that it was no happenstance that the city of Haikou was absorbed by the city of Qiongzhou under a Qing Dynasty emperor, given that the Qing rulers were Jürchens cum Manchus and were especially paranoid concerning everything Han Chinese, and in particular, everything related to the Han Chinese Ming Dynasty, which the Manchus had a lot of trouble suppressing, even years after "Mission Accomplished" had been declared, as it were... the Manchu Qing rulers were almost as fixated about erasing all things Ming as the Han Chinese Ming rulers had been fixated about erasing all things Mongol Yuan!).
Haikou is both modern and old. On the old side, Haikou has its Old Town where there are numerous modest mansions that were built by wealthy Chinese expats who returned to their homeland to retire. These houses, many of which were built during China's "Colonial Era" (the period of the aforementioned Unequal Treaties, which stretched from the middle of the 19th century until the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty, or about 60 years, though some of these "colonial" holdings, such as Macau and Hong Kong, were only returned to China in recent times), reflect the colonial influence, since they are often built in a European style, though some are of course built in the quintessentially Chinese style with tiled roofs with "flying", or upturned, eaves.
Even the streets of Haikou Old Town were divided into different commercial categories, reflecting the type of product they sold. For example, there was a street that sold Chinese Traditional Medicine along one stretch, while Western medicine was sold on a different stretch of the street. There were streets, or sections of streets, with silk merchants alongside haberdashery shops, streets or sections of streets that sold fresh meats while others sold fresh fish, and still other streets or sections of streets that sold incense and/or handicraft items for the home such as candles, paper and ink.
Among Haikou's more ancient, historical relics are the Tomb of Hai Rui, Wugong Temple ("Temple of Five Lords"), and the military fortification, Xiuying Emplacement (piracy had been a problem early on in the island's history). The Tomb of Hai Rui is dedicated to the public official of that name who was incorruptibly honest, so honest in fact that he had to supplement his meager official income by writing letters, journal articles and "inscriptions", or forewords to articles written by others, whereas a typical Chinese public official (i.e., a functionary) during the dynastic era used his position of power to exact bribes for services rendered.**
Wugong Temple is in fact a large building complex consisting of various ancestral halls as well as the temple proper. It houses numerous statues that commemorate the various periods of the city's dynastic past, and as such, is a sort of museum over the cultural-historical development not only of the city of Haikou, but of Hainan Island itself.
On the modern side, Haikou is an industrial metropolis that specializes in light industry and agricultural production as well as tourism, of course. The city of Haikou is a major food processing center in China, being one of the country's largest producers of tinned foods. It also produces beverages and synthetic fibers, and specializes as well in tanning, or leather production from animal hides. In addition, the city is known for its textiles, its phamaceutical industry, its budding electronics industry and, of late, its aquatic products. It also produces rubber, has wind farms (think: power generation), and is known for its varied, subtropical-climate agriculture, ranging from rice to peanuts to sugar cane to fruits and garden vegetables.
Haikou's homegrown fruits (and nuts) include betelnuts, coconuts, carambola, jackfruits, lichee, longan, loquat, mangos, naseberries, pawpaw, passion fruit and pineapples. Its list of seafood specialties is too long to enumerate here, but two of the main fishes served in the restaurants and seafood stalls here are grouper and Spanish mackerel. Which conveniently leads us to Haikou's very own special local dishes: Wenchang Chicken, Hele Crab, Jiaji Duck and Dongshan Mutton.
The city of Haikou has a mild, subtropical climate with a yearly average high temperature of 28 degrees Celsius and an yearly average low temperature of 24 degrees Celsius. Breaking this down a bit further, Haikou's average summer high temperature (July) is 33 degrees Celsius, while its average wintertime low temperature (January) is 15½ degrees Celsius. With its less trafficked, white sandy beaches, its historical monuments and its Old Town – and with its picture-postcard-pretty streets and avenues lined with coconut palms – the city of Haikou offers a less touristy alternative to the beachcomber milieu of Sanya, Haikou's natural rival on the southern coast of the island.
Moreover, if you are seriously into sailing and windsurfing, i.e., if you prize the thrill of maneuvering your craft in high winds over the tamer but perhaps equally rewarding experience of just being seen, then the waters off Haikou – namely, the waters of Hainan Strait – offer much greater sailing and windsurfing excitement that the waters off the southern coast of the island.
* This "cradle" would shift farther south as invading Turkic nomads, in wave after wave, lasting over a thousand years, would press southward into China, displacing many of the Han Chinese there, who would flee southward, beyond the Yangtze River and into the land of the Baiyue people, displacing the Baiyue, many of whom would eventually take refuge in less attractive (at the time) mountainous regions, as also happened on Hainan Island.
** One can look at this matter in two ways: either the ancient Chinese public sector was inexcusably riddled with corruption, or its functionaries were so poorly paid that they were forced, by economic necessity, to abuse their respective positions of power in order to earn even a modest living, at least a standard of living commensurate with the individual's respective educational and functionary status. Worse (think: cynically), the state may well have been aware that such bribery was necessary as a supplement to the functionary's low salary, but the state may have felt that this situation, however repugnant, was the more palatable option to raising taxes sufficiently to pay its functionaries a decent salary (i.e., better to have the public heap scorn on the "corrupt" public official than on the state for raising taxes!).