Boom time for fishing village at the forefront of China's efforts to protect its 'ancestral sea'

TANMEN (Hainan) • There are two roads that visitors can take to the fishing town of Tanmen. Whichever they choose, they will be greeted by the large, beaming face of President Xi Jinping.

"Since ancient times, the South China Sea has been China's territory. You function as the front-line guards of maritime sovereignty," said the giant billboard at one entrance, quoting Mr Xi.

Another billboard at the opposite end of town has him flanked by dozens of smiling local fishermen, dated April 8, 2013.

That was the day China's most powerful man paid a historic visit to Tanmen. For a tiny coastal town in Hainan province with just 31,000 residents, it was a big deal.

The purpose of Mr Xi's visit was political, coming soon after he took power, with tensions rising over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Tanmen's fishermen are important to China's sovereignty battle, with their traditional fishing activities key to the country's historical claim to the waters.

But residents more keenly felt Mr Xi's economic impact. "Tanmen gained national prominence after Mr Xi came. We got many times more visitors," said handicraft shop assistant Li Xiadan, 23.

This coincided with the rise in popularity of giant clam handicrafts, which Tanmen specialises in. From 2012 to last year , the number of such handicraft retailers rocketed from 15 to 460, drawing people from out of town to work in the industry.

The town got a facelift in the process. Roads were paved, pavements laid and beaches cleaned up. In 2014, the town even got its own cultural centre.

Besides displaying antiquities found at sea, the centre builds on the theme of Mr Xi's billboards, prominently displaying accounts of Tanmen's fishermen refusing to yield to the authorities from other claimant countries.

"The resolute, fearless spirit of Tanmen's fishermen have safeguarded China's sovereignty in the South China Sea and defended the country's dignity," said one caption below a picture of a fisherman. "They are the pride of the South China Sea and undisputed heroes of the masses!"

The central government began work last November on a "world-class" one billion yuan (S$208.7 million) South China Sea museum in Tanmen, set to open next year .

"People used to just come here for cheap seafood," said Heilongjiang tourist Li Ying, 64. "This is China's gateway to the South China Sea. It's good to see Tanmen do well."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline Boom time for fishing village at the forefront of China's efforts to protect its 'ancestral sea'. Subscribe