SANYA (China) • Blessed by palm- fringed beaches and balmy weather, the island province of Hainan is fast becoming known as "China's Florida", drawing masses of retirees fleeing the biting cold of their home towns.
"At home in Harbin, it (can be) -30 deg C, it's unbearable. But here the climate is perfect," said a 71-year-old pensioner who gave only her surname, Wang. Hailing from the capital of the polluted, frigid, rust-belt province of Heilongjiang on the Siberian border, she and her husband have turned up each winter at the resort town of Sanya for the past eight years.
Said another Heilongjiang native Qi Ningxia, 60, who suffers from asthma: "Here, we can breathe and that warmth is better for our health.
"And we find so many people here from our province.
"We're sure we will not be bored."
Between 600,000 and 700,000 elderly descend on Sanya every winter, almost doubling its population, said Mr Huang Cheng, a sociologist at Sanya University.
Nearly half of them are from the north-eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning.
The trend began in 2000 as residents of those provinces began buying Sanya apartments, opening businesses and luring friends and family to join them, creating a "snowball effect", he noted.
Recreational centres with features aimed at the elderly, such as mahjong tables, have mushroomed. Ping-pong, billiards, chess, calligraphy, painting and computer science are among the offerings on display, said a director of one centre.
Hainan island itself was once a remote outpost, a place of exile for criminals and disgraced scholars, and Sanya merely a secluded, backward fishing village.
Today, Sanya is home to a Club Med, yacht marinas, golf courses and luxury residential complexes as the local authorities aim to attract foreign and domestic tourists.
The retirees from north-eastern China do not fit this profile.
The overwhelming majority shop in local markets rather than malls, and prefer to play cards instead of golf. One-third of them - many retired steel, petroleum and mine workers - rely on monthly income of 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (S$409 to S$613), while a quarter receive even less, said Mr Huang.
The influx has put pressure on local residents, who have to contend with surging food prices when the population doubles in winter.
Real estate costs have soared as some wealthier pensioners buy apartments. Hospitals are struggling to cope with an explosion in demand from the pensioners.
Madam Wang is so convinced of the benefits of her winter sojourn that she persuaded her son and grandchildren to join her in Hainan for Chinese New Year in January, overturning a Chinese tradition of spending it in one's home town.