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Hainan Seen Through the Lens of Culture: The Sweetest Flavor of Hainan - Handmade Sugar

The peak season for sugar production begins annually in the 11th month of the lunar calendar, when Hainan's sugarcane is of the best quality and sweetness. In Zuntan Town, located in Haikou, Wu Qizhen-an inheritor of this indigenous sugar-making technique-and his team of more than 20 workers (including his own children) make ready for the busiest time of the year.

Sweet and smooth sugar cubes.

The heady scent of sugar hits your nose as soon as you walk into the sugar factory. "From here on out, the stoves will stay on 24/7, and we can make a pot of sugar every 20 minutes." "Wu said. While his sight is now severely impaired due to years of staying up late, he has a clear vision for how his family enterprise should be run: his youngest son, Wu Chonggui, is in charge of sales, his daughters take turns dividing and packing brown sugar as well as keeping accounts, and his workers are responsible for various parts of the process, including sugar extraction, filtering, boiling and cooking. As for Wu himself, he personally handles the final sugar production step.

Wu Qizhen and his son Wu Chonggui taste a batch of freshly cooked sugar.

67-year-old Wu Qizhen is a fifth-generation sugar maker. For the last 30 years, he has operated the oldest and largest sugar factory in Zuntan Town. From the beginning, when they ground the sugar cane with millstones pulled by oxen, to today’s machine age, he’s seen a sea change in the way sugar is made. “There is a tradition of sugar making in Zuntan Town. When I was young, I used to squeeze sugarcane juice with a stone roller pulled by an ox with my father. Now we use machines to squeeze the juice to make brown sugar." Wu Qizhen recalled.

However, since the amount of sugar that can be made traditionally is low, and profit margins slim, there are fewer and fewer people making sugar by hand. Qizhen’s is the only sugar factory left in the Zuntan area, the only place keeping the local art alive.

Wu Chonggui has taken over the mantle from his father and now makes this handmake sugar himself.

There are records dating sugar-making in Hainan back to the Tang Dynasty period, and by the time of the Song Dynasty it had become a local industry. The area best known for sugar-making was Zuntan in Haikou, which claims a sugar-making history stretching back over 600 years. “Zuntan sugar mills, and Ding’an cloth”. In the Ming and Qing Dynasty periods, there were already several sugar mills and oil refineries in Zuntan, which is why it was known for having “ten thousand sugar mills”. Whether it was sweet mung-bean drinks in summertime or brown sugar sticky rice cakes and brown sugar New Year’s cakes in winter, generation after generation of Hainanese people have loved the sweetest “flavor of Hainan”.

“There are seven brothers and sisters in our family, and we have all loved eating freshly made sugar since we were little, it’s so good.” said Wu Chonggui.

Poster of this episode.

There are many steps to making this unique handmade sugar. First, the freshly squeezed sugarcane juice needs to be filtered to remove impurities such as soil and fibers. Wu Qizhen told reporters, "After 6 filtrations, the sugarcane juice will be transferred to our sugar boiling room. We have 8 large pots, which we use for boiling, condensing, filtering and stirring.” No measuring out of quantities or temperature is ever done throughout the whole process of sugar boiling, with only the experience and skill of the sugar makers to judge when the sugar is ready. As the syrup continues to thicken, it is removed from the vat at just the right time. Now, it’s highly concentrated, and has to be stirred non-stop in order to reduce the internal and external temperature at the same rate and induce crystallization into sugar granules. Finally, it is poured into molds to cool down and solidify into sweet, soft sugar cubes and freshly made bars of brown sugar.

"Our sugar factory has been running for more than 30 years, and our prices have not gone up by much. We just want folks to taste our good sugar, and we also want to pass the craft onto our future generations." Wu Qizhen revealed.

These days, Wu’s sons and daughters are combining modern production technology with traditional sugar-making techniques, putting the sugar in fashionable packaging, and selling it online as well as in traditional brick-and-mortar shops. The ancient art of Hainan sugar-making has found new life, and the legend of this sweet century-old art is still being told. 

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