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Living and Teaching English on Hainan Island

Contributed by Guide's author, March 2009; Updated July 19, 2011

Hainan Island is a very desirable place to live, although not necessarily work, for foreign English teachers depending entirely on what one is looking for. This chapter will provide a brief overview of what living in Haikou is like and will discuss the relatively limited teaching opportunities as well. It is based on the four years that I lived and worked in Haikou from August 2004 through July 2008 and should be regarded strictly as a personal account. Feel free to ask any questions you may have in our readers forum.

Living in Haikou, Hainan Island

Holiday Beach, Haikou Holiday Beach in Haikou after an afternoon rain with Haidian Island in the background

Hainan (Hai3 nan4, literally meaning "south of the sea") Island, located in the southernmost part of China, didn't become a separate province until 1988 at which time Haikou, a prefecture-level municipality situated on the north coast, became the new province's capital city.

For any foreign teacher who has spent a winter dying from the frigid cold in the northern regions of China, Hainan Island's tropical and monsoonal climate will seem like paradise with average temperatures of about 64°F (18°C) in January and 84°F (29°C) in June. In addition, Haikou's air quality—with an air pollution index of only 28 (compared to API's of, for example, 88 and 60 for Shenyang and Guangzhou, respectively)—is rated the cleanest among China's medium and large-sized cities.

As a married and relatively sedentary middle-aged foreign man, I very much enjoyed living in Haikou and, in general, on Hainan Island, but I have to wonder how appealing it would be for younger unmarried foreigners who are in search of a nightlife or even dating opportunities. Outside of university students who also happen to be English majors, you won't find many local Chinese who can communicate in English and, therefore, living in Haikou can be very isolating. This sense of isolation is compounded by the fact that the total number of Westerners living in Haikou is probably fewer than 500, and most of them are middle-aged and older. In what will be either a big plus or minus depending on the individual, it seemed to me that a significant percentage of the foreigners in Haikou were either unregistered Christian missionaries or self-appointed (and -anointed) home church leaders (of no particular denomination or sect), overrepresented by American families and middle-aged (and older) foreigners.

Having lived in South Florida for 15 years prior to moving to China, the biggest attraction that Haikou held for me was its main public beach, Holiday Beach. It's certainly not as enjoyable as swimming in the Atlantic Ocean off the palm-tree lined shores of Ft. Lauderdale and the Florida Keys, but I was, nonetheless, very happy to have it. Holiday Beach, on the South China Sea, is clean and swimmable with wooden chaise lounge chairs, tables, and umbrellas that can be rented for 30 yuan for the day (see photo above). There are also several concessions close by where you can buy cold drinks and something to snack on. While lying on your chair, local Hainanese merchants will come around with baskets of steamed fresh corn on the cob you can buy for a couple of yuan. All in all, it's a very pleasant environment. If you go any time before 5:00 p.m., you'll have the entire beach to yourself.

As for Western amenities, there are a couple of Carrefour’s (a French supermarket chain that foreigners seem to rave about), a Taiwanese supermarket that sells imported foods, and a local Western restaurant distributor who sells many familiar "survival" items such as Equal, a wide assortment of cheeses, Campbell soups, bacon, and superb hamburger patties, as well as many other items I was very grateful to find. Of course, you'll see a couple of McDonald's, far more many KFC's, and even a couple of relatively new Pizza Huts (prior to 2006, they didn't exist in Haikou).

As a major domestic tourist destination, there is no shortage of nice places to stay in Haikou and throughout the entire island. Accommodations in Haikou run the full gamut from small unrated Chinese hotels to 6-star luxurious beach resorts that can run in excess of 1,000 yuan per night. If you plan to visit Haikou and are on a budget, I can recommend the Western-managed Haikou Banana Hostel, which is located on Haidian Dao and is within walking distance from Hainan University. Rates for a single room are either 60 or 120 yuan per evening, depending on season.

Entertainment, Shopping, and Dining in Haikou

Most foreigners in Haikou rely on pirated DVDs and the Internet as their primary forms of entertainment. Years ago (prior to December 2008), foreigners in southern China were able to enjoy Dream TV from the Philippines via pirated digital access cards. Since 2009, several illegal companies in China, headed by satellite pirate boss Yi Wangdong (English name Don) offer a very poor solution to satellite theft that involves using your Internet connection. No one we have spoken to has ever been satisfied with this Internet solution and it should be avoided.

There is a "bar street" on Haidian Island, as well as numerous bars, clubs, and KTVs in downtown Haikou, but none of them had acquired the reputation as "foreigner bars" or hangouts that I was aware of. If you are relatively young and have a bilingual Chinese friend, he or she will know of the best places to frequent at night, but you'll probably be the only Westerner in the entire establishment.

While it is true that New York is a city that never sleeps, the same can just about be said of Haikou. In stark contrast to many second-tier cities in China that seem to literally shut down after dark, Haikou metamorphosizes into an almost carnival-like atmosphere after 8:00 p.m. Street vendors and numerous barbeque pits appear from out of nowhere, the relatively high percentage of "working girls" becomes more conspicuous, and one can find groups of friends and couples walking about until midnight and beyond. Kiosks selling newspapers, magazines and convenience items—such as milk, soda, and cigarettes—generally remain open until two o'clock in the morning. If you are a night owl, you will appreciate living in Haikou.

Hainan Island, like South Florida for example, is home to transplants from literally every other province in China. Consequently, you can find restaurants featuring authentic food from each of China's eight different cuisines (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang). In addition, there is a Peking Duck restaurant that serves an entire duck for 38 yuan (at least that was the price back in August 2008) located just a few blocks from Hainan University's south gate on Haidian Island (a small island just off the main one connected by three bridges). It's as good as any duck I've ever eaten in the north of China. There are also numerous four- and five-star hotels offering a combination of Western and Chinese breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets running anywhere from 68 to 300 yuan per person. You won't go hungry in Haikou and you can find decent food to fit any budget.

Shopping in Haikou, as is true for all other second-tier cities in China, is abundant and cheap. You will find just about anything you may want or need, unless you are a particularly big person. Plus-sized foreigners who wore XXL or larger sizes in the West will probably need to hire a tailor. Foreign men won't really find pants larger than a 40-inch waist. As for your computer needs, there is a multi-level computer shopping center called DC City (Chéng) where you can find almost anything you need for PC-compatible computers. There are also a couple of Apple computer distributors as well. As is generally true throughout China, keep in mind that virtually all Western brand-named products are fake. As a rule, whenever you can, you should buy Chinese made products only: they will be cheaper and considerably more reliable.


Although the local residents, far more than the expat community, are very critical of Haikou's caliber of medical care, I cannot complain about it in general with one exception. My most significant complaint is limited to eye care: You won't find one ophthalmological hospital or eye care center that can properly fit you for progressive lenses (although this inability doesn't stop them from selling them at prices similar to and even greater than what you would pay back home). If you're used to wearing progressive lenses, you'll have to switch to bifocals to play it safe, as this level of technology is something they can manage reasonably well. Many local residents actually keep three pairs of eyeglasses that clumsily serve the purpose of one pair of progressive lens eyeglasses: one for reading, one for driving and watching TV, and one for using the computer.

Despite my frustration with eye care, over the four years that I lived in Haikou, I was able to find competent medical care at the People's Hospital (just across the street from Hainan University). Once I had a minor surgical procedure performed that turned out just fine, i.e., I was very happy with the final result, although it took a lot longer than it should have and ended with four self-absorbing sutures instead of none (based on information I had previously read on the Internet regarding how this procedure would have been performed in the West). Once in Haikou, you can ask other foreigners about Western-trained Chinese doctors and there was at least one American expat physician/Christian missionary type who was working at the People’s Hospital as well.

Cost of Living and Public Utilities

Because Hainan province is an island, anything that isn't produced or grown on the Island will cost a little bit more than it might on the mainland. For example, electricity costs .85 yuan per kilowatt in Haikou, which is about 30 percent more expensive than it is in most other cities on the mainland. In Liaoning province, we were able to find bottled beer for less than two yuan per bottle: In Haikou, the cheapest local beer will cost you four yuan per bottle at the supermarket. On the other hand, housing is relatively inexpensive. You can easily find a very nice 2,000 sq. ft. apartment (about 186 sq. meters) in the best part of Haikou for no more than 1,500 yuan per month. The off-campus 85 sq. meter apartment the university housed me in for three years, just minutes from the school, was costing them only 500 yuan per month in rent, although it was quite old and in disrepair.

The reliability of public utilities in Haikou is highly variable depending on precisely where you will be living. When I lived on Haidian Dao (Island), in off-campus housing just a few blocks from Hainan University, my Internet (provided by China Telecom) was consistently good but, unfortunately, we seemed to lose electricity and water at least once a month for eight to ten hours at a time. No one ever seemed to know in advance when these outages were going to occur or could accurately predict when service would be restored. Fortunately, the 22-story building I lived in had a backup generator to run one of the two elevators, but that didn't stop me from perspiring to death in the summer months.

Conversely, when I lived in Guo Mao for one year (the more upscale business and restaurant district where a high percentage of municipal government leaders are rumored to live), I never once lost electricity or water but my Internet service (provided by Great Wall) was a challenge. After weeks of complaining, they finally managed to upgrade me to a synchronous 1Mb line that I was able to live with, but foreign teachers housed in other buildings were all unhappy with the service they received with the exception of one teacher who had a 2Mb ADSL (2Mb/512Kb) line with China Telecom. The problem is you are completely at the mercy of the quality of your particular apartment's internal wiring. If the telephone wiring in either your apartment or building is old and frayed, as incredible as this may seem, there appears to be no mechanism or procedure in place for China Telecom to replace it. So you're completely out of luck.


Most locals commute by either bicycle or bus and you can travel between any two points in Haikou for no more than one or two yuan. Taxis start at 10 yuan and fares are based on both distance and time. Bargaining with taxi drivers is customary and expected for distances above the basic fare. Hainan Island is home to some of the wealthiest (and poorest) people in China and the per capita percentage of privately owned automobiles increased exponentially during the time I was there. Just before I left, downtown Haikou, as well as the business district, could legitimately claim a significant problem with traffic, especially during the rush hours.

Hainan Island, including Haikou, relies heavily on tourism and Western tourists, in particular, are highly sought after. Consequently, foreigners in Haikou are treated very well by both the locals and the police. In fact, it would be fair to say that foreigners live a privileged type of existence on Hainan Island. For example, driver's licenses are more or less given away to any foreigner who has a valid Western driver's license. You will have to take a written test (in English) but no one ever fails. In addition, although motorbikes haven't been legal within Haikou city limits for quite some time, by and large, foreigners who choose to drive them are virtually ignored at police check points. I owned and drove a motorbike for almost four years in Haikou and was stopped only once in all that time, and that was because the policeman was from Beijing, stationed in Haikou on a special training assignment. The bike was not confiscated in the end because I called a friend of mine who intervened on my behalf and the whole incident cost me a fine of 200 yuan.

Of course, the other main selling point to living and teaching in Haikou is the fact that you are about a four-hour bus ride away from Sanya, the home of the Miss World Beauty Pageant. The government is currently building a high-speed express train that is supposed to get to Sanya from Haikou in one hour, scheduled for completion in 2010 I believe. Although Sanya is billed as the "Hawaii of the East," you shouldn't take that literally. Yalong Bay, at the southernmost tip of Sanya, does have white sandy, manicured beaches and waters that may be a little bluer than is typical for the rest of Hainan Island, but it's no Waikiki. Personally, I found Sanya to be an overdeveloped, hyped-up and overpriced tourist trap (of course, I went during one of the Golden Week holidays, which is never a good idea). Holiday Beach in Haikou is just about as nice as most anything you will find in Sanya. The South China Sea more or less looks and feels the same no matter what part of the island you happen to be on.

Teaching Opportunities on Hainan Island

The main reason there aren't that many foreigners in Haikou is because there just aren't that many English teaching job opportunities to speak of.

The two major universities in Haikou are Hainan University, which is a key provincial university (where I worked for three years) and Hainan Normal University. There is also a medical school along with a few other low-ranking vocational and technical colleges as well (see list below). Irrespective of university, the current remuneration package seems to be standard and is actually less than what I had received back in 2004: 4,000 to 5,000 yuan per month (depending on degree and experience) for 16 to 18 periods per week (and this is considerably higher than the previous 12 to 14 I was required to teach). In most cases, it appears as if travel reimbursement has been slashed to either nothing or a very meager 2200 per year (back in 2004 to 2007, I received an annual travel allowance, i.e., deferred income, of 12,200 yuan, whether I traveled or not). Please be advised that none of the public or private schools in Haikou provide their foreign teachers with bona fide medical insurance (you will receive limited accidental injury insurance only... although you will often be disingenuously informed that you will receive "medical insurance").

Sanya, End of the World A landmark rock in Sanya, known as the "End of the World"

For reasons that none of us could accurately ascertain, all university employees on Hainan Island are paid late: up to three weeks late, each and every month. In the three years that I worked for Hainan University, I can count the number of times I was paid promptly on one hand. This is not specific to Hainan University but appears to be true for all foreign teachers at any university on Hainan Island. We vaguely learned that the problem has something to do with the way monies are allocated to the province by Beijing and then subsequently distributed by the appropriate office in Haikou, but this is only a guess. You will get paid every month, you just won't know exactly when that is. That never bothered me because I always knew I would eventually be paid, but it drives many foreign teachers crazy.

Aside from the universities, there are numerous public kindergartens as well as many primary and secondary schools that hire foreign English teachers but they rarely advertise, so, unfortunately, you have to already be in Haikou to learn about them.

The situation with private language schools isn't much better. There are probably no more than two or three sustainable schools in Haikou with various staffing, management, and educational problems depending on the school (from the vantage point of the foreign English teacher). Contracts and professional arrangements don't seem to have very much meaning and are changed at the spur of the moment whenever it suits the needs of the owners. Unfortunately—such that they are businesses first and schools second—private English language schools in mainland China are not the best professional vehicles for serious Western educators and Haikou is no exception.

Aside from this limited number of private language schools, there are several local recruiters and agents, both Chinese and Western, who will occasionally approach a foreign teacher with a proposal for a short-term teaching assignment with compensation that equals 50 to 67 percent of what the agent is receiving from the client.

Foreign teachers on Hainan Island are not there because the money and benefits are great, they are ubiquitously treated like royalty by their employers, or because the teaching positions are otherwise incredibly rewarding: They are in Haikou for the climate and a generally relaxed and stress-free way of life. These relatively few and demanding oral English teaching jobs at the limited number of universities and colleges that do exist are simply a means to an end. That's the long and short of it in a nutshell. Occasionally there will be opportunities to engage in private tutoring or to work as an extra in a TV commercial or film, and, once you've established yourself in Haikou, as alluded to above, you will learn of various temporary part-time teaching positions as well, paid at 100 yuan per hour irrespective of education and experience.

Unless you are able and willing to live very frugally, which means cooking for yourself and forgoing Western food and amenities, the average foreign teacher salary of 4300 yuan per month in Haikou may not be adequate, even with free housing. If you plan on shopping at the aforementioned Western grocery store, running your air conditioners freely during the hotter months, and maintaining something resembling a Western middle-class existence, you will need between 5,000 to 6,000 yuan per month to cover your expenses. Just about every foreign university teacher in Haikou I know of moonlights to varying degrees. In order to justify the relatively low salaries, recruiters and foreign affair officers will tell you how "cheap" everything is in Haikou and how the average salary for a local resident is only 1,000 yuan. In reality, I didn't find everything to be so cheap, I wasn't willing to subsist mostly on rice and vegetables or eat cheap Chinese food three times a day, and I ran my three air conditioners liberally during the summer months so I could be comfortable, a "luxury" that cost me between 1200 to 1500 yuan per month in electric bills, from May through October. For what it's worth, the salaries in Haikou are generally better than they are in Yunnan province, another highly desirable and sought after place to live in by foreigners. Of course, the cost of living is also somewhat higher in Haikou as well.

Nevertheless, and despite the absence of rewarding and well-paying teaching positions, most of the foreigners who are currently in Haikou have actually been there for years—as if they have become a permanent part of Hainan Island's ancient relics—because they love living on Hainan Island. The universities (as well as other employers) know this so, year after year, they are able to successfully extract increasingly more work for less money out of the few foreign teachers who just don't want to leave or, conversely, are dying to move down. It's really that simple. The truth is, I left Hainan University after three years because I grew tired of fighting every year to hold onto the same conditions I had received the previous year—and they were very happy with the quality of my work.

Truth be told, Hainan Island is ideal for foreigners who are looking to retire, not for foreign teachers who are looking to build a career. It is highly unlikely that a career educator with an advanced degree will find a professionally-rewarding position in Haikou, nor would he or she be in the company of a comparable peer group. Having just written that, it might be an appealing place for couples to seek employment because two can live almost as cheaply as one and 9,000 to 10,000 yuan per month represents a very comfortable upper-middle class family income in Haikou—assuming one is willing to trade professional satisfaction for a laid-back tropical island lifestyle.

List of Universities and Colleges on Hainan Island That Hire Foreign English Teachers, March 2009

The following list of schools was gleaned off the Internet and is provided here for your convenience until a more thorough list can be compiled (I've asked a couple of friends of mine in Haikou to track down the complete contact information for every school listed below). Links to websites are provided although several do not have English versions (or, more commonly, have incomplete English versions) and may not even be working properly.

When seeking employment in Haikou, avoid both Chinese and especially Western recruiters and agents altogether: They are completely unnecessary and will deliberately attempt to steer you away from other, perhaps better, positions. Generally speaking, the two major universities listed in first and second positions below are considered the best university positions in Haikou to have because the students, as a rule, are among the brightest and most motivated in Haikou with the most developed English language skills. Year after year, students who win the provincial English speaking contests and compete in the national contest in Beijing are overrepresented by those two universities.

Aside from teaching oral English, teachers with advanced degrees in the natural sciences or healthcare professions might want to consider applying to the Hainan Medical College as they have a growing number of foreign medical students from India who must be taught in English. Nevertheless and unfortunately, they will initially try to flatter and cajole you into agreeing to the same workload and salary established for foreign oral English teachers but if they are desperate, you will be able to successfully negotiate a lower workload and a better salary with them, but only if they are desperate: Otherwise, they'll just find any Chinese science teacher with minimal English language skills to teach those classes (and I know this from personal experience).

Updated July 19, 2011


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