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Ten Days in China

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ten Days in China: The 9th International Mango Symposium, Sanya, Hainan, China.

For the Love of Mangos - China

Senior Curator of Tropical Fruit Richard J. Campbell travels to China for the 9thInternational Mango Symposium in the tropical paradise of Hainan Island, China. Follow his adventures as he searches for the latest information on growing mangos

I find myself in China for the 9th International Mango Symposium in the tropical paradise of Hainan Island, China. I revisit China after a decade and much progress I am sure. China is now a major player in the world of mangos (as well as everything else) and they are eager to show to the west their version of the King of Fruit. So, welcome to the world of the Chinese mango and Sanya, where the motto stands clear and proud, “Mangos for everyone, everyday and from everywhere.” 

Hainan Island is busy with growth, and construction is everywhere to be seen. Recently designated as a major tourist destination by the Chinese government, the island builds and plants and awaits the world’s arrival.

Mangos are the focus of my visit and the banners tell the whole story. We are welcomed with open arms to see the mangos. The hotel and hot springs are brand new and specially built for just this occasion, the arrival of the world’s mango experts. Papers are presented and questions asked. Meetings are held both formally and informally within the meeting halls, the eateries and the orchards themselves.

I busy myself with presentations and discussions and of course the consumption of mangos. Mangos are on the menu at every break and meal. The mangos are good. We have ‘Tainung 1’ and ‘Gui Fei’ at most breaks and an occasional ‘Jin Huang’. Many of the varieties of China come from Taiwan and also from Thailand.  As commercial fruit go they are good and I eagerly consume them at each break.

So we lecture, we listen and we eat mangos and soon it will be off to the field.

Our hotel sits squarely in the middle of a state mango farm. For the field visit we took a short bus trip to the orchards and the newly built technology center. The mango trees are small and highly managed – and this is to put it mildly. Many of the orchard blocks actually have no leaves. The harvest has passed and the trees have been pruned to remove all of the small shoots - only in China.

 Every one of the foreign visitors is thinking the same – this management is unsustainable. However, when put in terms of modern China it really does make sense. With this system there is work to do and employment for the people. We have to remember where we are and what the ultimate objectives are.

Troubling to me is the wide and heavy use of chemical inputs within the orchards. Growth regulators are used to slow growth and concentrate flowering and then more chemicals are used to push the trees and fruit on to harvest. Ingenious perhaps but one has to wonder about the sustainability of this method. The trees in the orchard look “tired” and frankly not happy at all. There are many ways to grow mangos and this one is a bit harsh in my eyes.

I continue to evaluate the local mango varieties that were bought from the markets of Sanya. The mangos were not cheap, coming from a sea-side street market in a tourist district of the city near the South China Sea. Chinese and Russian hang in the air. This is a major tourist destination for Russia and there are signs, banners and offers designed just for the vacationing couple or family.

I think actually that the street vendors saw me coming, so to speak. I did not negotiate the price – a fact that they no doubt took as an invitation to overcharge me. It is difficult for me to haggle over a mango. If it was an avocado or a banana that would be different, but this is the mango and the fruit were indeed beautiful.

We went to the sea’s edge and sat a while and watched the people go by. Everyone is most friendly and pleasant and I got to practice my Chinese. I tried to communicate with the vendors with the variety names of the mangos, but alas, here in China pronunciation is everything.

We went back to the conference to learn more about the mango and to share of course our new experiences.

Back in the conference we discussed the various aspects of mango culture and what was seen in the field. The production system is quite homogenous across the entire island. The spacing was 6X3m or thereabouts and the trees were maintained quite short to afford the Chinese the opportunity to grow mangos with exceptional external quality. The trees are highly accessible and each fruit can be hand-picked for optimal maintenance of quality. The fruit in the island markets bear this out. They are pretty. Unfortunately, as I evaluated the fruit that I purchased early on in the week I found that the local growers are harvesting prematurely. The resultant mangos are compromised in flavor and have a propensity for stem-end rots.


The Chinese growers on Hainan Island are concentrating mostly on Taiwanese varieties. These are good mangos, albeit mild in flavor. ‘Tainung 1’, ‘Gui Fei’, ‘Jin Huang’ and ‘Nang Glang Wang’ dominate the markets and the field. I know that on the mainland there are still many plantings of seedling mangos and Chinese selections, but here on Hainan the wave of the future rests with Taiwan varieties and western production systems. Their advantage is the early mango market on the Chinese mainland. Hence, they push their bloom earlier with growth regulators and fetch a high price.


There is interest in Florida varieties and the promise of greater yields. Later on we see ‘Keitt’, ‘Edward’, ‘Valencia Pride’ and ‘Haden’ in the markets, but these mangos are grown on a limited scale only. The overwhelming problem evident throughout the island is the production of seedless fruit that do not size up properly. And, if you remove one of the bags from the fruit for just a moment or two the fruit flies will move in.


As the conference comes to a close I am left with a great respect for our hosts and their honest desire to please the foreign visitor. China is a different experience for most in the west and this is reflected in the poor attendance by growers and researchers from the west. It is a shame that many did not come, for it is necessary to see mango production first hand to truly understand a country and China will one day be a huge market for mango consumption.  

And so it is on to the north of the island for Yair Aron of Martex (Puerto Rico), Denis Roe of Birdwood Nursery (Australia) and Bhaskar Savani of Savani Farms (India) and me. We are taken by Dr. Li Wen of Haikou University and Dr. Gao Ai Ping of the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Sciences. We search for mango knowledge and a better understanding of Hainan.


We head north along the eastern shore of Hainan Island to Haikou, keeping the South China Sea to our east. On the way we stop off at several mango orchards. The field practices are similar to those that we saw previously, complete with the heavy use of growth regulators and severe pruning. The varieties are ‘Tainung 1’, ‘Jin Huang’ and ‘Gui Fei’ and also a good number of ‘Nang Glang Wang’. This is the mango that we call ‘Ivory’ in Florida. As for the Taiwanese varieties they are monoembryonic and look to have at least some anthracnose tolerance. As we saw earlier on Hainan there is a severe problem with seedless fruit that do not size up normally. These fruit are picked, but they do not have an equal value to normal-sized fruit.

We stopped at several orchards and a small collection center/wholesale market in the mango area. Here the small growers were bringing in their harvests. Middlemen would then take the fruit to the markets of Hainan and the Chinese mainland. There apparently is a set price for specific sizes and quality, so it is not exactly a “free-market” of the west, but it is close. The people of the market were all interested in us and of course they wished to sell us mangos. The quality here was not that good, but the prices were cheap.

We drove north through rice, rubber and betel palm plantations (Areca catechu). The older Chinese still are partial to betel palm, although we saw only limited use on Hainan. The fruit of this palm mixed with spices and chewed, much like tobacco. This habit results in plenty of spitting and red-staining of sidewalks. It is not the most civilized habit that I have ever seen. Overall it was a productive and orderly countryside, but very little in the way of wild animals (including insects, amphibians, birds, etc). I worry that the Chinese youth will grow up knowing even less than Europeans or Americans about the wild world.   

As we neared Haikou city on the north coast of Hainan the landscape changed. The soils were now deep, red and volcanic and there was sugar cane and cassava. Pineapple, black pepper and many jackfruit trees now graced the landscape. This was a more familiar landscape for me and I enjoyed watching the small growers work the fields. The jackfruit were used as windbreaks around the fields and there were nice quality fruit sold whole along the roads.

We visited an experiment station to see research on lychee and jackfruit and many “new” fruit for the Chinese. There were caimito and carambola, as well as Indian Jujube. It was the lychee, however, that received the greatest attention. This station was interesting and we spent quite a bit of time looking at the collections.

We went on the Haikou City and ate in a typical restaurant with Dr Song Xi Qiang of the Hainan University. The food was excellent, as was all of our food on this trip. I found the food of Hainan Island to be an absolute treat. Delicious and plentiful, I will need to go on a long and intense diet to forget my experience here in Hainan.

This was Bhaskar’s last night with us, as he had to return to Sanya before dawn to catch a flight for Hong Kong and back to the world.

We took off from the hotel and went to the Hainan University to see some of their work in preparing the future plant scientists of China. The department is well-equipped and the professors are eager for increased collaboration with the west. The university campus sits on an island just off shore from Haikou and is quite scenic. There are over 30,000 students currently.

We then went to the whole sale market. There are actually 2 markets, A and B, separated by a road. The idea is to facilitate the movement of fruits and vegetables to their respective destinations within Hainan Island and on the mainland. Hainan is not connected with the mainland, but it has a reliable ferry for cars, trucks and even a ferry to carry the passenger trains that head north.

This was an outstanding market. The fruits were as good a quality as one is likely to find anywhere. There was also a good diversity. There were many exotic tropical fruit, temperate fruit, and of course mangos. The mangos in this market were the most diverse that we had encountered. There were ‘Tainung 1’, but there were also ‘R2E2’ from Australia, ‘Ivory’ from Thailand, ‘Keitt’, ‘Haden’, ‘Valencia Pride’ and even a few boxes of ‘Edward’. As everyone knows the ‘Edward’ is a personal favorite. We paid over a dollar and a half for a single fruit and I took it home with me. I didn’t get to eat it until the next day, but it was worth the wait.

There were loquats, dragon fruit, atemoya, durian and so much more to see. The presentation in the market was simply exceptional. This was worth the visit. The Chinese really have a good quality mango on the market. After I finally got to eat all the fruit I had purchased, I must declare that it is a crying shame that we often cannot get good mangos in our markets. In Hainan you most certainly can. 

We came back down the west coast of Hainan Island and passed through good agriculture land all the way to Dangzhou and the Chinese Academy of Tropical Agricultural Science. Here there was a large experiment station and research institute dedicated to fruit and ornamentals. They had good resources and we looked around. We were pressed for time and had to leave again for Sanya.


Before pressing on we visited the variety collection. They had 3 trees each of many varieties. Florida was the source of many of these varieties. They were highly protective of their collection, which I found a shame. We at Fairchild are open to everyone for genetic resources, except for a small number of proprietary varieties of specific breeding programs and of our own. When you see a collection based so strongly in material from Florida it is simply a shame to see a closed door policy.

The collection was well-cared for, but had not bloomed well this season. The trees were not treated with growth regulators and they were quite vigorous. The vegetative growth was simply too much. The western route back to Sanya was a bit worse in terms of a road. There was considerable more mango and some lychee along the way, as well as agronomic crops.

As we approached Sanya from the west we came along the beach and the Sanya version of Miami Beach. It was nice. Now, call me biased, but Miami Beach it was not. I don’t mean to be harsh, but there is only one Miami Beach.

We rested and took photographs the next day. I said goodbye to my friends, old and new and returned to the airport with a new perspective of mango and China. The country has come a long way. It is nothing like I saw in 2000. They are trying, adapting and have arrived in many ways. The mango industry in particular faces a number of challenges. The overuse of chemicals must be addressed, as well as the selection of new varieties, but China is a real force in mango. They are also building a strong base of mango consumption by providing their people with a quality mango experience. There are some 1.4 billion people in China and their potential consumption is impressive.

The Chinese people value the mango, they really do. Their eyes light up when you mention the fruit. I hope they do not lose this affection for the mango on their road to modernization. Laboratories and expensive machines will not build their market nearly as well as a quality fruit. I look forward to observing and participating in their future.





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