Disclaimer: Opinions are mine.

‘South China Sea’ and ‘Giant clams’ are possibly two key phrases that have been connected on many occasions in just 2016 alone. Some of you may have read how the widespread poaching of giant clam shells in the South China Sea caused the wipeout and massive destruction of reefs.

Almost exactly one year ago, on 30 November 2016, the Hainan Province had decided to amend their existing ‘Republic of China Marine Environment Protection Act’ and the ‘Republic of China Wild Animal Protection Act’ to include both coral reefs and giant clams. This also meant a province-wide ban on the sale of corals and giant clams beginning on 1 January 2017. Although ground observations pointed out that the sale of giant clams has always been illegal with weak enforcement.

Beyond the borders of Hainan Province, authorities on mainland China have intercepted a shipment of giant clam products, reported in September 2017. The brief article pointed out that ‘giant clams listed as a Class I state-protected animal in China’ – also learning that the pandas are listed on this same category! What a vast difference in ‘protection levels’ between them!

My interest in this subject matter began when my colleagues from the Centre for International Law (NUS) invited me to discuss about topographic features of South China Sea (i.e. mapping of reefs). I began to do some research on my own about the shells and industry, with the help of my senior mentors such as Professor Ed Gomez.

There were plenty of information from both the English- and Chinese-based media, and I saw a problem. I realised that the majority of readers have formed a (very) negative image of the Chinese and blamed them for what happened in the South China Sea and the giant clams. Lucky for me, I can read English and Chinese (yes, in Singapore, we learn two languages as kids!), my colleague and I read lengthy forum posts on how there were many Chinese people (and scientists) who were equally outraged by what was done in the South China Sea and the giant clams.

And so, I decided to make my way to see the famous ‘giant clam’ village for myself. This trip would not have been possible if it were not for my gung-ho collaborator and guide. What you will see here on is my photo-essay of the two-day trip in August 2016 to Tanmen Fishing Port on Hainan Island, just a few months before the announcement of the sale ban. [P.S: I did felt like a detective snooping around! 😛 ]

This is my story of the giant clams in the South China Sea…

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This simple monument marks the entrance to the Tanmen Centre Fishing Port.

The weather was dry and warm. Then again, Hainan’s weather does not get very cold even during winter season. My companion and I arrived in Boao (博鳌镇), which is approximately 10 km to our intended destination – Tanmen (谭门镇). I remembered feeling very nervous and jumpy because we met with difficulties in getting transport into the town, and we were constantly being ‘cheated’ of our fares. I remembered also feeling excited at the prospects of what I would see first-hand in this town.

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A traditional fishing town, this is the fishing vessel used for long-range fishing in the South China Sea. The light bulbs on the second deck are iconic features of these vessels. This vessel specifically flies the Chinese Flag State.

Tanmen fishing port is the largest fishing port on Hainan Island, as rated by China’s National Agriculture Bureau. It is also a distribution centre of marine products in Hainan. As we walked along the pavement next to the mouth of the sea, we saw the fishing boats lining the port – no signs of fishing. I later found out that there is a mandatory annual fishing ban between April/May to October in the South China Sea to allow for recovery of fish stocks. The fishermen would go fishing in the South China Sea, which is a very long way from home. Often, they would have to live on their boat for almost a month long before returning home with their catch.

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Photographs here depicting the old looks of Tanmen Bay, which includes fishing and aquaculture-like facilities.

Flabbergasted is a word that I would not use lightly but it is appropriate for what I am about to describe. We saw streets after streets of shops filled with nothing but handicrafts made of giant clam shells. It was said that the rise of the giant clam handicraft industry also saw the number of retailers increased from 15 in 2012 to a whooping 460 in 2015. By 2015, this industry was supporting nearly 100,000 people, according to estimates.

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Today, the town has transformed into a shopping district with consecutive shops selling giant clam shell handicrafts and jewelry.

We popped into a few retailers and began to converse with them about the industry – how and when they had started their businesses, and to hear pride in their voices when talking about these Hainan giant clams. It was like the ‘gold rush’, only that this was a ‘clam rush’. 🙂 As I was browsing their products, I was also admiring the craftsmanship that was put into each item. Many of these products reflect the strong and rich history of Chinese cultures, and are symbols of wealth, health, luck, and prosperity. They are also attractive as display ornaments.

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Retailers taking different marketing approach to attract clients. The text says, in brief, that giant clams, a precious organic gem, are considered one of the seven treasures in the Buddhist scriptures ‘Jin Gang Jing’. It has calming powers, and also used for praying purposes.
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Intricate carvings that still resemble the giant clam shells, portraying typical icons of religion (L) or scenes from ancient China (R).
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Giant clam shells are ‘graded’ based on its location, colours, and translucency. The ‘blood-red giant clam’ (top L) was most valuable, followed by purple, orange, dull green, yellow, and white. Buddhist prayer 108-beads (top R) and large carvings (bottom) are examples of handicrafts.
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Retailers also show their prized craftsmanship that are not for sale, but demonstrates the quality of their products. Here shows the Goddess of Mercy that won the Silver Prize for China’s Jade Stone Carving Award with certification.
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The 18 Arhats (十八罗汉) depicted in carvings on giant clam shells were intricate, exquisite and expensive. They are the original followers of Buddha, and are charged to protect the Buddhist faith. In China, the 18 arhats are a popular subject in Buddhist art.
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Various animal lucky charms, from Arowana fish and frogs to imitating elephant ivory tusks. All symbols are iconic to the Chinese culture and beliefs of affluence and luck.
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Top: Apart from the Tridacna species of giant clams, I also found Hippopus species on display. Bottom: The lowest grade and quality of giant clam shells (white and opaque) are rapidly transformed into beads for wholesale distribution. The room was filled to the brim with bags and bags of threaded beads waiting for buyers.
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Spying the cabinets, I found coral skeletons also being used to make pendants. It’s hard not to miss the unique corallite shape. Retailer says that they are not as popular as those made from giant clams.
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Business appeared slow. This shop was closed for holiday, and used cardboards to cover their products. I was unsure why the need to cover their products, but heard that authorities were slowly clamping down on businesses.
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Jack of all trades – these retailers selling bicycle parts and strings of beads made from giant clam shells.
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Like breadcrumbs, we followed the trail of broken beads along the beach. It was clear that these beads did not make the cut to be put on the shelves.

By the fourth retailer, I was already exhausted. The shops began to look very similar to each other. The shops were selling very similar items. My companion and I then wandered off the fancy streets and into the housing areas. There, something caught my eye – the trails of broken white beads. As I followed them like breadcrumbs, they led me to a huge puddle of them laying abandoned. Eventually, we were standing in front of a warehouse that was surrounded by piles of fossilised giant clam shells. They were covered with sheets, seemingly trying to hide from view. We were shortly ‘chased away’ by the foreman…

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The beads led us to this massive stockpile of yet-to-be processed giant clam shells that appear to stretch for forever.
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Capturing behind the scenes in a small processing factory.
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Given the hardness of these shells, I found an angle grinder used to cut them into smaller pieces for carving and moulding.

To have this opportunity to speak and meet the people driving the industry was insightful for me. Admittedly, the methods used to harvest these raw materials was harmful and destructive to the environment in the South China Sea, but the industry became an important element supporting the livelihoods of people living in Tanmen. This is a conservation dilemma…

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A crafts master shared with me that he only carves white cabbages (白菜), which symbolises wealth and prosperity.
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Not just hand-made, some of the items were created using computerised printing. It reminded me of the 3D printer.
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The living were not spared. I found the shells of freshly poached giant clams and hard corals hidden in a dark room. The clean inner surfaces of shells and lacking thickness suggest that they were recently dead. In most instances, the fossilised giant clam shells rarely come intact and with complete paired shell valves.

From a scientific point of view, it was a good opportunity to have been on the ground and surveying the industry. It was exciting to pose as a potential buyer and talk to the locals to find out more about the products and what made them so proud of their giant clams. It was sad to see the vast numbers of giant clam shells on the streets and in the factories. It was interesting to observe these raw materials first-hand and how they were transformed into beautiful pieces of articles.

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The limited source of ‘blood-red’ giant clam makes them highly sought-after and valuable to retailers and buyers. 
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Trapped Hippopus spp. shells in crates.
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We wandered into a medium-sized factory and stumbled upon even more piles of raw materials: fossilised giant clam shells. I can only imagine the sheer number of giant clams that once lived in the South China Sea that were first harvested as food and now for their shells.
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These shells were dredged up from the bottom of seabed and coral reefs in the South China Sea. In the process, this destroyed large areas of coral reefs.
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Semi-processed shells comprising at least four species of giant clams: Hippopus hippopus, Hippopus porcellanus, Tridacna derasa, and Tridacna gigas.
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Corals under cover.
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An advertisement board sharing the cultural value of giant clams. A unique aspect was the comparison with western culture using the Birth of Venus.
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The China’s president famous visit to Tanmen Port in 2013 that was said to have spurred the fishing exploits to the South China Sea.

This is the first part of my insights of the industry. Stay tune for Part 2 of my story that will elaborate why these giant clam shells are significant in the Chinese cultures, the value and quality of giant clam-based products, and interview bits and blobs with the local crafts masters and shop owners.

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