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Hundreds of thousands of elderly now flee northern China’s cold and smog to Sanya, a southern beach town that is among the country’s most popular destinations for a new generation of snowbirds.Nathan Vanderklippe/The Globe and Mail

Five or 10 years ago, Zhao Xiaobo might have celebrated Chinese New Year by eating with his parents in Nanchong, his hometown in China's south-central Sichuan province.

This year, he instead flew 1,400 kilometres south with his wife and two young children to Sanya, a pretty beach town on Hainan, a tropical island that is China's southernmost province. They came to join his in-laws, who are spending the winter there as part of a growing generation of snowbirds fleeing northern China's cold and winter smog.

On a recent weekday morning, the temperature in Mr. Zhao's hometown was barely above freezing. In Sanya, it was shorts weather on the beach, as his children – four-year-old Chenxi and one-year-old Haocheng – played in the sand, building and busting sand castles as waves rolled in behind them.

Joining in the laughter was Yong Guohua, his 61-year-old mother-in-law. She was eager to show off Haocheng's shaky new steps on the beach. At home, bundled against the cold, he could barely get himself up. Here, "he can already walk now," she said. "I'm so happy."

It's anything but a traditional Chinese New Year's, or spring festival as it's now often called. But in China, middle-class wealth and an ever-greater ability to travel is reshaping traditions, even on the national calendar's most important days.

"As long as the whole family are together, it makes no difference if we spend spring festival in our hometown or in Sanya," said Mr. Zhao, a young surgeon.

China's New Year's holiday famously unleashes a migration unparalleled anywhere else. Billions board planes, trains, cars and motorcycles to head home for a holiday so important, families have traditionally left an empty chair for those who can't make it.

Increasingly, however, hundreds of thousands will skip home for the sunshine, many of them coming to Hainan, which is home to a growing flock of houniao, the Chinese term for snowbird that translates roughly to "climate bird." Hainan is one-fifth the size of Florida, but in barely a decade, it has seen its houniao grow to some 450,000 houniao, not far off the total number of Canadians who winter in the Sunshine State.

"For northern China's elderly, over-wintering on Hainan has become a new fashion," the state-run China News Service reported recently.

'China's Hawaii'

Hainan today looks like nothing so much as Florida with Chinese characteristics, with the elderly strolling down sidewalks and dancing on public squares while out-of-town cars roll down streets. Instead of Ontario and Wisconsin, they bear licence plates from Tibet and Heilongjiang, the northern province that borders Russia.

Over Chinese New Year, as family members flock to join their snowbird families, Sanya Phoenix Airport will see some 620,000 people a day – a number that is rising nearly twice as fast as the Chinese average for the holiday season.

At Zheng Yanli's home, 15 family members will come together, 3,500 kilometres away from their home in Harbin, the Chinese city famed for its ice sculptures and temperatures that can plunge to minus-30C. Between days spent seaside and poolside, they will gather to write chunlian and duilian, couplets traditionally hung beside doors. And they will gorge on a feast of dumplings.

It's a lot like Chinese New Year might be at home, except "here there's more seafood" and his grandkids are happier, said Mr. Zheng, a 66-year-old who before retiring ran a construction and hotel management company that employed 1,000.

"At home they are layered up in so many clothes. It's such a pain," he said. "Here, the air is nice and so is the climate. And you only need a few clothes."

The idea that Chinese New Year could be celebrated on the beach is a relatively new one in a country that until recently hadn't thought much about the beaches at a place now sometimes called "China's Hawaii."

Since its annexation by China's Han dynasty in 111 BC, Hainan was first prized for its pearls, then for its isolation, which for centuries made it a preferred place of exile for those banished from the imperial court. Smugglers and pirates profited from its seclusion, too, as did kings in what is now Vietnam, who occasionally counted it as part of their own territory. The Communists brought it under their rule in 1950 and their fondness for its "two blacks and two whites" – rubber, iron ore, sugar and salt – didn't include white sand, either.

But with an average annual temperature of 24C, Hainan had obvious appeal as a tourist destination – one of its beaches extends for 25 kilometres.

'Young at heart'

Western luxury hotels began opening about a decade ago, around the time Chinese noticed Hainan had gone largely unaffected by the SARS and bird-flu epidemics.

Rising awareness of the damage done by China's winter pollution has coincided with the swelling ranks of China's grey-haired population, as a generation born amid Mao's calls for a baby explosion reaches retirement age. Many have either themselves built comfortable lives, or have children flush enough to send their parents somewhere more comfortable and less smoggy.

In the main tourist centre of Sanya, locals say many apartment blocks are now three-quarters filled with snowbirds, who have benefited from modern conveniences and a supportive government. Online shops deliver favourite home food delicacies. Governments have allowed some to maintain social and health-care benefits in Hainan, where they can swipe a card and get service as if they were at home.

That frees them to spend days talking walks, playing table tennis and learning new hobbies at the local Old Persons' University.

"We have vocal art, calligraphy, fine art, computer and tai chi classes" said Ding Li, 62, a former doctor who is now one of the organizers at the school. "People here are old in age, but young at heart."

Their generation lived through the rationing and famine of the Great Leap Forward. Snowbird life is beyond anything they could have imagined.

"When we were in primary school, our textbooks had pictures of coconut trees from Hainan. But I never believed I could come here," said Li Shu Rong, a 72-year-old who is also from Harbin. She chuckles at the 50-degree temperature difference between the city where she grew up and her new winter home.

Some 20 members of her family will come to Sanya to celebrate Chinese New Year together, she said.

In some ways, there's nothing particularly radical about Chinese families gathering on the beach for the holiday. Chinese New Year "is not a place-oriented, but rather a family-oriented event," said Myron Cohen, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University who has written extensively about China. "So if the whole family goes to Hainan, that's fine and dandy."

Yet it comes as an increasingly urban and wealthy population rewrites traditions rooted in an agrarian past that is receding.

When the Communists came to power, they promoted a secularism that resulted in the decline of some rituals, such as Chinese New Year sacrifices to harvest gods.

And, in recent years, "some traditional courtesies have diminished or even disappeared," said Xiao Fang, who specializes in folk studies at Beijing Normal University. In cities, for instance, you no longer see people siting around the stove and praying for ancestors on the eve of the Spring Festival.

"In the past, too, younger generations had to kowtow in front of older generations. Now, in most places people only say 'Happy Spring Festival,' or even do it by WeChat," the smartphone messaging service.

Rising living standards have largely done away with the need to buy family members new New Year's clothes – and a large once-a-year feast is no longer the treat it once was, among families accustomed to big restaurant meals.

Even fireworks, long the mainstay of Chinese New Year celebrations, are becoming a thing of the past, as authorities ban them amid efforts to keep already-thick smog from worsening. It's been three years since Mr. Zhao, the doctor, has lit his own fireworks. He's not much bothered by it: Families now watch the colourful annual state-run New Year's Gala on TV.

"As time slowly moves forward," he said, "many customs are fading."

By the numbers

40 days Chinese New Year celebrations, which are also known as Spring Festival, run from Feb. 4 to March 15

2.807 billion people will be on the move (not including those taking buses and taxis), a 3.4-per-cent increase over 2014

This includes:

2.42 billion travel by road: a 2.5-per-cent increase

295 million travel by train: a 10-per-cent increase

47.5 million travel by air: an 8-per-cent increase

44.3 million travel over water: a 2-per-cent increase

488 million people were already on the move in the first seven days of the Spring Festival travel season this year

Source: Chinese Ministry of Transport