Children Are Just God’s Way of Telling You to Get Out of the Smoke

Fitter Daddy

Fat Daddy's Fit Daddy

“So the Hieronymus Bosch bus headed out of Kesey’s place with the destination sign in front reading ‘Furthur’….” Tom Wolfe

The turning point for Sheldon Habiger, one of the founding partners of Element Fresh, came on a damp January day in Shanghai, 2006.

After eight years in Shanghai, and two weeks before the start of the ear-splitting pyrotechnics to welcome the Year of the Dog, Sheldon watched his young son – suffering from asthma and allergies and intermittently deaf – walk a few short steps and then stop in exhaustion.

Enough was enough. “We have to leave,” Sheldon said to his wife, Linda. “We just have to go.”

It is a point that many sinophiles (ourselves included) are reaching during their time in China. After years spent working hard and playing hard in China’s big cities, learning Mandarin and accumulating valuable China experience, the arrival of children provides a sudden and often stark demonstration of the need to live in a less polluted environment.

It presents a person with some difficult choices.

“My son was at the point where he was sick 70-80 percent of the time,” explains Sheldon. “He had asthma and allergies really bad and I knew what that was like. I knew what was causing it was the pollution.

“When you have a child that’s sick 70-80 percent of the time your life is hell. It’s no fun. He couldn’t walk five feet. He couldn’t breathe.”

But where to go? As with most Sino-foreign couples, passport and visa issues were restricting their choices. Sheldon is a US citizen and Linda is Shanghainese with a Chinese passport.

The obvious choice was to stay in China somewhere. It needed to be warm because they knew that their son’s health deteriorated in the cold. “And the key was no pollution,” said Sheldon. “You know very well that anywhere on the mainland just doesn’t fit that criterion.”

Despite having never been to Hainan, Sheldon, Linda and their young son and daughter packed up their bags and moved to Sanya just after Chinese New Year, 2006.

Fat Daddys

Fat Daddy's: Element Fresh Air

The rest, as they say, is history. Sheldon and Linda launched a Thai restaurant on the beachfront in Sanya Bay. Via lost chefs and visa issues, the restaurant transmogrified into Fat Daddy’s, an American bar and diner that is rapidly becoming a local institution.

And living in one of the very few places in China with clean air and blue skies, they watched their son’s health gradually improve and his hearing return.

It is a story that is increasingly familiar to the small, but growing, foreign community in Sanya. For increasing numbers of people, this sunny city at the very southern tip of Hainan Island is one of the very few places in China that provides a satisfactory answer to the question, “Where next?”

For somebody, for example, who came to China in the nineties, spent years learning Mandarin, probably has a local spouse and Mandarin-speaking children and enjoys China’s mad energy and contradictions as much as its opportunities, the prospect of having to leave the country for the sake of the children can be quite a jolt.

Sanya provides a pollution-free opportunity to continue the ride, to stay on the bus, to take things further.

Although the health and education systems in Sanya are extremely basic, increasing numbers of foreigners are finding ways of coping with this. Sheldon himself is about to launch a small school for foreign children aged 6 to 11.

“It’s like the movie,” he says. “If you build it, they will come.”

And would he ever consider moving back to Shanghai? “No,” he says. “You couldn’t pay me enough to make me go back.”

“Shanghai is an amazing city, but it’s very one dimensional…. You work hard you play hard. I would not want to ever have a family there,” he says.

Fat Daddy’s serves pizzas, burgers, ribs, salads, smoothies, and the old Element Fresh staple, pumpkin soup.
You’ll find it at:
No.1 Villa, Lan Hai Hua Yuan,
Sanya Wan Lu, Sanya
Tel: 0898 88391046

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