Toh-tally awesome: A.S. Toh, 74, with Du Zhen, 83, his only surviving cousin from his ancestral village of Xin Sheng in Fujian province, China. The village has 500 Tohs and they are all related.
During the last century’s Cold War, American spy satellites detected structures in southern China’s Fujian province which they mistook for missile silos. But their fears were unfounded when they realised that the structures were merely unique communal dwellings (tulou) in the mountainous regions bordering Fujian and Guangdong in southern China.
Intrigued by these architectural marvels, retired engineer A.S. Toh decided to indulge his adventurous streak and headed to Fujian province in south-eastern China to explore the Hakka earthen buildings or tulou. Toh brought along his wife, Lucy, and they visited the Chuxi, Hongkeng, Gaobei, Taxia, Xiaban and Tianluokeng tulou and stayed in a few of them.
It was like stepping back in time as the couple stood in awe inside these ancient structures which used to house up to 80 families in each tulou. The earth walls can be as thick as 1.8m and the only entrance is a wooden door which is 10-13cm thick and reinforced with an outer shell of iron plate.
Built between the 12th and 20th centuries, these structures have withstood the test of time. Today more than 35,000 tulou can be found in southern China. Many of these dwellings in Fujian are inhabited by the Hakkas and two have been converted into museums. In 2008, 46 were listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Yudelou tulou in Taxia village was built in 1802.
Toh, 74, shares his awe-inspiring visit to the tulou in Fujian in his recently launched book, Adventure Travel & Recreation, Vol 1 – Off The Beaten Track.
The Chuxi cluster, which consists of five large circular and 10 rectangular tulou, opened its doors to tourists in 2004. Toh and his wife visited the three main circular buildings; the most significant one, Jiqinglou, is now a museum.
“Jiqinglou is over 600 years old. It is the oldest tulou in Yongding, and consists of two concentric rings. The outer ring is four storeys high and the second ring is a one-storey building. The main structure has 72 stairs which divide the building into 72 units. Amazingly, no iron nails were used in the construction of the tulou,” said Toh.
Toh and his wife also visited the Honkeng cluster, the most concentrated of all tulou clusters in Fujian. About 100 tulou of various shapes and sizes line both sides of a river.
Their next stop was the Gaobei cluster, which includes Chenqilou or “the king of tulou” built in 1709. It is a massive round tulou with four concentric rings surrounding an ancestral hall at the centre.
Wuyunlou tulou, which is over 500 years old, is in a dilapidated condition; a major part of its outer wall is supported by a massive scaffolding.
History tells us that the Hakkas were originally from northern China. After the fall of the Song Dynasty, they were forced to leave their homes and moved south in search of peace and wealth.
The Chuxi cluster in Yongding county comprises five large circular tulou and 10 rectangular ones.
These communal folks finally settled down in the high mountain ranges of south-western Fujian. The clansmen wanted to live together to protect their community. This led the ingenious ones among them to build large communal dwellings known as the Hakka tulou, using natural resources which were readily available.
The houses were built without the use of any iron nails.
The tulou have withstood the ravages of time over the past few centuries.
Today, the older folks can still be found in these dwellings, though the younger generations have moved out to work in the cities.
“The foundation of a tulou is laid with large stones and the gaps are packed with smaller stones. The main structure is a very thick outer wall formed by compacting earth, sandstone and lime,” explained Toh. The wall is reinforced with split bamboo canes, and the stairs, flooring, doors and windows are made of wood.
The tulou is well-lit, well-ventilated, windproof and even earthquake-proof. It is warm in winter and cool in summer. The first and second floors have gun ports for defence, purportedly against bandits.
“All rooms are of the same size,” said Toh. “The ground floor of each unit serves as the kitchen and dining area. The second floor is for storage of grains and foodstuff, while the upper floors are living quarters. With ample stocks of grain, a tulou can be self-sufficient for a long time. It is effectively a fortified village!”
Within a tulou, there is a main courtyard where livestock is reared. A well in the courtyard provides water for drinking and washing. Drainage is a complex system. The courtyard, halls, staircases and verandahs are common public areas.
As Toh and Lucy stood in the open space, soaking in the fleeting sunlight and marvelling at the architectural splendour laid out before them, they could almost hear the echoes of generations past reverberating through the courtyard.
Toh and Lucy are not the only ones who are awed by these historical landmarks.
Last October, retirees Goh Ching Chin and her husband, Ho Chee Eng, both in their mid-70s, visited the tulou in Fujian. Ho, a former lecturer, even made a Chinese New Year greeting card with a photograph of their visit to a Hakka tulou.
They visited the famous Tianluokeng cluster which consists of a square earth building surrounded by three round and one oval-shaped earth buildings.
Near Yongding, tourists can stay overnight to experience life in a tulou and sample Hakka cuisine. Tea, jade and other trinkets were common souvenirs sold there.
“I bought various types of quality Chinese tea,” said Goh.
“The tulou are a great tourist attraction. They are tourist-friendly and it’s amazing to see these buildings which have been around for centuries,” said Ho.
Like Goh, Toh had made an earlier trip to visit his ancestral village which lies about 50km from Quanzhou city in Fujian province.
“The isolated village can be accessed by a bike or village taxi. It has about 500 Tohs and they are all related,” said Toh.
His ancestral home, a single-storey stone/brick building, was built more than a century ago by his grandfather and extended to its present size to accommodate his seven children. Toh met Du Zhen, 83, his only surviving cousin in the village. Du Zhen has five sons.
“Du Zhen came to Malaya in his early teens and returned to the village in the mid-1950s when he was 26,” said Toh.
Goh also recalled her visit to her parents’ ancestral village in Fujian last year.
“My father came to Malaya with an uncle when he was seven years old. He was an orphan.
‘We didn’t expect to find my father’s house but I went all out to look for it, since we had travelled so far,” said Goh.
Fortunately, they met a village chief who shed some light on the family’s whereabouts, and Goh met up with her second cousin (a farmer) and his wife, and another second cousin, a nurse, and her husband, an official in the town council.
“We were warmly received and treated to a 16-course reunion dinner,” Goh reminisced. She also found out that she belonged to the 27th generation of Hakkas who fled northern China and settled in Yongding county in the south-west of Fujian province.
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