Discovery tour of Yongding Hakka earth houses by Barbara Koh

Updated: 2010-05-24
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Read more on: Barbara Koh   Fujian Tulou   Hakka   Xiamen   Yongding   Fujian   China   Deng Xiaoping   Lee Kuan Yew  
The Zhenchang tulou, or earthen building, has an inner worship hall surrounded by rings of residences.
FROM China's Fujian coast, it’s a grinding drive up narrow roads through villages built around exhausted coal mines to reach the remote mountains of Yongding. Morning mist clings to the slopes of dense trees and brush. Below, in a valley, rests an eerie collection of beige cylindrical structures, one as enormous as a football field.

This sci-fi scenery is peculiar to southern China and concentrated in Yongding County. The bizarre edifices, which the Chinese say foreign surveillance has, over the years, mistaken for missile silos and U.F.O.'s, are decades- and centuries-old and made of rammed earth. They are still homes to the Hakka, a Han Chinese nomadic group.

Getting there is an effort — from the closest airport, in Xiamen, a driver will take you to Yongding in three to four hours for about 1,500 yuan round trip, around $ 210 at 7.13 yuan to the dollar. The reward, however, is a tour of unvarnished rural China, one-of-a-kind grass-roots architecture and an ancient culture’s fading traditions.

The Hakka communal homes-cum-fortresses have lured foreign architects and anthropologists for the last 20 years and, more recently, a trickle of tourists seeking obscure corners of China and overseas Hakka seeking their roots. Noting this interest, China, more often known for demolishing historic structures than protecting them, has begun restoring the earthen houses and last year nominated them for World Heritage Site status. Unesco will consider the nomination this summer.

In the meantime, many Hakka residents are upgrading to modern housing and to jobs in the cities. They are less interested in the cultural value of their dwellings, which adds to the sense of urgency among those wishing to preserve, or see, remnants of China’s past.

The houses, mostly built between the 1300s and 1960s, were designed to deter outsiders and wild animals. Starting around A.D. 300, wars, famine and persecution drove Chinese in north and central China to flee southward. These migrants became known as “ke jia” or Hakka, meaning “the guest people,” by unwelcoming natives. Many Hakka prospered, including Deng Xiaoping, the engineer of present-day China’s market economy, and Singapore’s elder statesman, Lee Kuan Yew.

In southern Fujian, the Hakka settled in the mountains and created insular homesteads like the covered-wagon circles of America’s pioneers, with rooms facing an open-air common space.

Feng shui correct, the compounds have withstood bullets, fires, quakes and typhoons. They’re at least three stories tall, and their outer walls are three to five feet thick. The entrance is a wooden slab sheathed in iron. Windows are tiny and only on the upper floors. A well is inside; outhouses are outside. Most ingenious are the walls — a mixture of soil, lime, pebbles and wood chips held together by soupy glutinous rice and brown sugar, pounded into impregnability, giving the structures their name, "tulou," or "earthen building."

The Zhenchang tulou spans 260 feet and has two concentric circles of different heights that contain 250 rooms. In its center is a white and pink ancestral-worship hall. Red lanterns wave from the eaves, and several rooms have become souvenir shops. Livelier and more down-to-earth is Wenchang Lou, set amid terraced rice paddies. The cobblestone courtyard is a huge playpen for youngsters, hens and puppies. On a visit last August, I peeked into the living areas; one contained gray-haired players clattering mah-jongg tiles. A wobbly wooden staircase led to storage rooms on the second floor; on the third floor were bedrooms and hanging laundry. Wenchang's 30 families each owns a stack of rooms. They and the families in four tulou nearby all share one ancestor and surname, Huang.

Customs that have disappeared elsewhere in China linger here. The tulou have auspicious names (Wenchang means flourishing culture), and pasted on the doors are wishes for prosperity, health and harmony written in traditional characters on red paper. Several clans use current wall calendars with the anachronistic image of a rosy-cheeked Mao as "the red sun."

For the most part, the Hakka welcome visitors. Hospitality is a tradition, and at several tulou, I was invited to have tea.

Around 8 a.m., loudspeakers reminded the Huangs to clean up for an inspection by Unesco advisers. The government also ordered residents to shoo out their chickens and ducks, according to 60-year-old Huang Shungeng. World Heritage Site status is important, he said, but won't really affect him. (If it means the poultry are permanent exiles, though, he'd like the government to help pay for new coops.)

SOME locals are realizing the payoff of attracting visitors to Yongding. Li Shuyang, who was 18 when she married a Huang, lives in a concrete building near the Huang tulou cluster. The couple rents rooms to travelers for 30 yuan per person and proudly emphasizes the shower and squat flush toilet.

Ms. Li, now 40, cooked a dinner of wild greens and mushrooms, and ladled a broth whose coconut-cream scent came from a local root. She hated tulou living: "It’s not sanitary enough," she said.

The nationwide migration from the countryside to urban areas has taken its toll. In the Wenchang tulou, I met Huang Yangcan, who had left home in his 20s and was visiting his brother, a farmer, and widowed mother. He runs a clothing business in Kunming, a city of four million. "Of course I'd rather live in the tulou," said Mr. Huang, 36. "It’s less pressure; everyone's a friend; we all know each other. The environment is nicer, but you can’t make money."

Lin Yunchang, 80, belongs to his clan’s 23rd generation. "At 15, 16, people leave to seek work," he said. The three-centuries-old square tulou that he's never left has 30 residents, mainly grandparents raising their grandchildren. It has 100 at Chinese New Year, when many people visit their ancestral villages. “No one’s yet returned to retire," though, Mr. Lin added.

Most Hakka view the buildings merely as shelter and their location and functions as outdated, noted Ping Yip, a recent master’s degree graduate in Hong Kong who researched and lived in the tulou. Yet, she said, "if all the residents move out, the tulou loses its cultural significance as a human settlement."

The government and conservationists, meanwhile, see cultural heritage as the tulou's raison d’être. If Unesco rewards their legacy with a place on the World Heritage list, the resulting tourism and investment might help resuscitate the local economy and offset the city-bound stampede.
About Apple Travel
Apple Travel has been organizing tours to tulous for years. They have 1 day to 3 day tours to the Longyan and Zhangzhou tulou areas. They are the only travel agency in Xiamen specializing in Fujian tours that cater for the English-speaking market. Every week for the past few years, AppleTravel has been taking local tourists, Xiamen expats and Xiamen locals to the Fujian tulou areas. The easiest and most comprehensive way to learn how to tour tulou areas is to consult Apple Travel. You can reach them by dialling (+86) 0592-5053122 or visit the website at Apple Travel can also provide self guided tours, car rental and vehicle with driver.
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Apple Travel and Wyndham Hotel Xiamen
Apple Travel and Wyndham Hotel Xiamen are working hand in hand to make your Fujian tulou tours as comfortable as they can be when you are either in transit or opt for a few days stay in Xiamen. For all international and China domestic tourists, Xiamen is a must stop hub for your tulou trips, in which you make your way to the various tour destinations. The Wyndham Hotel Xiamen together with Apple Travel present the best combination to make your tulou trips as comfortable and hassle free as possible. Wyndham locates in the centre of Xiamen CBD. The Hotel offers 588 luxurious rooms and suites, most of which are embraced by spectacular sea views of popular Gulangyu Island.
For Fujian tulou trips and room reservation:
Simply call (+86-592) 5074173 or Email  to make travel arrangement or visit and talk to the travel consultants via Skype or MSN.
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