Directly to the west of the city of Xiamen in southern Fujian, near the border with Guangdong province, nestled among rolling green hills of tea, rice and tobacco plantations are the villages of China’s Hakka ethnic minority. These migrants from the far north made their move as long ago as 300 AD, escaping poverty and persecution, and made a new home in the hilly Fujian countryside above the fertile river deltas. Initially unwelcome in this southern land, they housed themselves in imposing round multi-storey rammed-earth houses, impregnable and self-contained, a combination of family home and fortress. Little-known outside of the Chinese societies of east and south-east Asia, the Hakka have had a disproportionate impact on their part of the world since their arrival in the south, counting the revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, the former Chinese premier Deng Xiao Ping and Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore among their number. But it is these curious giant mud houses, called tulou and ranging in age from 70 to 700 years old, that attract tourists to the villages around Yongding and Nanjing in Fujian in their busloads to learn about the culture of a people whose name “Hakka” literally means “guest”.
The four-storey heavily-touristed Huaiyuanlou building, near Nanjing, with souvenir sellers lining the approach.
The inside of the 320-year-old Huanjilou building, near the town of Yongding. The Outer ring of the building is for living, cooking and storage, while the inner sections usually house areas for worship and bathing.
The postcard tulou cluster of Tianluokeng from above. It’s the most picturesque collection of houses and makes it onto plenty of tourism material aimed at the Chinese market.
Tianluokeng from below with our guide Fei Fei (Helen) and our driver Mr. Zhang (the Chinese Ben Elton). photo by Manal Shehabi
Many of the tulou have been turned over to government-approved tourist attractions so their ground floors, previously used for cooking the family meal, are now souvenir shops.
Some of the tulou are operating as family-run inns where guests can sleep and eat.
This is Weiqunlou inn in the villiage of Taxia near Nanjing city in Fujian.
Taxia fits the bill for the typical Chinese village – a bubbling river flows under ornate bridges past red lanterned houses under terraced hills.
A woman delivers offerings for her ancestors to the Taxia village Taoist temple.
The offerings take the form of (real) food and (fake) cash normally, lovingly donated by descendants still very much in touch with their roots.
The moss-and-firework-covered cobbles outside the privately-run century-old Yanxianglou building near Yongding. The family has eschewed the government tourism system and so enjoys less visitors but maintains a more peaceful setting. All around the walls are pictures of an uncle in the family who became a successful businessman in Indonesia and who returns each year to the family home.
Ornate eave decorations in the Yanxianglou building near Yongding.
A trader in the 200-year-old Heguilou building near Nanjing. The traders inside the more-touristy tulou might not always be descendants of the house clan, but they are all Hakka village natives and their businesses very much family affairs.