Out of around three thousand, there were 46 sites of the Fujian Toulou declared as of UNESCO world heritage status in 2008, found in the south eastern corner of Fujian in southern China. The topography and living environment here is mostly pristine, nestled amongst the hills and higher ground when compared with the coast.
These are the locations of unusual earthen constructions, many of them circular or rectangular in shape and up to three or five stories high, which have been in history and currently the homes of the Hakkas, a distinct community driven south from central China by the wars, conflicts and political developments of China. Hakkas, also known in Mandarin as the Ke Jia Ren or "guest people", have achieved a record of survival, prosperity and determination.
The modernisation of the nation in economic and cultural terms, especially in the past 25 years, has witnessed less people residing in them as social pressures and personal drive to improve a standard of living drive many to the cities instead of inducing them to remain in the country side. Previously, when a family or clan grew in size, it was the customary practice to build an outer layer outside the original cluster, therefore providing an organic growth of the Toulou complex.
A day spent walking the various trails around the Toulou is a wonderful experience, not just in absorbing a different culture, but in appreciating that there is still clean air in parts of China, in soaking in the agricultural lifestyle and in having an opportunity to enjoy the local cuisine. The produce is organic, especially in the vegetables and chickens. There were many tourists strolling around in the Toulou area we chose to visit - Nanjing County in Fujian Province of China.
The boisterous van driver we engaged, Mr. Zhang, came as unique as we had hoped to encounter - he is humorous, down to earth and hard working. He deftly drove us past steep cliffs by the roadside, quarrelled with a potential banana seller and was just full of personal energy. Mr. Zhang has his hometown in Wuyi Shan, in north Fujian, but he is based in Xiamen, the bustling Hokkien city on the coast.
The Toulou are particularly shaped and designed to protect its residents from wild animals, bandits and dangers of any kind. The circular shape of the building has a hollow middle, which allows for light to come in straight from the sky and for human activity to be carried on never the less of what is happening outside. I am reminded of Stonehenge being filled up into a viable village round shaped town square. The high ramparts all around this type of building allow for residents to look out for dangers from afar the horizon and landscape. Water wells are provided within the safe area. Stairs up and down the various floors are made of wood, otherwise everything else comes in stone and rammed earth.
The residents live in unit styled rooms which remind me of contemporary flats or apartments in modern day cities. The closeness with which residents carry out their daily lives can be disconcerting for personal privacy and yet can nurture a closeness in community relations. They are all in for this together, which can facilitate co-operation and a better social order. I am reminded of the adage of three generations living under one roof, coming to reality in this classic and innovative designed living style.
Three of us had said hello to a family, with the infant first catching our eye.
Grandma was friendly, introducing us to her daughter,a young woman who already has become a mother. Their eyes sparked brightly, with a kind of hope and promise. Would living here be much better than residing in a contemporary faceless block with even more people, with even more floors? I reckon it depends on what they choose to be their way of earning a living. A farming life with livestock may not appeal anymore in China's rush to greater purchasing power and a digital tech environment.
This way of life may have served its past purpose, but now there are new frontiers to conquer, new challenges in different forms and an opportunity to break away from the past. What little or much is earned from tourism can be difficult to sustain, and so many Toulou areas compete for this same dollar. There is a dire need to strategically plan and implement the way forward - should the Toulou constructions be significantly repaired and maintained going forward? It is one issue to look and remain quaint, but the serious question about these residences affect the future livelihoods of the people living there. Some have a fair measure of modern amenities and all have been observed to have good ventilation and lighting in their designs.
I was fascinated by the various square shaped windows that dot the steep vertical walls of each Toulou. They remind me of possible military applications. Each Toulou building surely is the cumulative effort, idea and patience of generations of resident families. I also noted that no matter how big or small these earthen fort like constructions are, they only have one entrance and exit. Residents can obviously have the same surname.
Each Toulou has a definite layout and no nails are used in its building up. The central courtyard is dedicated to a shared worshipping spot and a well. Guests are received on the first floor, where logically you have the kitchen, living room and dining areas. Bedrooms and storage spaces are located on upper floors. There are stone or wooden benches on the ground floor, used by residents or tourists alike.
We were greeted by an enthusiastic young lady who showed us how the rammed earth bricks are made. This was in a compact museum like room displaying the tools, equipment and results of the process. The walls of a completed Toulou are thick, an outcome of mixing limestone, earth , wood, bamboo and padi field clay. Most of what we can see and visit today were built in the last three hundred years, the most recent ones dating from the 1970s. They are said to be even earth quake proof, a very useful feature, and are warm in winter and cooling in summer.
There were high and low moments on our day excursion this time. An elderly lady sitting outside a dilapidated Toulou was shouting out incessantly for money to be paid if we wanted to enter that specific building, and nearby we were charged entry fees to use the toilets. The high point was coming across a free flowing river, even if it was relatively shallow, and this scenic spot had a bridge to transverse and use for photographic opportunities.
I distinctly remember the massaging effects on our feet on walking for long periods on cobble stoned paths in this Toulou area. We also chanced upon a bar when looking for a washroom. Many tourists we encountered came from within China itself, including the two young women who helped us take photographs. I fondly recall the yellow skinned organic chicken poached for our lunch in a tourist stop just before we headed to the hills. Getting out of Xiamen proper, we had stopped to saviour bananas of all sizes and colours, especially the yummy red skinned types. I observed how rich the soil is when approaching Nanjing County.
As with the main communities who have made southern China their home, many Hakkas have migrated overseas, especially to south-east Asia, but also to Europe, Canada, Australia, the UK, the USA, the Indian sub-continent, Suriname and Timor-Leste. In the Malay Peninsula, two well known Kapitan Cinas of the 19th century were Yap Ah Loy of Kuala Lumpur and Chung Keng Quee of Perak and Penang.
In Taiwan, it is estimated almost every one out of five residents has a Hakka background - their most well known political son is past President Lee Teng Hui. Most of the Chinese in Sabah, Mauritius and Reunion have a Hakka heritage. Solomon Ho Choy had the distinction of being appointed Governor in Trinadad and Tobago, the first non-white to do so in the whole of the British Empire. San Yu, President of Mynamar in the 1980s, was of Hakka background.
This community had many ardent supporters of the Communist Revolution in the 20th century. In China, three Hakka individuals from history come to mind - Hu Yao Bang, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in 1981 and 1982, and General Secretary of the aforesaid Party from 1982 to 1987; Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, founder of the Republic of China in 1911, which terminated dynastic rule; and Hong Xiu Quan, the leader of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Christian political movement in the middle of the 19th century.
Two Prime Ministers of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Lee Hsien-loong and General Ne Win of Burma have Hakka connections.