Archive for December, 2010

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Back in May, as part of my debut pilgrimage to my ancestral village in Dabu in Guangdong Province, we daytripped across the border into Yongding county in southwestern Fujian. Yongding county is famous for the architectural phenomenon called Hakka roundhouses or tu lou (earth buildings). This landscape of donut-shaped mansions allegedly caused quite an international kerfluffle in the 1980s when US President Reagan and the CIA thought that satellite photos of the region showed a whole mountain range of Chinese missile silos.

To be fair, the tu-lou — built over a period spanning the 12th and 20th centuries — were indeed built with military strategy in mind.

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Above: A view of the concentric-circle structure of a roundhouse tu-lou, from a model at the Hakka Museum in Dabu.

Because imperial China was often awash with bandits, and because the migratory Hakkas (which literally translates to “the guest people”) weren’t always welcome by the incumbent southern Chinese residents, these tu-lou dwellings were built also to function as fortresses.

Each of these buildings are between 3-5 stories, and there are no windows on the 1st couple of levels. The rammed earth walls are 1m thick at the base, and there is only 1 iron-reinforced door in and out of the building. Each house is built around a well, and there is space in the central courtyard to raise animals and grow vegetables. Add that to the food stored away within, and the fortress can be sealed off and stay self sufficient for up to 18 months, said our young and pretty local Hakka guide who still lives with her family in one of these fortresses.

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Inside, the donut is “sliced” top-to-bottom into townhouse-style apartment blocks, with each individual family occupying one vertical “slice”. The ground / first floor is often used for storage or housing the staircase-averse elderly, and younger members of the clan live on the upper floors. If a clan outgrew the house, it could simply build an additional concentric circle if it didn’t want to build a separate house nearby.

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Many houses have a central clan gathering area, anchored by a family altar and poetic couplets exhorting the clan to live in harmony, as exemplified by this well known one at Zhengchenglou. Definitely necessary as the concentric-circle architecture means secrets are almost impossible to keep in the clan!

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46 Fujian Tulou sites were declared to be World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2008. Babs and I have grown to be very ambivalent about such sites as our travels progressed. Many a time we’ve seen such sites turn into tourist traps, housing uninspiring multinational fast food tenants or tacky souvenir shops in otherwise beautifully restored and preserved shells.

Tourism has risen in Yongding since the UNESCO inscription. There is now, for example, a very comfortable 8-hour express bus between Dabu and Guangzhou, which didn’t exist when my Dad first visited the area in 2007. Only time will tell how the vibe in these tu-lous will evolve over time. It could go the way of the lurid painted shells, or it could persuade the younger members of the clan — many of whom have gone to work in live in big cities — to move back and make a life here.

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Above: Many Hakka families have moved to the city, padlocking their ancestral houses and returning only for big family reunions. Some families don’t have enough money to maintain their house in their absence, leading to the decay of the earthern walls.

In the meantime, many of the houses that are open to visitors still have the resident families living in them, with hanging laundry, spider webs and functioning kitchens et al as lovely “this is the real deal” touches. Spare rooms and empty spaces have been converted into tea, wine and mountain herb shops, as well a few as guest rooms which often house researchers interested in the area.

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It’s lush around here. Vegetable patches line the riverbanks and ducks drift serenely downstream.

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I wanted to share this photo below to

  1. Show that some tu-lou are built as concentric squares instead of circles — in these cases each son of the family would get a corner or a wing of the house
  2. Demonstrate some classic fengshui principles — The Chinese love to have the back of their house back up against a mountain (for security) and the front of the house facing water (for prosperity)

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I pause to take in the river running through the village.

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The river takes on new significance, in retrospect. Much later, as I work through my photos and notes, I recall that anyone selling tea or wine or any of the array of locally grown produce, kept harping on about the provenance of the stuff. About how they didn’t use chemicals. And specifically, about how they are high up enough here such that there aren’t any factory pollutants in the ground and water.

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I thought about how the Hakkas had settled up here in the highlands all those centuries back, only because the incumbent populations had already occupied all the fertile lowlands. Which are now chockful with factories and all their by-products, leaving many Chinese people with more money in their pockets, perhaps, but increasingly insecure about the safety of their food. (These articles in China Daily and Facts and Details are just the tip of the iceberg.)

Funny how things go around…

… And maybe come come around again. If the food safety situation in China deteriorates at pace, I wonder if one day these earthen walls will once again come under siege.


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Above: You gotta keep your ear — or at least your ass — pretty close to the ground to know where to party with these hip Hanoians

We’d been walking and eating around Hanoi for a few days. There were a few hits, there were a few misses. I was developing a theory for eating well in this city: The closer to the ground you need to sit, the better the food will be. Eateries with regular-height chairs or stools will likely be mediocre fare targeted at tourists; benches where you have to contort your legs to fit in means you’re getting warmer; tiny stools that you have to squat on means seriously delicious business.

(Hanoi foodies, am I on to something here?)

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So, taking that theory a little further, what happens when you actually sit on the ground? You encounter the cut-tlefish-ing edge of Hanoi nightlife, as we found out one balmy night this past March.

Right near the Hang Dao night market, we come across a street corner parade of dried cuttlefish vendors. My Dad, brother and I love this pungent chewy snack, but they’re usually a handful of shreds in little packets or else in crispy rolls in a tin. What on earth do you do with a whole cuttlefish?

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We turn the corner and find out.

There, more cuttlefish vendors squat-sit, fanning furiously away at small tins of red-hot charcoals, toasting planks of the stuff.

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Afterwards, the cuttlefish are transferred to wooden blocks, and BASHED INTO SUBMISSION with a metal pipe. (Note to self: don’t try to leg it with these guys) Then they’re served up by (often) the vendor’s son, and shredded by hand in front of you if you look helpless enough.

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But served up to whom, exactly?

The sidewalks of both sides of this little lane are covered with straw mats, and sitting on them are a cross section of the city’s denizens — fashionable 20somethings, pot-bellied uncles, families with grandmas and infants et al in tow. There’s a lot of laughter and easygoing sounding chat in the air. When the road in front of the mats gets too cluttered with motorcycles (the condition of the entire city, frankly), the vendor’s son is given instructions and permission to go skooch them up into a sardine-tight line. I’m loving the vibe.

We settle in on a mat next to an extended family of 10, and start nibbling on our platter of toasted cuttlefish. Like I’ve said, I’ve had this salty-sweet chewy stuff plenty, but never toasted! This changes everything.

I sneak a peek at the family next to us — they’ve got milk bottles for the babies and bottles of beers and local-brand whiskeys for the increasingly red-cheeked adults. And — now that I’m looking more closely — only 1 cuttlefish between all of them.

Babs and I were just commenting that at about the equivalent of ~£5, this wasn’t exactly a cheap snack for locals. Obviously, how they afford it share it among 10 people, not 2.

Oh well. Better eat it all and not waste any of it then!

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Toasted cuttlefish vendors emerge on many a Hanoi sidewalk at night. Some have small tables and tools for customers, some have straw mats. This particular one was opposite shophouse 2B on Pho Hang Bo.

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