The Hakka people of mountainous Fujian, China, began to congregate in fortified buildings called “tulous” 800 years ago. Experts on such things regard the 46 earthen structures as the planet’s first apartment buildings. At their peak, up to 300 families lived in each tulou and shared cooking and religious areas.
Today’s Fujian youth are leaving the tulous (some of which are pictured here, thanks to photographer Vladimir Menkov) for contemporary digs in Shanghai and other modern cities. The ancient lifestyle of the Hakka people is dissolving with every departing soul. Traditional Hakka culture will likely die with the mostly elderly people who inhabit the tulous today.
My wife Barbara’s ancestors migrated from Hakkaland to Boston in the 1800’s as missionaries, presumably to bring a Chinese version of Christianity to the nascent United States of America. In 2015, Barbara decided to connect with her roots and off we went to southeast China.
In time we reached a tulou and encountered an old couple who ran a simple tea shop inside. We sat for an hour in a driving rainstorm, chatting with the wife through a translator. She told stories of her upbringing, of her daughter’s flight from the tulou for bustling Xiamen city, of the withering Hakka way.
She was both eloquent and engaging as she spoke between sips of tea, bestowing with her words a glow on the now-sterile tulous. As we listened, Barbara and I imagined generation after generation of families growing up in the security of the tulous and passing down Hakka traditions for centuries.
In honor of the Hakka way of life, but mostly just because Barbara and I wanted to participate in Kind Visitor, we decided to pay $20 for the tea, a sum that was mostly tip. Although not living in poverty, the “expensive cup of tea” was welcome income that was not patronizing.
For Barbara, until then her heritage an unknown, the experience was especially poignant. Through a simple tea ritual and personal connection with one of her own our trip to China took on a more meaningful and thoughtful character. And Kind Visitor allows us to share the experience.