My family come from the New Territories in Hong Kong, where they speak the hakka dialect. Hakka people originally came from northern China, but ended up migrating to South China and the Guangdong Province by way of war, strife and a large amount of bickering with the Cantonese.
I return to Hong Kong every three years or so to renew my ID card and it is usually fairly underwhelming, as trips to Asia go. Common activities involve sitting in offices, queuing and visiting extremely old relatives in distant villages bearing packets of Rich Tea biscuits.
Summer 2009 was a little different. It was the first trip since I had turned 18, so I was allowed some more freedom. Feeling full of vim and vigour, I promptly packed my bags, left the village and headed to Kowloon to meet my friend Mel, who had been backpacking around Asia.
We’d been fancifully considering a variety of far off lands before realising how far off they were and how foolish we were. Then, I had the bright idea of going to the next province to the east, attracted by the UNESCO-protected tulou buildings of the hakka people. Tulous are enormous circular buildings designed to house generations of families – sort of like Shakespeare’s globe, but more domesticated and less sociable.
There is an apocryphal story that describes how the CIA took aerial pictures of this area, Fujian, during Reagan’s administration. Seeing the clusters of perfectly circular buildings, they thought they were missile silos and promptly despatched some agents to investigate. The agents arrived only to find some very old and wrinkly Chinese folk pottering about amongst their chickens.
Mel had already done a well-organised tour of the better known cities in China, so she willingly submitted to something a little more ad-hoc. Plus, I imagine she didn’t want to ruin my visions of discovering the roots of my people, turning up in a distant village to be welcomed in with open arms like a long lost sister…
We went by train via Guangzhou, where we spent 24 hours and where ‘cupping’ was the activity of the day. Cupping is a type of acupuncture, where jars are heated up, attached to your skin and then you are left with some very sexy, symmetrical bruises. Our search for the Eastern medicine centre took us along many a mistaken path through stalls selling all sorts of exciting animals. Eventually, we ended up where we wanted to be – lying half-naked and face down next to a tray of bulbous glass jars.
I may not have explained the whole ‘cupping’ thing very well to my friend – ‘Gwyneth Paltrow does it’ – and there was definitely tension, if not fear, in her voice as she watched my skin get sucked into a flaming cup and said, “You have no idea how weird this looks…” Was this the moment she began to have doubts about travelling to a remote, mountainous province with her over-enthusiastic friend? Quite possibly.
As it turns out, the treatment went well and we duly trotted onto the train with beautiful bruises on our back. Fourteen hours later, we were in Fujian, the province of peanuts.
Our first taxi journey probably should have been a sign of things to come. The taxi driver had no idea where our hostel was and drove into several little villages before reversing into another car, out of pure fury, yelling and glaring at us as if it was our fault and then dropping us off at a different hostel.
The hostel was actually quite charming, so we stayed and asked about visiting the tulous. “Oh yes,” they said, “you can just catch a train there, it’s quite easy.”
That was a lie. The next day, we got ourselves to the bus station and, my Mandarin being below par, simply followed the yells of “tulou, tulou”, under the impression that it would be just a few hours on a bus. Once we got to the town nearest the tulou settlement, everyone was very reassuring. “Yes, yes, just on get on this bus to go to the tulou.” Who were we to question their sage advice?
The journey in the minivan was in fact very enjoyable. We rode past lush green mountains and paddy fields. We passed through villages where oxen lapped up water from the taps on the street. We giggled as everyone on the bus stared at the two strange foreigners – the blonde girl and the Chinese girl with the dodgy dialect.
The problem really came when we arrived in the village and asked when the bus back would be. “No bus, you will stay here tonight.” Excellent.
It turned out the nice lady who had directed us onto the bus here conveniently owned a restaurant cum hotel. Well, the latter was actually just her house. We were hours into the mountains with no nearby towns and, it would seem, no bus. So we submitted to renting a room.
Not wanting to make the same mistake again, we went looking for information about a bus back. Although I speak the hakka dialect, it has changed over the years so the Fujian dialect has very little in common with the Hong Kong one. Hong Kong felt very far away as I understood the gist of what everyone else said, but nothing was precise. Eventually, we managed to get a concrete time for a bus the next day.
In the meanwhile, the lady who owned the hotel had been trailing around behind us making suggestions. Once we accepted we were there for the night, we put our minds to looking around and making the most of our enforced mountain incarceration. Seeing that we wanted to take a look around the tulou clusters, she promptly bought out some shiny leaflets with incomprehensible maps and started bargaining.
We were keen to explore alone, but didn’t want to offend her as we were under her roof for the night, so we politely declined, saying we’d consider it. At this she promptly brought out a smelly man who instantly changed all the prices for the tours she’d been proposing. We declined with a little more force this time. The prospect of riding around on the back of a motorbike with the man who was at that moment breathing the fumes of hell over us didn’t really appeal.
Eventually we managed to untangle ourselves and went for a wander. The rest of our time in the village passed pleasantly enough, exploring different clusters. The families that actually lived in the tulou clusters seemed fairly indifferent to our presence and there was little staring, especially compared to other more metropolitan places in China. This was probably because they are accustomed to UNESCO types hanging around.
At the same time, the dreams of returning to the bosom of my people didn’t exactly transpire. My hakka is very different to theirs, so there wasn’t that much chat. Anyway, their houses are circular with no windows on the ground floor for a reason. They want to keep nosy people like me out.