x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Heritage status has high cost

The Hakka people of China may be driven from their homes, which were recently added to the World Heritage List.

Tulous, or earthen dwellings, were first built about seven centuries ago to protect people from armies and bandits.
Tulous, or earthen dwellings, were first built about seven centuries ago to protect people from armies and bandits.

YONGDING, CHINA // The bus, loaded with farmers, produce and chickens, speeds along a bumpy mountain road in south-east China, passing rice, tea and tobacco fields. Through the mist in the valley, the first magnificent circular structure emerges, followed by several more of the UFO-looking buildings. Basically unknown outside the area until the second half of the 20th century, some 20,000 of these earthen buildings are scattered across the mountainous area, housing China's little-known Hakka people. Their relative obscurity, however, appears about to end. In July, Unesco added 46 of the buildings, located in Yongding county, Fujian province, to its World Heritage List, a move that puts the site firmly on the international tourist map. The Hakkas (literally "guest people") erected the first tulou, or earthen dwelling, about seven centuries ago. Descendants of Chinese born in the central plains of northern China, the Hakkas began to flee south in five migrations beginning in the fourth century. As outsiders, they were often vulnerable to attacks by neighbours, bandits and roving armies. To protect themselves, they built the sturdy structures, guarded by thick and high walls constructed with a mixture of fine sand, lime and soil. The structures have only one door and just a few windows high up in the wall, making them difficult to penetrate. In his book China's Old Dwellings, Ronald Knapp, an expert on traditional Chinese architecture, said some of the walls reach 20 metres in height, six metres higher than the tallest parts of the Great Wall. The houses can accommodate as many as 1,000 people. Mr Knapp, a professor emeritus at SUNY New Paltz, describes the Hakka fortresses as "extraordinary and quite unique". "There is nothing like this anywhere in the world of this age," he said from his home in New York. Huangxin Lou is a typical fortress. It contains a family altar in the centre, where weddings, funerals and other ceremonies are held. The first floor is where the kitchens are and where live animals are kept, the second floor is used to store grain and the third and fourth floors are where residents live. The majority of the doors are padlocked, a sign of the exodus that has occurred in recent years. Little has changed over the centuries. Chickens and ducks continue to peck at husks of corn; firewood is piled high; baskets hang from the rafters and wet clothing is hung out to dry on rickety wooden poles. Old people sit on a bench just inside the door soaking up the warm sun, playing cards or peeling vegetables, while their grandchildren play nearby. The customary Hakka emphasis on education is also apparent in these old houses. A xuetang, or study hall, is found in many of the larger buildings. The proud residents of Chengqi Lou, all surnamed Jiang, said their in-house school produced many scholars in the Qing dynasty. One man surnamed Jiang points proudly to pictures of members of the clan hanging on the wall, four of whom have earned doctorates from American universities. Interestingly, locals believe that they owe their fame to weak-eyed Americans. "We have to thank the American mistake," said Su Shengyun, a local resident, who goes on to tell the apocryphal tale of how US satellite analysts in 1985 spotted pictures of some odd-shaped buildings in the region, imagining them to be missile silos. American military officers at the US Embassy in Beijing were reportedly immediately dispatched to Yongding, where they discovered that the "silos" were nothing more than tulou. According to Mr Su, the disappointed officers returned to Beijing with tales of the spectacular buildings, and tourists and scholars were soon beating a path to the region, giving the impoverished area a new lease of life. "If the tulou hadn't been picked up by the satellite photos and mistaken for missile silos," he said, "Yongding wouldn't be so famous today." Unesco's awarding of the prestigious World Heritage status has recognised the value of the ancient structures, but it is also leading to concerns about whether the Hakka way of life, which is already fading fast, will survive its new prestige. Zhang Jingwen, 27, who said he is the 26th generation to live in Huangxing Lou, explained that his ancestors left Jiangxi province centuries ago when disasters struck the area. But of the more than 1,000 people who once resided here - all sharing the same surname and lineage - only about 30 are left. His family has already moved across the street to a modern home, renting out their former dwelling to tourists. "Aside from old people and kids, no one is left," he said. "All the young people have left to find work. And most don't want to come back." "No one wants to live in a tulou anymore, they're too inconvenient" said one young housewife, keeping an eye on her three-year-old son while she washes rice in a sink in the courtyard. "There are no toilets and so you have to go outside to relieve yourself." However, her family did not have the money to move out of the structure. April Yip, a graduate of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who spent months living in one of the houses while writing her master's thesis, said 120 people lived in Eryi Lou when she stayed there in 2005, but that the number has now fallen to 50. She fears that rising tourism will "change the mentality of the local people" and their simple lifestyles and force more people to move. "Tulous are supposed to be a place where people live," she said. "The real significance is in how people live here and not in what they sell to tourists. "I really worry about what will happen now that this area has become a World Heritage site. Right now the only people living in the tulou are old people. What will happen when they're gone?" The government has taken steps to limit the impact of tourism. Residents will be permitted to open restaurants and hotels, but they may no longer raise livestock or poultry - even the sale of souvenirs is to be limited, although during a recent visit, maps, guide books, tea and spices were proffered at the front gates of several homes. Mr Knapp said protecting the sites will present a challenge. "It's a Hobbesian dilemma," he said. "If you don't bring in tourists, there's no money. But if you do, there can be problems." pmooney@thenational.ae