China's Hakka houses

by Dorothy Aksamit


My favorite trips always begin with a library book and end in a village. This journey began with "China's traditional Rural Architecture" by Ronald Knapp. I was looking for information on the thatch-roofed houses on stilts that I had seen in southern Yunnan Province.

Alas, there were no thatched houses in "China's Traditional Rural Architecture," but what was there triggered the travel bug. The pictures were of perfectly symmetrical circular structures built of rammed earth. The walls in the 3- and 4-story houses were over a meter thick--fortresses with windows on only the upper floors. Between the concentric circles, round patios were open to the sky.

The houses were in a place called Yongding. Could they still exist?

Getting started

On my next trip to China, I found Yongding in the Fujian section of my Lonely Planet guidebook. "... Japanese tourists are drawn like magnets to view the earth buildings--perhaps they know something we don't."

Those clues were enough to steer me to Xiamen, an island with a deepwater harbor directly across the straits from Taiwan. Xiamen, now a special economic zone, is the former Amoy, one of the first treaty ports opened (1841) after the opium war.

I flew to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific's red-eye (1:30 a.m.) out of San Francisco. After clearing Customs and changing money, I took the A21 bus from the stand to the right of the building, emerging 40 minutes later at the last stop, a short walk away from the Salisbury YMCA (phone 800/537-8483 or visit The Y is a relaxing place to get your bearings after a long flight, almost as if you haven't left home yet. A single room cost US$80.

What a shock to see the venerable Peninsula Hotel (next door to the Y) with, instead of a waterfront view, a view of the Museum of Art. But as it was Wednesday, a free-admission day for several area museums, I wandered in a jet-lagged haze through galleries of bronze and jade and numerous photos depicting a bygone Hong Kong.

After a good night's sleep, I took the KCR train north through the New Territories to LoWu, at the border with China. I walked through the Immigration building, changed money again and emerged in Shenzhen, China.

An insistent young woman carried my bag the few steps to a beautiful new sleeper bus. These buses are surely the most civilized way to travel. Water and snacks are provided as well as a cafeteria-style meal for lunch. For six hours, rural China floated in and out of my slumbers.


Xiamen after dark was a staggering display of Vegas-bright lights--ships in the harbor outshone by the colored lights delineating round domes and square buildings on Gulangyu Island, a stone's throw away.

After my first two hotel choices turned out to be piles of rubble awaiting a highrise, the driver let me off at the Lujiang Hotel (No. 54 Lujiang Rd.), a rather imposing brick building occupying a corner of the main street. After a soothing bowl of soup in the deserted coffee shop, I settled in for a night of dreaming of the "well-rounded" life of the Hakkas.

The next morning, rhythmic crashes of wrecking balls near the harbor sent me on a short cab ride to the 1,000-year-old Nan Putuo Temple in search of a little history. Extensive buildings house the God of Wealth, the Goddess of Mercy and statues of the Buddhist pantheon. The temple courtyard was crowded with supplicants raising clouds of incense. Too early to try the vegetarian restaurant, I picked up a cassette of chants at the gift shop and hailed a cab back to the ferry landing.


With a 6-minute ferry ride across the harbor to Gulangyu, I left the present--mini-skyscrapers and maxi-construction of the old Amoy--and entered a bygone era of colonial opulence reminiscent of the days when the island was an international settlement and host to 14 foreign consulates.

With a growing sense of excitement, I stepped out onto a promenade shaded by huge banyan trees leading to a labyrinth of paths winding up to imposing buildings scaling the hills. My first thought was, "How many more unknown sensational sites are there in the world?" My feeling of elation fizzled a bit as I caught a glimpse of the golden arches ahead. Ronald McDonald had beaten me to Gulangyu!

Along the path were restaurants where fish frolicked in huge plastic tubs and where kiosks overflowing with caps, T-shirts, tea and bonsai crowded in front of yesterday's mansions.

Just past a grassy parade ground, I was lured through an iron gate into the former Dutch consulate. Behind an enormous banyan tree, its many branches dripping with nostalgia, was a gray shuttered building. Once a backpackers' hotel, it is now closed.

Farther along the path I met a woman walking her toy poodle. She led me up a leafy path past estates, some with large overgrown gardens and others still pristine. She pointed to the former U.S. consulate, a 2-story brick building with stately columns. The side garden evoked visions of wicker, long tucked white dresses and the sense of excitement that must have greeted the American fleet, 7,000 strong, when it sailed into Amoy at the invitation of the Imperial Government of China in 1908.

My accidental guide left me at Sunlight Rock, where I climbed to the top for a stunning view over Gulangyu, the harbor and Xiamen. Neither cars nor bicycles are allowed on the island, only golf carts to ferry the visitors around.

Further wandering gave glimpses through verdant gardens of Spanish-, French--and English-style bungalows where the laundry of several families flapped on the verandas. I never heard a child cry, but I did hear the cry of peacocks and the ice cream man, the rote shouts of schoolchildren and the occasional yelp of a poodle. And everywhere I was accompanied by the tinkle of pianos. Gulangyu is known as the "piano isle" in honor of its many musicians. Even the ferry building is in the shape of a grand piano.

The present intruded on the past at lunch when I had snow peas and pork over rice in the former British consulate, a stately building with a commanding view of the harbor.

Later, I dropped by the huge statue of Koxinga which guards the harbor. Koxinga was a pirate-turned-patriot who is credited with driving the Dutch from Taiwan in 1662. Almost reluctantly remembering my quest of the round earth houses, I saved the beach on the other side of the island and the subtropical garden for another day.

A first glimpse

At the bus station at 7 the next morning, armed with my photocopy of a round house and accompanied by the receptionist from the hotel, I bought a ticket for 33 yuan ($4). An eager bus conductor explained to the receptionist that I didn't have to go all the way to Yongding to see the tu lou, or earth houses, and she would tell me where to get off the bus.

By 8:30 we had cleared Xiamen's bicycle-clogged streets lined with glass towers rising from narrow gardens splashed with red salvia and yellow chrysanthemums. As we picked up speed on the causeway, girls on bicycles now wore conical hats, and skyscrapers were replaced with sugarcane, duck ponds and terraced paddies.

Passing several factory towns, we started up a real mountain road with a river winding below manicured tea plantations and fields sporting stalks of bananas clad in blue plastic jackets.

At 11:38 we whizzed by the first round house. Glancing around the bus, I saw no one who Shared my excitement. The house was below the road and I could peek into the second- and third-floor balconies. My glimpse was even better than the pictures--such symmetry! But before long there was another and another and I realized there would be many.

Checking in

Stopping at a small village at 12:22, my keeper indicated that I had arrived. I suffered a split second of panic as I left my cozy bus, but my keeper pointed to a man on a motorcycle who quickly balanced my bag in front as I mounted behind and we were off to ... I knew not where.

Every turn revealed another Chinese painting--a stream with an overhanging willow, a woman washing, not round but interesting brick houses with flyaway tile roofs, a small Buddhist temple.... Then came a dismal row of cubbyhole restaurants and a huge parking lot, all beside an enormous round house. How irritating. They were expecting me! My grand adventure was to end in a tourist trap.

Through the meter-thick outer wall, I entered a doorway that could have received an elephant. Tables on either side leading to the ceremonial hall in the center were filled with curios and books for sale. I was led through an opening and up the narrow stairs to the third floor, where I entered a large room with a double bed, a desk and one window in the curved outer wall. Three walls had been plastered and the fourth, the inside wall, was wooden with a window to the inside balcony.

I left my bag in my room and, after a bit of haggling with a calculator, motorcycle man (Wu) and I sped off to visit the six round houses illustrated on a handy brochure he had.

In the round

The afternoon flew by in a kaleido-scope of earth houses set in valleys amid the lush broad leaves of tobacco plants. With mountains behind and a wandering stream below, each house was feng shui perfect. Many had an inside circle of rooms and some had auxiliary buildings. Not all were round--there were squares and rectangles--but the basic layout was the same.

From the main door, a cobblestone courtyard led to the ceremonial hall with hanging scrolls and tablets behind an offering table. Behind the ceremonial hall, small courtyards were divided into pie shapes by floor-to-roof walls. On one side of the courtyard were animal pens and a tiled shower room.

Each division had three or four outside kitchen areas with tile counters and a woodstove, Behind each kitchen was a small dining room.

A stairway led to the storage room on the second floor with closets for rice and huge ceramic urns housing one rabbit each. The third and fourth floors held the bedrooms. Latrines were outside the wall.

I estimated that probably 100 people could live in the round house I was staying in, but some of the larger ones could house up to 600.

The few people we found in the houses were mostly elderly, including a sweet-faced woman in her nineties.

These rammed-earth houses were built by the Hakkas around 300 years ago when they migrated from central China. Hakka means "stranger," and 300 years later they are still considered as such.

Their thick-walled houses form a fortress that offers protection from not only their neighbors but also heat and cold. A house whose wall cracked in an earthquake in 1964 had eventually repaired itself. The brochure called the houses unsophisticated, but during my stay I felt as if I were in the world's first condo.

Wu and I stopped in the village for a supper of rice, pork, chicken and vegetables. He proposed another tour the next day, but I was satisfied that round houses do exist and are still inhabited.

Mission accomplished

The night was silent and I slept the satisfied sleep of the victorious explorer. As I was having a bowl of breakfast noodles in the round house's patio-cum-kitchen-cum barnyard, Wu came, unbidden, to urge me to hurry to my 7:30 bus to Xiamen.

The details of my round house quest are hazy--somewhat mystical, like a nebulous dream--but I'm consoled by the words of the Chinese-American writer Lin Yutang: "A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to, and a perfect traveler does not know where he came from."

Dorothy Aksamit

Sausalito, CA