Nan’au village, Fujian province

“Please come in for some tea!”

That’s what I heard the most in Fujian province. Embraced by a rich tea culture and a welcoming atmosphere, I was invited to people’s homes for tea wherever I went. All villagers had a tea-brewing set to welcome guests – just in case if they had any.

Indeed, I was a very unusual guest in this December afternoon. These abandoned and decaying villages rarely saw any visitors. All tourists go on the popular route in Nanjing, lodging in Taxia village and visiting Tianluokeng tulou cluster. I was lucky to have met Mr. Xiao, a local villager, on my first day here when he took me on his motorbike to my hostel. He promised to show me some authentic tulou off the beaten track, so we arranged to meet again.

Tulou literally means earth buildings that are specially found in Hakka villages in Fujian province. These buildings are known for being round, large and enclosed, with a common square in the middle. Some are hundreds of years old, some only dozens of years; Some are restored for tourism purpose, some are in decay with a few households left or completely abandoned.

“These tulou are free to visit, no charge! They are not yet developed!” Mr. Xiao kept reminding me. In Nanjing, a few tulou have been transformed into tourist attractions and in my opinion, have since then lost their charm once they become too commercial. That day, Mr. Xiao took me on a hunt for “undeveloped” tulou.

In our first village, a tulou caught my eye – at the entrance, it read “Long Live Chairman Mao”. I was stunned. This is some legacy from the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, a shameful, dark history that is better not to be mentioned. This tulou remained untouched for decades and has preserved the communist bit of China, a country that is hugely capitalist nowadays.

Later I found two or three more tulou with Chairman Mao written at the entrance. I walked inside these tulou, found no one but weed at the common square and broken furniture covered in dust in empty rooms. Gone were the Maoist days, and gone were the villagers who once kept this place alive. The young generation has shunned communism to venture into capitalism for wealth, embodying the modern China.

In some tulou, a few households stayed, all elderly. Surprised to see an outsider, they always invited us in for some tea. A woman burnt wood to make fire in the stove, boiled water and made us tea. “I happened to come home this weekend to look after the elderly. I was born here but married off to Shuyang village,” she said. She went on to explain, “in each household, the first floor is the kitchen, second is storage, third or above is our bedroom.” Bathroom? There would be a bucket to use as a toilet and one had to wash him/herself outside. No wonder she left. I would too.

At the common square, there were a few chickens running around, clothes hanging on the bamboo racks and cabbages being dried under the sun. It is not hard to imagine how lively this place once was. The common square was once their social venue. They could sit in the sun and chat their day away. But now there is no one to hang out with.

The best surprise of the day was Nan’au village. I was told about this place by a man who was from there but left for Taxia village for work. These two villages were founded by the same ancestors, but bear completely different fates. Taxia village sees a flourishing tourism, while Nan’au village remains exclusive to its villagers, though only a handful left. The houses there are preserved in their original form – wooden upper structure with an earthen foundation. Together with the small bridges and streams, the village looked so beautiful that for one second I imagined myself transcending time and space to ancient Kyoto. It is far more enchanting and authentic than Taxia village which is destroyed by tacky lightning decorations, something that the Chinese somehow find appealing. Mr. Xiao caught up with an old friend, so we ended up drinking tea in his house.

I asked if the villagers felt bitter about how much income Taxia village was bringing in but not Nan’au. The answer was yes, not at all surprising in a country obsessed with wealth and rapid development. This is the dilemma. We travellers seek authenticity, but local villagers want a taste of comfort and job opportunities. So development is desired, but it will also change the local landscape. What the other tourists see in the developed tulou is merely a replica. There is no life in it. But life in tulou is dying out anyway, when everyone looks upon a modern life with a private bathroom.

I am grateful to Mr. Xiao who took me out of the tourism bubble to show me how life is really like in these villages. Since things are changing (and also disappearing) so fast in China, perhaps next time my beloved Nan’au village will be developed into an attraction, Chairman Mao will be erased from the tulou, and I will not be able to drink tea with the villagers in these places again.