Ancestral Visit to Fujian: Gulangyu and the Fujian Tulou

With 2 nights in Xiamen, we went on a tour of Gulangyu on the first day after checking in at the hotel. But before our ferry trip to Gulangyu, we had lunch by the lakeside at this vegetarian restaurant called Samadhi Art & Cafe 三摩地素食. The food here is tasty and delicious with many dishes delicately presented to diners. I would recommend a meal in this restaurant especially if you are bringing a guest who is vegetarian. In addition the location of the restaurant faces the Yundang Lake and several cafes are its neighbours with al-fresco seating that is perfect for a cool afternoon out.

Mixed Vegetables wrapped in Beancurd Skin
Mixed vegetables wrapped in beancurd skin

Our trip to Gulangyu begins at the ferry terminal where a crowded waterfront promenade greets visitors. Besides the guides offering tours of Gulangyu for a fee, there are locals gathering in the park offering taxi rides and ferry tickets. We decided to hire one local guide and it should be noted that official guides wear a uniform so do not be duped. The official guides also has a fixed rate for a day tour and visitors pay at the office opposite the counter where one gets the ferry tickets. I would have to say the guide was very good for the duration of our visit and we even gave her a tip at the end of the tour.

Ferry Terminal to Gulangyu
Waterfront view of Xiamen from the ferry to Gulangyu
Xiamen Waterfront
Xiamen waterfront

While the ferry is crowded when we boarded such that there was barely enough seats, there was a nice view for those passengers standing. It was a short 10 minute ride to Gulangyu and along the way we were treated to the skyline of Xiamen. Our guide suggested some places of interest we might be interested in for our tour and since we were only visiting for half of the day, we had to choose just some of the best attractions. In the end we chose to head to the 2 main villas which have been converted to quasi-museums with exhibits showcasing the development of Gulangyu over the years. Along the way to the villas, our guide pointed out the major buildings such as the consulates of foreign nations that opened in Gulangyu. Many of these colonial-era buildings have been converted to cafes, restaurants and shops catering to tourists. There are also some buildings that have been refurbished to become youth hostels and boutique hotels. The walk was pleasant since Gulangyu is a pedestrian-only island!

The Gardens in Gulangyu
Gardens in Gulangyu

The first villa we visited was known as Hi Heaven or 海天堂, and there was an extra admission fee to enter the compound. This fee included entry to a puppet show and a music show. This particular villa was built by a tycoon for his residence in the island. However it has changed hands multiple times and today it houses a mini-museum depicting the lives of people in Gulangyu over the years. The attraction here is the main residential building which is built in a mix of Chinese and Western style. The second floor of the villa also houses a statue of the Goddess of Mercy or ‘Kuan Yin’ as it is known in China.

Roof Detail of Hi Heaven Villa 海天堂
Roof detail of Hi Heaven Villa 海天堂

Opposite this place of interest is the Huang Rong Yuan Villa 黃榮遠堂, another villa in a totally different architectural style. This one was built with western influences and has a large garden instead of a courtyard. This particular villa was built by the Huang family, an Indonesian Chinese tycoon who made his fortune from sugar.

The Beach at Gulangyu
Gulangyu beach 鼓浪嶼沙灘

In addition to the 2 villas we visited, we visited some shops selling local souvenirs and snacks on the way to the beach. By the time we arrived at the beach, it was just in time for sunset. The beautiful sunset at the beach truly marked the end of our tour in Gulangyu before we parted ways with the guide back at the Ferry Terminal.

Xiamen Night Scene
Xiamen night skyline as seen from Gulangyu

The next day, I had arranged for a driver and a car for a tour of the Tulou or ‘Mud House’ which is a characteristic of the communal housing built by the Hakka clan. The drive would take 2 hours at least and this also meant we would need to make a stop in the middle for lunch. The food at the small restaurant the driver brought us was a bit overpriced and the food quality was not that great either. However the highlight was visiting the Tulou 土樓. The one we were brought to was the Hongkeng Cluster in Yongding County 永定縣, of which the largest Tulou was near the main entrance to the village called Zhencheng Lou 振成樓. Outside the Tulou was a plaque inscribing the entry of this architectural marvel into the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Zhencheng Lou 振成樓
A UNESCO World Heritage site – Zhencheng Lou 振成樓

These tulous are significant in that whole multi-generation clans used to live in one building which can usually be circular in shape. In the centre would lie a courtyard or an ancestral hall. Such construction places an emphasis on family ties and values and is something that is familiar in Asian culture. This particular large tulou we visited was actually built by a rich tobacco tycoon to house his family over several generations and there are still villagers showing how these tobacco are hand-rolled. Another famous commodity in this region is tea and tourists may visit some of the villagers to sample the tea they sell and buy some to bring home.

Ancestral Hall of Zhencheng Lou 振成樓
Ancestral hall of Zhencheng Lou 振成樓

There were a couple of other tulous we visited including Kuiju Lou 奎聚樓 and Fuyu Lou 福裕樓. Kuiju Lou is an older tulou that is more rectangular in shape and was the smallest one we were able to enter. Fuyu Lou on the other hand is a much larger rectangular tulou that was built by a retired official to house his family and it was interesting to see the difference and similarity in interior between the circular and rectangular tulous. There was also some other shapes of tulous like a semi-circular one that was meant to blend into the hilly landscape of the region.

Outside Kuiju Lou 奎聚樓
Outside Kuiju Lou 奎聚樓
Panorama of Fu Yu Lou 福裕樓
Panorama of Fu Yu Lou 福裕樓

Another attraction in visiting these tulou cluster is to experience the fresh air in China’s country side and enjoy the tranquility of village life. It was definitely a relaxing afternoon sipping tea, and looking at how people in China’s rural countryside eke out a living. We actually had a local guide that was arranged with the driver and the car who brought us around and thus we were able to better appreciate the lives led by these villagers.

Panorama of Jinfeng Creek
Panorama of Jinfeng Creek

Initially, I had never thought of visiting Fujian province for tourism in China since there are so much more interesting sights in China. But this visit let me appreciate the pace of development in China and showed some of the architectural marvels of old Chinese construction that ties in well with family values that have always been held in high regard in Asian society.

Waterwheel in the Village
Waterwheel in Hongkeng village 洪坑村

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