A journey into rural China—part two

Text by

Charly Wilder

Photographs by

Robbie Lawrence

In any case, by the time we said goodbye to Mr. Wang and boarded a plane due southeast, I was ready for the country. A couple of hours later we landed in Xiamen, a city of some 4 million people in southeastern Fujian. Its airport, the closest to Tsingpu Tulou, is situated on an island in the Taiwan Strait. I let the warm, semitropical air stream in the windows as we drove for hours in the dark, seeing the occasional flash of banana trees, until we eventually arrived at Tsingpu Tulou. Two members of the young staff—all locals of the village—brought us tea and fruit and showed us to our rooms, but it wasn’t until that next misty morning that I got a sense of the property.

The three main buildings of Tsingpu Tulou Retreat date back more than 180 years, when they were the home of the wealthy Zhang family (nearly all the inhabitants of Taxia village are related to this same family). The father lived in one building, his three wives lived in another, and their 11 children lived in the third. Polygamy was a marker of affluence among the Hakka people, an ethnic group that spread from central China into the southeast around 1,000 years ago, fleeing unrest and invasions. The threat of bandits and marauders contributed to the unique Hakka building style known as “tulou,” fortified earthen dwellings that sealed off the living space from the outside.

Tsingpu Tulou Retreat was built over the course of a year, an ambitious $8 million adaptive-reuse project led by the Beijing-based studio Trace Architecture Office (TAO), which since its founding in 2009 by the architect Hua Li has become renowned for its site-responsive construction methods that honor cultural and environmental conditions. With the help of dozens of local artisans, craftspeople, and laborers, TAO knocked down walls to enlarge the rooms, raised ceilings, and restored original details and features, like ornate lotus-shaped interlocking wooden ceiling brackets known as “dougong,” using materials reclaimed from other tulou sites. They filled the rooms with furniture by Fnji (pronounced Fanji), a Chinese company that has helped reinvigorate the country’s design scene with its elegantly minimalist high-end ash and walnut wood furnishings. There are also refined in-room touches like earthenware tea sets with clay vessels of local black and wheat teas.

As we sat down to lunch in the restaurant, one of two new buildings TAO constructed for the project, I got to experience how this localism extends to the retreat’s cuisine. Waiters brought a feast of regional delicacies, like bone-in chicken soup (Fujian cuisine is known for its soups), razor clams served with hot Chinese watermelon, fresh bamboo root with pork belly, and a dessert of red bean paste with orange peel. Everything was delicious, and unlike other Chinese regional cuisines (Szechuan and Hunan being the most famous in the West), Fujian cuisine is neither spicy nor greasy, tending instead to sweet and sour tastes. I found the food quite accessible—barring the local breakfast, which was served alongside Western items like croissants and omelets. It consisted of congee, a glutinous rice porridge, topped with items like pork floss, fermented tofu, and “hundred-year eggs,” i.e. duck eggs preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for many weeks until the yolk turns a creamy, piquant dark gray-green and the white becomes a salty, dark-brown, translucent jelly. I’m generally an adventurous eater, but I found myself, without a moment’s hesitation, reaching for the croissant.

The preceding article is excerpted from the 2019 edition of Directions, an annual magazine by Design Hotels that looks at movements underway in art, design, food, wellness and fashion, and how they affect the way we live and travel. This year’s issue explores the New Sanctuaries, spaces both physical and figurative, natural and designed, where we find renewal, shelter, communion, and expressions of the sublime. Buy it here!

Continue reading:
A journey into rural China—part one
A journey into rural China—part three

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019