I had 3 days to shoot Meizhou, Guangdong, hop on a plane back to Guangzhou and write a 2000 word article about it in 12 hours..... I am not a writer .... yikes... That didn't include the 50 or so images I needed to glean from a bank of 1700 or so images. Granted the way I was shuttled, a lot of images fell to the cutting room floor on the first go round. After little sleep, I finally finished only to have to finish it twice. I forgot to edit the first copy... not a smart thing to send out to your boss.... so here it is... try not to fall asleep... let me know what you think?
If you are up for an adventure, rich in history, steeped in culture, big on delicious local cuisine, in some of the most beautiful countryside around, then Meizhou is the place for you. This mountain paradise is only a very short hop, skip and jump from Guangzhou, It is only fifty minutes by air, or if you prefer to go by land, there is a short five hour bus ride or train ride to the center of Meizhou, Meixian. From there, you loose the big city dirt and hustle for a really green clean slowed down pace. Meixian is as small as Chinese cities go, a little over one hundred thousand people. The streets are clean and tidy. In fact, the city government of Meizhou has made a very serious commitment to keeping Meizhou’s air and their water free of harmful pollutants. Landing at the Meizhou airport, I could smell crisp cleanness in the air. It is a commitment that is city wide throughout all the counties, towns and villages in Meizhou.
Meizhou is almost sixteen thousand square kilometers with only a population of five million people scattered amongst the hills and mountains of the region. It is the city prefecture in the northeast part of Guangdong Province. Nine counties make up Meizhou of which there are numerous towns and villages dotting the landscape. Meizhou is a rural economy supporting various industries. Every county has it’s own unique way of living. Every village and every town have something unique to offer. Traveling through Meizhou though can bea bit of an adventure. Roads are curvy, twisty shoulderless two lane roads. Traffic can be slow. Meixian, the largest town in Meizhou. is the center of travel in Meizhou. From there, I visited several counties and villages to the north of Meixian. The atmosphere is very easy going. People are open to share their homes and their stories with you. Perhaps it’s because they know a little about living a nomadic life style.
The history of the Hakka is a couple of thousand years in the making. The story goes that during the time of Qin Shi Huang, the Hakka left their homes in the north and fled south to avoid war and catastrophe. According to the history, the Hakka migrated to other parts of China five times over a span of several thousand years. If it wasn’t the Mongolian hoards invading, it was the Manchurians forcing the Hakka to migrate to safer areas. Eventually, the Hakka settled in what is now northeast Guangdong, southeast Jiangxi and parts of Fujian Provence.
Yet all this migration never dampened the Hakka spirit. They are an adventurous group of people. Hakka women are known for their strength and resolve. Sculptures around Meixian will show Hakka women carrying the child while tending the fields with a look of determination on their face. Hakka women pride themselves on knowing how to take care of pretty much anything. Hakka men, on the other hand, tend to matters of fortune. Many Hakka men have left China to seek great wealth in other lands. Yet they always find their way back to their home town to share their wealth with their families and then with their own town or village. I visited several ancestral homes in several different towns and villages in my travels around Meizhou. Each one told a familiar tale of riches being made abroad and brought back to China. One such home in Xiao Xi village tells the story of the great grandfather leaving China to find his fortune in Indonesia. After making his fortune, he comes back to his village or town to build his family house. Or the gentleman from Xihou town, Zhang Bishi, left to find great riches and came back the richest man in China! Even richer than the Emperor!
Hakka ancestral homes are designed to hold many family members with a large family meeting area in the center of the house and every house tells a story. From the wooden beams to the stone floors, from the pictures on the walls to the bats in the ceilings, family ancestral homes are a journey into the past. There are great stories waiting to be discovered in almost every town, or village in Meizhou. Most of these treasures are accessible by bus. These are houses that are one hundred, two hundred, even three hundred years old and are still occupied by the families that built them.
Or, if houses are not your interest, take a walk into the hills and breath the fragrant air. Walk along clear, refreshing streams and get lost in the dense natural beauty of of the hills and mountains of Meizhou. There is lush green foliage with exotic wild flowers and butterflies. Repose to a symphony of birds singing! Then, hike back down out of the hills and say hello to the towns people. You will be greeted with open arms and a friendly smile and possibly, just possibly be invited for a cup of mother wine and a good story.
Mother wine, as the Hakka call it, is uniquely Hakka. It is so called because the Hakka believe this wine is good for the mother after she gives birth to a child. Usually red wine, it is made with rice and spices. Everyone makes their own mother wine and when guests arrive the wine flows! I don’t know about mother wine for mothers but I do know it goes really well with dinner! After a day of traveling, hiking and discovering, nothing feels more relaxing than to sit down to a meal of traditional Hakka dishes served with your favorite mother wine.
The Hakka eat very well. They love their food and they love to prepare wonderful things for their guests. The dishes are as unique and as diverse as any in China. The Hakka are not big on spicy but more interested in combining vegetables and herbs with their dishes to create complex tastes. At the Yearning Tea Plantation Holiday Village we were served braised pork with soy sauce. It is served in a clay pot on a bed of herbs and leafy greens. It came with salty chicken roasted in a clay pot buried in salt. The meat was moist and tender. Soup is always served at a Hakka table and one soup in particular is a soup that is made with pork and yang du jun. Yang du jun, loosely translated means sheep stomach mushroom. The name sounds strange but don’t let that put you off to the soup. I had two bowls every time it was served. The broth is a meal by itself, earthy without being bitter. It is sweet to the palate. Pretty much every meal I ate came with little cups of rice pudding with sweet molasses or sticky rice dumplings with sesame seeds. Roasted yams are also a staple at the table along with fresh made fish balls in a delicious fish broth. For breakfast, noodles in hot oil with pork soup is the usual fare.
The Yearning Tea Plantation's restaurant is committed to being in harmony with nature. Everything grown or raised at the plantation is organic! That includes the pigs and chickens served at the table. In fact the honey pomelos in their grove are covered in paper bags instead of having dangerous pesticides on the fruit.
Meizhou is the home of the pomelo and they are very proud to serve it at any time. They are also particularly proud of the tea they they grow. Some of the best oolong and green teas come from this region. A great way to know the teas of Meizhou is to stop by the theme park at Hakka Village in Meixian. Learn about how tea was made in the Han, Sung and Sun dynasties. The Hakka Village in Meixian is a good first stop to get an idea of the culture and customs of the Hakka. However, if you want to see Hakka life first hand then a great first stop on your journey is Dabu.
Dabu is considered to be the Shangri-La of Meizhou. It is a beautifully clean. A quiet town tucked into a valley surrounded by mountains. It is the cultural center of Meizhou. The Chinese opera comes to town often. The night we were there, we were treated to traditional Han Opera. The Hakka love music and any chance they have they will play and sing. Most of the time they sing traditional Hakka ballads that speak about Hakka life and love. At the Hakka Village in Meixian, a wedding complex complete with castle has been built to accommodate young wedded lovers and their wishes for the future. Sculptures on the grounds are dedicated to showing true love and devotion.
Along with their teas, their fruits and traditional dishes, the Hakka are famous for their high quality porcelain. Dabu is also the home of the Fuda ceramics company and they offer tours of the complex to visitors. The drive from the village is about an hour through winding tight, sometimes testy roads up into the mountain passes then back down again into a tiny little valley were the best kaolin and materials are needed to make Hakka Porcelain. The complex is made for a commercial style ceramics business. But they also support local artisans throwing one of a kind pots. Understanding the process gives one a better feeling for the complexity of making porcelain. If you have the time, it is worth the drive and once there, you may be given a piece of clay to throw a pot or a paint brush to draw on your own piece of porcelain!
There is a saying in Meizhou, like, love, live. The first time you visit Meizhou, you learn to like the customs and the quiet slow living. You learn about the history and the traditions of a very proud, educated and prosperous people.
The second time you visit, you fall in love with their kindness and generosity. You fall in love with the towns and the villages and the deep history of the area. You fall in love with a world that values nature and the natural resources and a determination to keep this world as pristine as possible. Balancing the environment with development will not be an easy task. It is a very rural world and that is a lot of Meizhou’s charm. You will fall in love with the deep blue skies, clean water, the quiet of being away from it all. You will fall in love with a people that have a worldly spirit with a devotion to home and family.
When you visit for the third time you will stay and become a part of this life style. For Hakka means guest and when the Hakka left their homes to seek safer places they became guests of other lands. They know what it feels like to be a traveler of the world. When you come to visit their home, they will treat you like they would want to be treated themselves, respected, with an abundance of generosity.
There is a motto in one of the houses I visited. It is a philosophy on how to treat your family and your guests. It is something that all Hakka take to heart. They are proud crafts people, deeply concerned about the environment, kind hearted and quick with a joke or a song. Always with a hand out to greet you, living a slow paced life.
So whatever you fancy, bats in the house, dragons on the roof. Drinking a great cup of Hakka oolong tea. Eating tasty unique Hakka cuisine. Sipping homemade mother wine. Watching beautiful butterflies flit among thousands of species of wild flowers. Making a porcelain pot. Or taking a drive to visit Song Kuo town and the Tsung Kaing Hotel on the thousand year old street along the Meijiang River. Everyone who left to seek their fortunes left from Song Kuo on the Meijiang. Or maybe you want to play detective and uncover the stories and secrets of the Hakka houses. Maybe you want to stare off into the vast lush countryside of the terraced rice fields. Or maybe, just maybe you want to stick your toes into a cool mountain stream. Meizhou is a great place to be. The pace is slow so take your time.