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Luodai Town--Beauty Under Chengdu's Nose

Born in Chengdu, I spent the first 17 years of my life and most holidays afterwards in the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province. Until last week, however, I never even knew that a charming old town called Luodai is only 18 kilometres east of the city.

Hakka town

I read about Luodai in a Sichuan magazine last week and found out that Luodai is a Hakka town of unique historical and cultural interest.

The Hakkas are a branch of the Han Chinese. Coming from North and Central China, the Hakka people first moved to South China's Guangdong Province and East China's Fujian Province to escape severe persecution in their original areas. The name Hakka means 'guests.' Today, Hakka communities are scattered all over Southeast Asia.

In the early years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Hakkas began moving to Sichuan from the provinces of Guangdong, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi.

More than 2 million descendants of the Hakkas now live in Sichuan. Many of them live in five towns at the foot of the Longquan Mountains east of Chengdu.

Luodai is the largest of the towns. More than 20,000 of its 23,000 residents are descendants of the Hakkas. As a result, the town has a strong ambience of Hakka culture, which is what I wanted to feel.

It takes less one hour to travel by taxi from downtown Chengdu to Luodai. Unexpectedly, my taxi driver was a Hakka descendent from the Longquan area.

'You can have the best Hakka dishes in Luodai,' he told me on the way.

'You might find some old people's dialect hard to understand there.'

They speak the Hakka dialect instead of the Chengdu dialect. According to the driver, the people do not say 'have breakfast,' 'have lunch' or 'have supper' but 'have morning,' 'have day' and 'have night.'

When I arrived at the old town, however, I found no indication that it was a Hakka town except for a billboard at the entrance that read 'The No 1 Hakka town in western Sichuan.'

The old town is actually a one-street town. Most of the old buildings are scattered along a road paved with stone slabs. Flat and low, with black-tiled roofs, white walls and wooden doors, the buildings are all in a traditional style that can be easily found in any old country town in Sichuan.

The street is lined with teahouses and liquor shops with big vats of strong alcohol.

Like any small town in the region, Luodai is bustling with life. Farmers from the nearby countryside sell fresh vegetables and fruit by the road. Old men drink tea in teahouses while enjoying the singing of birds in bamboo cages. Elderly people play mah-jong in shops. Food stands attract customers with various kinds of snacks. Tantalizing cured ducks and geese hang in restaurant windows... But I failed to hear the strange dialect among the clamor.

Guangdong Guildhall

Luodai turned out to be different from what I had expected until I saw the Guangdong Guildhall by the upper section of the old road.

It is a complex of buildings with lofty walls and curved gables. There is one particularly huge hall in the complex with an arching roof that is higher than all the roofs around it and is covered with glazed yellow tiles. Compared with the black-tiled roofs that predominate in the town, it looks extremely conspicuous and unique.

Through the wooden gate of the complex, a stone-paved lane led me into a big square courtyard. There, I could see the layout of the complex.

All of the buildings are constructed on a northwest-southeast axis. On the axis are three halls, the courtyard, and a roofed stage. At the northeast and southwest wings of the courtyard are two-story buildings.

The three halls, all facing southeast, have different heights. Erected at the northwestern end of the axis, the grand hall with glazed tiles is the highest. The hall closest to the court is the lowest.

So an impressive view of arching roofs stretching in layers can be seen from the center of the courtyard.

Exquisite and vivid woodcut decorations and brick carvings can be found on gables, wooden beams, rafters and columns.

Two small courtyards lie between the three halls. Beautiful potted flowers and bonsai trees can be seen there. Goldfish swim in small ponds, while birds sing from cages hung on trees.

On a wall in the two-storey grand hall is a written introduction to the guildhall. Originally built by Hakkas from Guangdong Province in 1746, the Guangdong Guildhall used to be a gathering place for Hakkas from that province to meet friends, settle disputes and pay sacrifices to their ancestors and gods.

It was destroyed in a fire but later renovated in the last years of the Qing Dynasty.

Guangdong is located southeast of Sichuan, so the three halls were designed to face southeast.

Among those who donated money to build the complex were a group of Hakkas descended from a royal family of the Wei (AD 220-265) and Jin (AD 265-420) dynasties. The grand hall has a glazed-tiled roof, which usually can only be seen in imperial buildings, and was named 'Yuewang (King of Guangdong) Hall.'

Covering an area of 3,250.75 square meters, it is believed to be the largest of its kind in Sichuan.

The wing buildings now house a restaurant that serves Hakka food.

The three halls have been turned into a quaint teahouse. Sitting in an old chair in a hall, I paid five yuan (60 US cents) for a cup of tea.

I was the teahouse's only customer that morning. I could savor the peace and tranquility of the old house undisturbed. It felt wonderful.

If you are willing to pay more, you can even have a cup of special oolong tea from South China.

Hakka dishes

Lunchtime meant it was time to leave the landmark structure of Luodai.

Xinming Restaurant is the noisiest in the town and it turned out to be the best.

Sitting at a table facing a courtyard, I ordered deep-fried goose (you tang e) and steamed mixed meat (ping wan cai), two famous Hakka dishes in Luodai, and a dish of sauteed wild mushrooms.

The goose looked shiny and oily but did not taste greasy at all. With a haw flavor, it was certainly a delicacy.

The steamed meat was tender and light. It had a totally different taste from the usual Sichuan dishes with their rich and strong flavours and was instead reminiscent of Cantonese food.

The wonderful meal amazingly cost only 51 yuan (US$6).

Other attractions

In the afternoon, I visited another three guildhalls and a temple-turned-museum scattered around the town.

The Jiangxi Guildhall is not as big as the Guangdong Guildhall. Built by Hakkas from East China's Jiangxi Province, the complex of buildings features winding corridors, delicate woodcut decorations, elegant wooden screens and good shade provided by old trees. It is another good place to drink tea.

The newly renovated Northern Sichuan Guildhall used to be a gathering place for business people from northern Sichuan. It is also now a teahouse.

Leaning against the Longquan Mountains, it provides visitors with a good bird's-eye view of the old town.

The Dongshan Museum of Hakka People is the temple that became a museum. Newly renovated, it is the only site in Luodai that charges admission. But there is a poor range of exhibits and they are far from interesting, so the museum can be bypassed.

The Huguang Guildhall is completely newly constructed but not very interesting. However, I saw a photo exhibition there about traditional festivals held in Luodai and discovered that the Hakka water-splashing festival is held in Luodai every July. This year, it will fall on July 20.

During the festival, local people perform dragon dances on the old street, while spectators splash them with water.

It is certainly the best time to savour the unique Hakka atmosphere in Luodai, so I am already planning another trip there this month.

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