Luodai, a once sleepy Hakka township in Chengdu, was given a new lease on life in 2007 during the 20th World Hakka Conference, attended by about 3,000 mainlanders and expatriates who shared stories about their adopted homes. The town underwent a major face lift in preparation for the event, with historic buildings, including the many guild houses, being restored. Non-historic buildings were given veneers in traditional Hakka style.
Luodai, on the eastern outskirts of Chengdu, covers 43 square kilometers and is home to 310,000 people, 85% of whom are of Hakka origin. The name Luodai sounds like "belt dropping" in Chinese, and legend has it that some time during the Three Kingdoms (222-280 AD), the town, then called a different name, had a lake filled with holy water from the East Ocean Dragon.
The water was so revitalizing, and it promoted longevity and a healthy complexion. A well, which drew water from the lake, was built nearby. The carp growing in the lake were nutritious and sought after. A eunuch passed by one day to see an old man pulling out a big carp with his fishing pole and, in a flash of greed, he tried to snatch the fish away from him. But the fish fought back so violently, the eunuch fell into the well. He was rescued, but the fish broke loose and swam back to the lake through a connecting waterway.
The old man disappeared, leaving behind a note where he had been sitting. The note contained a poem that warned of the consequences of being greedy and taking shortcuts. The eunuch, who last his belt during the struggle, realized that he had spiritual encounter. The water in the lake eventually dried up. The story circulated, and local residents adopted "belt dropping" as the name of the town, which subsequently evolved into Luodai.
The legend is of course just that, and has probably been popularized as a proud proclamation of the town's apparent long history. Most of the people who live in Luodai have ancestors who migrated during the Qing dynasty, when the Manchurian imperial power evacuated the coastal areas in a bid to uproot the remnants of the previous Ming dynasty. These migrants consisted of the Hakka people from Guangdong, Fujian and Jiangxi Provinces. This was just one of the many large-scale migrations of the Hakka people.
The term Hakka, meaning "guest families", is believed to date back to the period of the Qing dynasty's Kangxi Emperor, when the coastal evacuation was no longer needed and another imperial edict was issued to encourage people to move back to their original lands. Friction between the settlers and newcomers occurred, and the word Hakka originally emerged as an unflattering term (by naming each other a guest). It was eventually adopted as a blanket term for those migrants who shared the same ancestral roots.
The Sichuan government is keen to preserve the Hakka culture that has flourished in Luodai. Everyone in the township can speak the Sichuan dialect and most speak Putonghua, but between themselves they speak the Hakka dialect that, in its current form, shares a lot of vocabulary with Cantonese - albeit completely different in intonation.
One of the characteristics of Luodai is its many guild halls. The guild hall, often elaborately decorated, is a place where large groups of Hakka people lived together, and it is an integral part of the culture. Besides being a way of displaying wealth, guild halls are where people made offerings to the deities, sang operas, offered refuge to the poor and solved conflicts. At times they were used as guesthouses for visitors and as entertainment centers.
Because the Hakka people have had a long history of migration, different groups have developed distinct styles in their adopted homes. When the Hakka people, who had lived in different parts of China, came to Luodai, they built houses and halls in various architectural styles, and distinct differences can be seen in the styles of the guild halls.
The Guangdong Guild, the Huguang Guild and the Jiangxi Guild are the most prominent. The guild halls no longer play the crucial role they used to, but the local government has poted to preserve them nevertheless. Some have been reconstructed and used as museums, while others have been converted into eateries. The Huguang Guild, for instance, is a museum for Hakka customs displaying traditional tools, photos and items from wedding ceremonies.
A day in Luodai is a great retreat from the bustling city of Chengdu. It is a 30-minute drive to a completely different world. Although many tourists visit the town, the residents remain rustic and simple. There are not many shops catering to tourists, but one source of entertainment is a visit to one of the small distilleries for a glass of rice wine scooped out of a large ceramic vase. These distilleries usually sell rice wine wholesale.
A visit would not be complete without something to eat. In one of the guild hall eateries, thick, rectangular noodles made from beans are served with a fiery chili sauce. The texture of the noodles is soft but the threads don't break easily. The noodles are followed by a bowl of sweet jelly (vegetable gelatin) to cool the taste buds. The Hakka conference resulted in many plans to develop Luodai into a tourist destination, including banning vehicles from the main street and introducing rickshaws. For those visiting the region, the true attraction of Luodai is its uncomplicated lifestyle, history and the genuine people.