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Tasting old world charm

Yang Feiyue
Updated: Feb 17,2016 9:22 AM     China Daily

A local vendor sells gesso-free tofu. [Photo by Yang Feiyue/China Daily]

It has more than 200 buildings dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) in an area covering less than half a square kilometer. Despite being a national tourist attraction, it is still laid-back, Yang Feiyue discovers.

An open market fair drew a crowd in Heping ancient town on Feb 9, the second day of the Lunar New Year.

People dressed plainly with mud on their shoes laid out homemade food items on a street.

Carps and loaches were wriggling in plastic basins, and fresh meat was on display.

Many locals were there to replenish their food stocks for the rest of the holiday.

Some peddlers were using rarely seen iron scales to weigh their goods.

As we left the fair, the voices of haggling customers faded away.

Then, damp streets paved with blue flagstones and cobblestones led us to ancient-looking buildings built using black bricks and glazed tiles.

The streets of Heping ancient town in Shaowu, Fujian province, paved with blue flagstones and cobblestones with old buildings on each side. [Photo by Yang Feiyue/China Daily]

The town has more than 200 buildings dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) in an area covering less than half a square kilometer.

Sited in the south of Fujian province’s Shaowu city, Heping ancient town used to be a transportation and commerce hub.

Historic sites, including a watch tower, a yamen (a government office in ancient times), an old-style private bank, a temple and public granary, all dot in the area.

In particular, there are five imposing private residences of ancient magistrates with their delicately carved doorplates.

Few signs of modern commerce are evident here, even though the town has been a national tourist attraction since the end of 2014.

Only a few residents sell handmade snacks, including gesso-free tofu and spicy stuffed buns, from their houses.

The oldest buildings date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. [Photo by Yang Feiyue/China Daily]

Li Yingcai, 64, and wearing a pink apron, was busy baking cakes with his wife and daughter-in-law.

His family has been making cakes for the past seven generations.

“Sales are good during major holidays,” he says.

The cakes contains sesame, peanuts and other ingredients, he says. They are baked using hot charcoal placed on top of an iron pot cover.

A cake costs 3 yuan and the family can easily sell over 1,000 pieces on a good day.

The local government has spent 300 million yuan ($45.5 million) to restore the original look of the ancient town over the past three years.

Experts from the Shanghai-based Tongji University were invited to help with the protection of Heping.

The improvements have helped to draw even more visitors.

Approximately 3,000 tourists visit every day during the major holidays, such as the National Day holidays, says Yi Jiasheng, Party secretary of the town.

Last year, Heping received 250,000 visitors.

The government plans to spend another 300 million yuan to upgrade infrastructure in the area. The plans include building hotels and commercial streets, and to encourage local traditional cultural and art activities.

The growing tourism sector has also provided an incentive to local residents to open up small businesses.

Dishes for a family banquet. [Photo by Yang Feiyue/China Daily]

Huang Jianxing, 48, decided to open a small catering business, in his house, in 2012 when he and his wife learned that the local government was planning to develop tourism in the area.

This year, instead of relaxing during the Spring Festival, Huang’s family was up at 5 am daily preparing food in their small kitchen.

They received a food order for 30 people on Day 1, but prepared food for 100 as people often drop in without giving notice, says Huang.

Huang offered a food package comprising eight bowls representing eight classic local dishes, with ingredients such as plaster-free tofu, carp, braised meat and escargot.

“When I was a child, eight people would sit around a square table and eat eight dishes,” says Wang.

Wang’s family has fed more than 100 guests since New Year’s Eve.

Last year, they had 1,000 tables, and each table had roughly 10 guests.

Wang’s price this year was 360 yuan, an increase from 280 yuan last year.

“Costs are up during the festival, so I have increased prices,” he says.

“But when everything goes back to normal, I’ll scrap the new price and go back to the old one.”

As of now, visitors don’t have to pay for access and can freely tour the town and savor the ancient culture and locals’ enthusiasm and hospitality.

Xie Gaosheng kept inviting me for lunch when I visited his house. The 67-year-old didn’t look his age at all and seemed a picture of health.

He used to deliver incense to temples in the mountainous areas nearby.

His family was treating his relatives and friends that day. And his wife and eldest daughter were bustling around in the back kitchen. They had to cook for nearly 40 people.

Guests carrying gifts were seen coming in one after another as the lunch hour approached. They took up all four round wooden tables that fit nicely in the antechamber of Xie’s house.

Heated rice wine kept flowing as everyone took turns to make toasts.

The meal consisted of farmhouse-styled dishes of chicken, duck and fish. They didn’t look fancy but were exceptionally tasty.

Xie is grateful to the local government and says he is satisfied with the ways things are currently in the village.

“I’ll visit the others’ houses for meals from tomorrow,” he says.

You might not be able to buy a cup of coffee in Heping for now, but you can sample tasty tofu jelly and fried stuffed dough cakes for just 1 or 2 yuan and take in all the sights for free.

If you go

Take a high-speed train or fly to Wuyi Mountain and then take a one-hour ride on a shuttle bus to Shaowu.