China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city.With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi.In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>>
19th century southern Guangdong was a tough place. While trade funneled by Beijing through specific merchants in Guangzhou brought money to the region, it also brought war. Increased population in the region brought food shortages. Cantonese, especially from villages on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, went abroad to find their fortunes elsewhere. Merchant or worker, many of those who left for the West returned or sent money back that was used to build up their communities.
Today, elaborately decorated three-to-four-story-tall fortified towers and dwellings are all that remain of the earnings brought or sent back to Kaiping (Kāipíng, 开平). While cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen built fortunes through trade and manufacturing, Kaiping was left behind, a dusty backwater. But its not modern Kaiping that makes this city a great Guangzhou day trip or weekender, but what remains of historic Kaiping....
The other half
With the end of slavery in the Western hemisphere during the middle of the century, cheap labor from China was used as an alternative. Promised much, but ultimately given little for their hard work, these "coolies" worked across North and South America and in the Caribbean. Some of those who survived the difficult voyage overseas brought or sent their earnings back to their home villages.
Emigrants from nearby Taishan (Táishān, 台山) made up the majority of Chinatowns around America, its local dialect as prevalent as Cantonese. Populations in Kaiping and surrounding villages were equaled or surpassed by their overseas sons and daughters. Half of the town was abroad.
The coming wealth came with a price, however, and banditry increased in the region, forcing locals to cope.
To deal with the bandits and project the wealth and prestige of fortunes made abroad, individuals and villages built the Kaiping Towers (Kāipíng Diāolóu, 开平碉楼). While a few of these structures were built earlier, most were built during the first thirty years of the 20th century. The tall dwellings mixing European and Chinese architectural styles dot the flat plains: clustered in groups, standing alone or surrounded by villages. At one time, there were an estimated 3,000 of these towers around Kaiping, a number now reduced to 1,833. In 2007, the remaining towers were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The oldest of the Kaiping Towers, Yinglong Tower (Yínglóng Lóu, 迎龙楼; free), is a wood and brick building first built in the Ming Dynasty, but added on to during the Republican Period. Though quite different in style from the others, Yinglong Tower is one of the closest to downtown Kaiping. Taxis, tours or private drivers are the easiest ways to get to the tower.
One of the most popular sites for diaolou, Zili Village (Zìlì Cūn, 自力村), has fifteen of the towers, three of which can be toured. This and nearby Li Garden (Lì Yuán, 立园), a garden complex with a villa, are both a 15-20 minute taxi ride from Kaiping.
The face of this village along the Tan River (Tán Jiāng, 谭江) changed drastically in the 1920s with the money and Western styles that came back with overseas Chikan Town (Chìkǎn, 赤坎) merchants. Western-style arcade buildings (qílóu, 骑楼) cropped up along the river with street level businesses and upper story residences. The Japanese invasion put a stop to the boom. Members of the wealthy Situ family made a stand against the invaders from their South Tower (Nán Lóu, 南楼), built in 1912, for seven days and nights before they were gassed, captured, tortured and executed. Damage from Japanese guns and artillery still scar the beige tower and a park has been built in front, honoring the sacrifice of the defenders. Though the building resumed after the Japanese were defeated, the coming of the Chinese Civil War reversed the city's fortunes.
Chinese movies and TV shows have been shot on the streets, resulting in the touristy Chikan Movie Street (Chìkǎn Diànyǐng Jiē, 赤坎电影街; RMB 20), but most of the old buildings have decayed from neglect and many are abandoned. Those that have been abandoned can fairly easily be explored, but aren't being maintained, so they can be dangerous. Decayed, abandoned or still in use, the buildings like the Presbyterian Church (Jīdū Jiàotáng, 基督教堂) remain a curious remnant of the town's heyday.
From Kaiping, bus nos. 4 and 6 run to Chikan and a taxi ride to the village, about 15 km (9 mi) away, costs about RMB 26.
Getting to Kaiping
From Guangzhou, buses run from the Guangfo Bus Station (Guǎngfó Qìchēzhàn, 广佛汽车站) as well as the Fangcun Passenger Station (Fāngcūn Qìchēzhàn, 芳村汽车站). Buses also run from Shenzhen, Zhuhai and even Hong Kong. In Kaiping, buses to and from these cities stop at the Changsha Bus Station (Chángshā Qìchēzhàn, 长沙汽车站) and Yici Bus Station (Yìcí Zǒngzhàn, 义祠总站).