Li Yuan or Li Gardens: Heading on past Sanmenli from Kaiping, the next important group of Diaolou buildings is in the Li Yuan, or Li Gardens, a further 10 kms down the road. These are the posh Diaolou. Click here to see what is a Diaolou
The Diaolou in the Li Gardens are the most European in the Kaiping region. Many resemble French Villas with only the eave roofs giving away their Chinese essence. They exude wealth and power and wouldn’t be too out of place on the Champs-Élysées (maybe the cheaper end). The interiors of the Li Garden’s Diaolou are luxuriously furnished and gorgeously decorated.
Sanmenli 三门里村落. If ever there were a sleepy place where nothing ever happens it has to be Sanmenli Village. Tranquility and peace imbibe this pretty village only a few kilometers from the large and ugly city of Kaiping 开平.
Being so close to Kaiping, Sanmenli is easy to miss; we nearly did! As you leave town, keep your eyes peeled on the right and you’ll see a cluster of fabulous- looking old houses, straight out of the China you imagine existed centuries ago. We couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing. If this were Shangrila Yunnan, there would be a coach park, souvenir stalls and thousands of flag- waving tour guides with their camera- toting and mobile phone – fixated hordes traipsing behind them. It seems that the rural and architectural charms of Guangdong Province have largly escaped the scourge of Chinese mass tourism.
Still, it was curious to see a clearly marked signpost, both in English and Chinese, pointing in the direction of the village (See getting there), given how few people actually visit. We had the whole place to ourselves on a weekend in August.
The entire area around Kaiping is famous for the fantastic Diaolou buildings 碉楼 (Fortified buildings used as watchtowers: Click here). These magnificent structures can be seen everywhere, sprouting out of paddy- fields or hidden between the housing blocks of encroaching urbanization.
These amazing buildings sprout like giant mushrooms from the pretty paddy fields around Kaiping. Some structures are simple and plain affairs, others elaborate and ornate, the best are jaw droppingly beautiful.
The Diaolou were mostly built by returning Chinese emigrants in the early years of the 20th Century, especially in the 1920s. Many reflect the styles of the countries where the émigrés went, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Europe or North America. Some of the Diaolou are a mix of different styles. Building a Dialou was a returning émigré’s way of showing the homeland that he had made it. However, at the same time, one of the principal functions of a Diaolou was defensive. China in the 1920’s was in the midst of the Warlord era. Internal conflicts and instability were rife.
Bandits and remnants of warlord armies roamed the countryside, pillaging and looting. The Diaolou were used primarily as night watch-towers and as a way of sealing off and protecting the family from potential intruders and kidnappers. This was done by providing the towers with heavily fortified entrance gates, as well as the means of closing off each floor separately.
The more elaborate Diaolou were also built to display their owners’ wealth and prestige. Some have commemorative plaques, documenting the family’s history. There are stories of great patriotic heroism, others are of personal tragedies and incredible hardship. When the Japanese invaded China, many of the Diaolou owners fled abroad and never returned.
After the Chinese Revolution in 1949, the Diaolou fell into disuse and were all but forgotten until the 1990s. However, after a long campaign by Chinese history scholars, the Diaolou of Kaiping were listed as UNESCO heritage in 2007. Slowly, the descendants of some of the emigrants have been returning to restore the buildings. There are still over 1,800 Diaolou in the Kaiping region.
To visit the Diaolou, you first have to get to Kaiping, which is some two and a half hours by bus from Guangzhou.
Guangzhou Youth Hostel, March 1991, Shamian Island
The rumor going round the hostel was about an American tourist who had fled China in tears after only 2 days into her 1 month trip.
The unfortunate young girl had passed through Guangzhou’s notorious Qingping Market (清平市场) and seen two kittens kept in a tiny cage. The kittens were destined for the tables of Guangzhou’s restaurants. Thinking she would do the kittens a good turn, she negotiated a price for them. Expecting to save the kittens, she hadn’t counted on what would happen next. The store holder took the kittens out of the cage snapped their necks and handed their lifeless bodies over to her. She freaked out and was on the next express train back to Hong Kong.
Whether this is just an urban legend or a true story any visitor to Qingping Market in 1991 could believe it. The variety of animals waiting to be butchered made it feel like a zoo rather than a normal meat market. I remember Monkeys, Pangolins, giant salamanders, snakes, deer, dogs and even owls. The orangey color of dog meat roasting on spits was a common sight as were the restaurants with cages outside full of exotic fauna that made eating out a bit like dinning in a slaughter house.
However, we could never be certain that the cat story was true. Maybe it was just an urban legend.
It could be Spain, France or Portugal, but it’s not. The houses are gorgeous colonial era buildings, lovingly and meticulously restored back to their original condition. The broad tree lined avenues are an oasis of luxuriant green. Locals play card games or badminton and newlyweds and models pose to have their photos taken against the spectacular backdrop of elegant buildings. Traffic is conspicuous by its absence.
Green and laidback Shamian Island
Welcome to Guangzhou! Or better said; welcome to Shamian Dao (Island), the haven of peace in one of China’s most frenetic cities.
We stayed on Shamian Island while we explored the rest of Guangzhou and parts of Guangdong. It provided a wonderful retreat after a day of sightseeing, market exploring or pigging out in one of Guangzhou’s famous Dim Sum restaurants.
Chaozhou is definitely one of Guangdong’s more interesting cities. Apart from being home to some exquisite ancient temples, impressive Ming dynasty walls and buzzing markets, Chaozhou is also home to some fascinating colonial and Qing dynasty architecture.
This post looks at the Qing dynasty buildings in Jiadi Xiang甲第巷, a restored lane of Qing courtyard dwellings. There’s nothing quite like it in China.
In Jiadi Xiang all the houses are embellished by colourful and elaborate wall paintings that surround the main doorways and follow the curving line of the eave roofs.
Dafen is a village surrounded by the thriving metropolis of Shenzhen, and the origin of most of the world’s reproduction oil paintings. In the popular imagination Dafen’s artists produce anonymous works for unknown customers, operating no differently than a faceless factory churning out counterfeits, replicas and nothing close to what would be considered art. … [Link to REGIONAL’s project page]