Last Monday was the Qingming Festival or “Tomb Sweeping Day” in China which is held on the 104th day after the winter solstice to honour departed ancestors and for people to enjoy the spring weather. As we were given the day off work I decided to take a short weekend trip out of Shenzhen to the little-known city of Kaiping (开平) located about 3 hours away by bus. The area is famous for its castle-like dwellings built by overseas Chinese in a mixture of western and eastern styles.
Leaving at an early hour on Saturday morning from Luohu coach station the dull concrete monstrosities of Shenzhen and Dongguan soon gave way to the lush green countryside of Guangdong punctuated by the occasional small village where life continues much as it has done for the past century or so.
There isn’t much to see in Kaiping itself so on arrival our first excursion was to a village a little outside the city called Chikan (赤坎). Getting here was easier said than done since finding the right bus proved a little tricky. Even my Chinese companions had difficulty communicating with the locals who mostly spoke their own local dialect (as opposed to standard Mandarin). Finally, we found that bus no. 6 went directly there, about a 30-minute journey.
As if being transported back in time about 100 years you’re immediately surrounded by unusual architecture which fuses both European and Chinese styles as a consequence of originating from overseas Chinese who returned home in the 1920s and used their wealth to build the area. While the original shine has undoubtedly worn off there remains a unique charm to the place.
Farmers labour in the fields and chickens run free in the many small courtyards. With banners baring slogans proclaiming the benefits of a comprehensive education modern society seem far away but while the area appears to be sparsely populated the younger residents still find ways to amuse themselves (although one imagines that the internet revolution is quietly passing them by).
Even though it was a murky day there was still a certain beauty and charm to the waterside view which at a pinch could be compared to a run-down version of Venice or Amsterdam. You can’t help but imagine what it must have been like in its heyday.
Being well off any usual tourist trails the area was surprisingly quiet and it was a joy just to wander around the old streets and soak up the atmosphere, peek in a few old shops and sample some of the street food. The weather was overcast and it was drizzling the whole day but this didn’t dampen the spirit.
Sadly the area is in a state of decline, many of the buildings are empty and most are badly in need of restoration. Without the conveniences of modern life, it’s clear that few would want to live here today so one can only help that if the area is developed for tourism that some money will be found to save it. I find it a little sad that in many cases to save a place you have to re-purpose it from its original context but such is progress…
Some people clearly had more pressing ideas on their minds 😉
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Awesome photos, David. Kaiping has been on my “must-visit” list for some time.
Drop me line before your next adventure – I’d like to tag along.
Will certainly do that – Kaiping is definitely worth a visit but having a Chinese speaker along is a must. I would have gotten totally lost otherwise!
i passed through kaiping for a few hours and saw the towers, but id love to go back and spend more time. this town looks interesting.
Such an interesting post – an amazing place! Unspoilt, non-commercial and atmospheric. Flickr pictures are fascinating….:-)
I love your description and photos of this town which capture it perfectly. I just came back from a trip to visit my ancestral village in Taishan and tacked on a quick visit to nearby Kaiping. Luckily I speak the local dialect as did my driver and finding it was quick and easy. The decaying splendor of the place is so hauntingly beautiful. If you go back to the area, stop in at any roadside towns in that area and don’t miss the ‘watchtowers’ (diaolou) at Zili village and dotting the countryside.
Hi Amy – thanks for your comment! Great to hear that you visited Kaiping, like you sait it’s hauntingly beautiful – I hope I can go back again one day.
This is good stuff. I was actually born and raise in a village in Chikan. If you ever have a chance to visit this place again, go check out the surrounding villages. As you mentioned, you are going to find having a local speaker with will be very useful. If you speak Cantonese (instead of Mandarin), it would help much too.
Wonderful pictures – I’m planning a trip here from Hong Kong soon myself!
Thanks Stephen, hope you enjoy your trip!
Hi David. Yes, we drove from Guangzhou to Jinjiangli via Sanmenli. Then drove on to Chikan – and wandered the streets a bit. It’s very atmospheric indeed. The diaolou are also pretty impressive, and it’s all relatively untouristy, which is refreshing for China. We stopped off at a roadside converted old house (almost a diaolou!) – and had lunch there. In the evening, stayed in Kaiping – and back the next morning to Guangzhou via Liyuan. Definitely a great weekend short trip/day trip from Guangzhou. My pictures don’t compare to yours though!
Great post! Love the pictures.
I am visiting Chikan town and Kaiping Diaolou in January, and i was thinking of renting a bicycle at Chikan town, so i can explore Kaiping diaolou at our own pace.
Will be spending 2 nights either at Chikan town or 1 night at chikan town and 1 night at Kaiping city. Any idea if guesthouses or local hotels are easily available at Chikan town?
Any advises will be great. Thanks.
Yes great photos and description. I visited in February 2014. My ancestors went to PNG in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They were from Chikan. I was lucky enough to be escorted around by a relative of a friend who happened to be a former police officer in the area. She helped me find mine and my wife’s ancestral villages as well as the actual houses. The trip was a buzz.
Interestingly, despite a 3/4 generation gap, I am able to speak seeyup (Taishanese)….or “hillbilly” cantonese as I see it described in some web forums. The locals in the villages were able to understand me (and I could understand them) which I thought was quite amazing.
Hoping to bring my family there later this year.
Thank you so much for documenting and sharing these photos and information! I am happy to have stumbled here for I am preparing a visit to this area. If you can offer me any advice and/or more information, I would be so grateful.
I love the pictures. I will travel to Kaiping the week after next – driving from Guangzhou – so hopefully can go explore these old, interesting towns.
Thanks Stephen – good luck with your trip, I really hope all those wonderful old buildings have survived. Let me know how you get on!