All along the watchtowers: The diaolou of Kaiping

All along the watchtowers: The diaolou of Kaiping

I awoke to the sound of something heavy and metallic being dragged across a floor somewhere. At least that’s what it sounded like. The sound lasted just long enough to convince me that I wasn’t dreaming and then stopped but I wasn’t yet awake enough to figure out where it had come from. I was in an old building, a hotel in the historic town of Chikan, about 12 kilometres west of Kaiping City in southern China. And, as far as I had been able to tell, I was the only person staying there. Even the hotel’s reception was several doors down the road in another building.

I listened to the darkness. Now it sounded as if a soft gentle rain was falling outside. Impossible, I thought. There hadn’t been a cloud in the sky and the forecast didn’t think there was going to be one anytime soon. I thought about opening the curtain but I didn’t feel quite ready to confront anything that might have found its way onto my balcony while I slept. Instead I got up and went to the bathroom.

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As I turned on the light the sound of the gentle rain changed instantly to the hiss of the extractor fan that I had neglected to turn off before retiring. That mystery solved I returned and checked the time. 04.35. A motorbike started up in the distance. I pulled open the curtain. There were no phantoms dancing a fandango, of course, but in Chikan town ghosts of the past are everywhere.

Around the town

I’d arrived the previous afternoon. The bus dropped me at the end of Dixi Road, sometimes called European Street, because of the ornate embellishments on its qilou style buildings. Dixi follows the north embankment of a small channel that separates it from the main flow of the Tan River. Opposite is a narrow sliver of an island, the north bank of which is Henan Road. It was along here I currently lodged.

Dixi Road is the main tourist street in town. Its pediments and pilasters, balconies with decorative balustrades, shuttered windows, some hung with laundry, look down on stalls selling candied nuts, fruit, dried fish and plastic toys. Chikan-specific souvenirs were scarce but so were potential customers.

At the western end is an imposing watchtower, or diaolou, called Baoheng Lou (main picture), which these days only guards a little footbridge. To the right of this is the impressive sweep of the town’s waterfront.

Quilou at the corner of Dixi and Weidi Street, Chikan, China
Quilou at the corner of Dixi and Weidi Street.

Chikan has the densest concentration of qilou, or shophouse, style buildings in China, Along its three kilometres of road there are over 600, both large and small. Most of them are still used despite being in a rather poor state of repair. One of the oldest is Jinghui Lou, now a museum, just to the left of Baoheng Lou.

Ambling along the town’s streets the memory can’t help searching its data banks to find something with which to compare. Hanoi and parts of old Bangkok spring to mind but the shoe doesn’t quite fit either of them. Then turning into Zhonghua Road the penny drops. Queen’s Road West, Hong Kong! Right down to the sharp kink in the road. This is what Hong Kong must have looked like a hundred years ago. Except for the people.

At 3.00pm on a Tuesday afternoon people are few and far between, and wandering along the quiet streets one could easily be forgiven for thinking that the town is dying. At the corner of Dixi and Weidi Street there are two particularly large impressive qilou whose ground floor businesses, which boast beautiful art deco entrances, are darkened and deserted. Elsewhere, elderly storekeepers take advantage of the lack of customers for an afternoon nap. One of the few people around is a girl cooking up eggplant, sweet potato, chillies, tofu, small fishes and numerous other delicacies on what looks like a huge pizza pan at the corner of Zhonghua East and Renmin Roads. I remember I’m hungry.

Chikan was actually founded in 1649 and in less than 30 years it had grown to become a regional maritime hub attracting merchants from all around the Pearl River Delta area. For most of its existence two clans, the Situ and the Guan, dominated the town. Although most of the rivalry was economic, it did at times benefit the whole population. In 1923 the Situ family built a public library, an impressive three-storey building at 17 Di Dong Road. Not to be outdone, overseas members of the Guan family opened their own library in 1929. It stands at the western end of Dixi Road, topped with a baroque tower rising above the treetops, and a clock imported from Germany. Both buildings are still open to the public and provide reading rooms on the ground floor.

Chikan’s demise probably began in the early 1950s as other cities grew in importance. Today its population is around 37,000 but the best time to meet them is in the early morning.

From first light the markets behind Zhonghua East Road are alive with people come into town to buy and sell agricultural produce, cooked meats and dried goods. Steam rises from the streets nearby as buns, or bao, and chee cheong fun, a sheet of steamed noodle mixed with egg, roast pork, spring onions and whatever other fillings take your fancy, are prepared for the town’s breakfast. The corner where I had eaten the previous afternoon was thronged with children, many eating noodles, waiting for the school gates to open and the old qilou at the corner of Dixi and Wedi had turned one of its deserted businesses into a restaurant that is only open at breakfast and serves, I was told, the best bao in town.

Majianglong village cluster

Fortified with breakfast, it is time to explore the surrounding countryside. The key feature of the Kaiping rural areas is the proliferation of diaolou. It is believed that there were around 3,000 built. Of those, about 1,800 remain. There are some diaolou that date back as far as the 16th century but the building boom for both Chikan and the watchtowers was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Kaiping county all the diaolou are protected but there are four clusters that are specifically designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and Chikan town is the perfect base for exploring them. This is best done at your own pace with the assistance of a bicycle, which can be rented on Henan Lu across the footbridge from Dixi Lu.

Bao’an diaolou, Majianglong village, Kaiping, China
Bao’an diaolou defends its corner while a little boy patrols the harvest.

For those of us that don’t ride on a regular basis, a bicycle saddle is not exactly sumptuous accommodation but they do offer the freedom to do as you please, and the wind in your hair on a balmy autumn morning is more than compensation for bumpy Chinese back-roads.

The first two sites are the Majianglong village cluster and Jinjiangli village. These are both to the southwest of Chikan. Cycle along Xianglong South Road and turn right onto Country Road 557 across the river. Immediately after crossing the river turn right again into a small back road. Within minutes you are in rural China, passing farmworkers in their fields, sleepy villages and the occasional diaolou in the distance.

Majianglong is a 6km ride and is actually a cluster of five villages. The area was first settled in the mid 18th century and was originally called Fengsuilang, meaning rich harvest land, As I arrived, a toddler on a plastic tricycle was patrolling large swathes of recently harvested rice that had been laid out in the sun to dry while the Bao’an diaolou sternly defended the corner of its village. The cluster boasts a total of seven daiolou and eight villas. The villas are set amidst shady bamboo along a narrow thread of paths to the rear, which connects the villages.

Chang Lou, Majianglong village. All along the watch towers
The interior of Chang Lou.

Some of them are open to the public; others are not. Chang Lou is one that is. Built in 1936, this villa still contains furniture, ornaments, arched doorways and traditional paintings. On one wall are old photographs of the Guan family members that once lived there. Outside, the windows are framed with richly decorated lintels, and there is a commanding view from the flat roof over the gabled rooftops of the village.

Jinjiangli village

Jinjiangli is a further six kilometres from Majianglong and is home to Jinjiang Lou and Riushi Lou. Jinjiang Lou, built in 1918, is a large and impressive structure indeed, with its Moorish domes and Roman columns, but it is still overshadowed by the imposing Riushi diaolou. Riushi towers over the village and can be seen from quite a distance. Huang Bixou, who at the time ran a medicinal herbs shop in Hong Kong, returned to the village to oversee its construction in 1923.

At 28 metres it is the tallest diaolou still standing. Built of reinforced concrete and timber at a cost of around HK$30,000 (US$3,800), it boasts nine storeys and stands within its own courtyard with lush bamboo woods to the rear. The windows on the first five floors have richly decorated lintels with equally splendid corner pilasters leading up to four turrets that punctuate a colonnade and balcony running around the sixth.

The turrets reach their domed conclusion on the seventh where they border a square pavilion containing the ancestral shrine. A tall pediment with a moon-shaped hole on the front of the building is decorated with stucco artworks depicting two phoenix, symbols of grace and virtue. The eighth floor is a smaller, octagonal, byzantine style pavilion and the ninth is a tiny lookout point reached by a steep and narrow flight of wooden stairs.

Jinjiangli village, Kaiping, China. All along the watchtowers
Jinjiang Lou and Riushi Lou have been keeping a stern watch over the village of Jinjiangli for nearly a hundred years.

The building is open to the public for a 20 yuan surcharge but it took the neighbours quite a while to rouse the caretaker who was having a nap on one of the upper floors. It was worth the effort.

The interior floors are partitioned with carved teakwood screens engraved with calligraphy. Each residential floor is equipped with its own kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms and living space with traditional Guangdong black-wood furniture.

The fixtures and fittings are Western style, while paintings and calligraphy decorate the walls along with numerous old photographs of family members. But their identities remain a mystery to all but those who knew them.

Riushi Lou was not intended to be just a watchtower. it was also designed to be a splendid home for a wealthy man and his family. That said, historical records do show that bandits never again attacked the village.

Sanmenli Village and Li Garden

Going in the opposite direction from Chikan will bring you to Sanmenli and Zili villages and the Li Garden. Cycle north along Country Road 060 and turn right into National Road 325. For Li Garden and Zili turn left at County Road 555. For Sanmenli, continue along 325; the village is on the left.

Yinglong Lou at Sanmenli Village is the oldest diaolou in the region. It is a simple three-storey brick and timber structure with little exterior decoration.

The diaolou and the village are historically important due to their age. The village was founded in the mid-16th century and is laid out according to the principles of feng shui, with narrow lanes winding towards each other like a crab’s claws and meeting at the front of the village to avoid bad luck. Yinglong Lou is at the centre of the village. It was originally two storeys high, and the third floor was added in 1920. Records reveal that it saved the villagers from both floods and bandit attacks on numerous occasions and is greatly treasured by the community. It can be visited as a short detour on the way to Zili and Li Garden.

Li Garden occupies 19,600 square metres on the west side of County Road 555. Xie Wei Li, whose father had made his fortune selling medicinal herbs in Chicago before expanding the business to San Francisco and Hong Kong, built it in the 1920s.

Yupei Villa, Li Garden, Kaiping, China
Yupei Villa dedicated to Xie Wei Li’s second wife Tan Yuying.

Once past the glass-domed visitors centre and museum we are into Yunmei village, which consists of five identical houses built for five of his sons. Outside of these was a lone rickshaw whose driver was snoring so happily that he missed his 10 yuan photo-op. Along the main boulevard past a tree festooned with red-ribbon wishes there are half a dozen villas and one diaolou.

Pang Li Villa is particularly impressive. It was completed in April 1931 and boasts a sumptuous mix of Chinese and Western styles. A traditional green glazed tile roof tops a Roman style facade. The floor and stairs are of Italian marble and decorative reliefs reward those that look up to the ceilings. On the fourth floor there is a shrine containing Xie Wei Li ancestral tablets and what I presume to be old photographs of himself and of his wives.

The garden itself is divided into two sections, Grand and Small. The Grand Garden comprises several interesting structures including the pretty Hua Teng (Flower Vine) Pavilion and the Birds Nest building. Another intriguing building is Yupei Villa. This rather elegant structure was built to commemorate Li’s second wife Tan Yuying, who had died during childbirth a year after they had married. The Small Garden features pavilions, waterways and bridges.

Zili Village

Zili is arguably the prettiest of all the sites. Founded by the Fang clan in the early nineteenth century, it comprises three sub villages set on a well irrigated plain in a loop on the west bank of the Zhenhai River.

Zili village, Kaiping, China
Diaolou set amidst emerald green rice paddies and lilly ponds.

An attractive boardwalk leads from the site entrance across an area of marsh to the He’anli, the largest of the three villages. The village houses are of blue brick with traditional gabled roofs. Across a small courtyard and past the houses the path leads to a delightful lily pond in which half-a-dozen diaolou are reflected.

There are nine diaolou in total along with six villas sitting happily amongst paddy fields and ponds in which the villagers keep fish and rear ducks. Narrow stone paths connect the buildings and many of them are open to the public. Mingshi Lou, which featured in the Chow Yun Fat movie Let the Bullets Fly, is one of the finest.

Mingshi Lou and Zhenon Lou, Zili village. All along the watchtowers
Mingshi Lou and Zhenon Lou reflected in one of the ponds at Zili village

Fang Runwen, who was living in Chicago at the time, built the tower in 1925. It is a six-storey building with a carved and gilded ancestral shrine depicting auspicious animals such as the dragon, phoenix, and unicorn on the fifth. A veranda with Roman style columns faces southeast and is bordered with four partially enclosed turrets at the corners. On the top there is a small hexagonal pavilion with a green glazed roof and an exceptional view.

The lower floors of Mingshi Lou are quite simple in design but they do contain all of the original furnishings. These include some beautifully carved partitions with stained glass, tables, chairs, a grandfather clock, traditional paintings, and even old trunks and suitcases.

But for all the relics of the past it is the old photographs of the people who used them, the former residents and family members that are the most haunting. None are identified. They stare back into the rooms, without expression or judgement, while I eavesdrop on the lives they lived.

On the last morning I awoke at 4.30am. I wanted a final look around town. I threw open the curtain, opened the balcony door and stepped out. Down the little lane I could see a shadowy figure moving. It dislodged a large and heavy looking rubbish bin and dragged it along the road, beneath my balcony, and to the corner to await the collection truck.

The last mystery solved I grabbed my camera and set off for the market. And a final char siu bao before getting the bus.

Mingshi Lou southern China
Mingshi Lou.

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