Elaine said I had been ticking off UNESCO Heritage Sites on my travels over the last few years. I never thought of it that way, but I guess it is true. Historic sites are one of the main things we look for in a holiday destination. Sometimes, it is THE thing that brings us travelling there. Recently, we went to Guangdong province, specifically to Kaiping to see another two world heritage sites: the Kaiping diaolou and Chikan Old Town.
We made our way there from Macau, crossing the land border early in the morning to Zhuhai for the day trip to Kaiping. At the Gongbei border crossing, we met up with our guide Jennifer, who had arranged a car with a driver, Mr Leong. We made the two-plus hour drive to Kaiping, mostly on highways, with a few traffic jams along the way, especially where there were toll booths.
Dotted throughout Kaiping’s flat landscape are over 1000 diaolou, many built over a century ago by Chinese who made their fortunes working overseas and who had returned home. These odd tower-like buildings are essentially small fortresses designed to protect villagers from marauding bandits that used to roam the countryside. Their straight sheer walls, metal windows and grilled balconies kept intruders out. Some were homes while others were for communal use.
But the most distinctive thing about these diaolou are the architecture they sport — presenting European and even Middle Eastern designs, from Grecian columns and embellished arches to turrets and minarets. The returning Chinese who had seen them in the countries they travelled to, or saw in postcards, copied them for the diaolou.
They are scattered across the various villages, but with limited time, we focused on Zili Village, which had a large cluster of them. The village was a tranquil picturesque one, still inhabited but also had the facilities of a tourist site — a boardwalk that brought you across the pond to the village itself, little souvenir stalls, even a couple of restaurants. Being low season, we had the run of the place but it was incredibly hot. Most of the diaolou were empty and locked, but there were two that were open for visitors. They were once private residences; now, the period furniture, old family photos and other bits and bobs have been preserved there to show you how life was like. The diaolou had odd stairs, cubby holes and storage spaces. From the upper windows, you could see across the flat land into the distance, which made them great look outs for approaching undesirables.
In this rural countryside, lunch was wherever you could find a decently clean restaurant. We went to Fang Guang restaurant (Sheng Ping Village, Tangkou Town) which Jennifer our guide had scouted out earlier. There was no decor or aesthetics, but it was air-conditioned and the food was good. Dishes included Sheng Yu (Toman Fish) rolled with ham and yellow chives and pan fried; braised goose, a local speciality, kangkong stir fried and a soup. With rice and drinks the price came up to just about S$35. The ‘facilities’ here were simple but clean. Use it before moving on ‘cos you never know when you’ll find decent amenities again along the way.
Then we headed to Chikan Old Town, the other UNESCO site. It is an atmospheric, brooding, gorgeously crumbling town by the river that once was clearly a wealthy community. The rows and rows of shophouses there were huge – about twice the size of Singapore’s typical shophouses — double height on the ground floor, and very broad. The town has become a popular location for filming movies, there’s even a movie studio on one end of the town. Along the river are souvenir stalls selling herbs, the local speciality of dried fish and Cantonese pastries. They are interesting, but sadly block the best view of the town.
Behind that first row are another three streets of equally dilapidated buildings. Most things are falling apart, warped, flaking off, or completely broken but people still live in them, surprisingly. Overhead you’ll occasionally spot a nicely restored balcony (they can’t renovate it) amid the almost-ruins, some waxed pork belly being air dried, or a huge monstera plant climbing up the front walls.
Round the corner, the street market is the only busy part of the town — everyone seems to have clustered there, speaking Sze Yup, the dialect of that area. You’ll see live catfish and frogs, vegetables, meat, and sadly, even dogs. We skirted around those stalls as we didn’t want to see.
At this time, we settled down at the only modern cafe along the river called Miss Guan for a beer. It is also a modern boutique hotel, if you ever want to stay a night. Miss Guan makes a reference to one of the more powerful clans that used to preside over Chikan’s community ages ago. In the vicinity, the Guan Clan Library still stands, and there is a Guan Clan temple somewhere nearby too, but we didn’t get to see them . The other powerful clan there was the Si-Hoe Clan who had a library there too, but I didn’t get to see it. By the time we crossed back into Macau, it was just past 9pm — in time for a late dinner at Dom Galo Restaurant, on Elaine’s recommendation.
This is worth a day trip if you are in Macau, particularly if you are Cantonese as this is where all the Cantonese overseas Chinese came from — the Pearl River Delta.
This was a long day-trip. We left the hotel at 7.30am so that we could make the border crossing on time to meet our guide at 8.30am. We got back to the border around 9pm. The private guide and car cost us 2160 RMB, or about S$450. If you do want to make the trip, I highly recommend Jennifer Choi (http://www.synotrip.com/jennychoiman) who was fun, chirpy and reliable. We had to wire a deposit to her before the trip, after which, most of our communication was done over watsapp, which made things very easy.