Jiangmen: Cradle of overseas Chinese migration


Kaiping diaolou, the spectacular dwellings that merged Eastern and Western architectural styles, many of them fantastic and castle-like. Today there are around 1,800 in Kaiping.

Not many people know about Jiangmen in Guangdong Province, a historic city in the Pearl River Delta from which 200 years ago many Chinese emigrated to the West to make their fortunes. They sent back money. Some made fortunes and returned to build spectacular towering fortress-residences, known as diaolou, that merged Eastern and Western architectural styles, many of them fantastic and castle-like.

Jiangmen is a showcase of the history of early overseas Chinese.

The city of 4.5 million people is only around an hour’s drive from Guangzhou and equidistant from neighboring cities of Zhuhai and Zhongshang. It’s on the lower reaches of the Xijiang or West River.

Compared with densely populated and hectic Guangzhou, Jiangmen is surrounded by lush and relatively tranquil countryside, a place of respite. It’s known locally as Wuyi, meaning land of five counties. Many people still ride bicycles, local cuisine has not been eclipsed by fast food.

When Westerners meet a Chinese person in the US, Canada or the UK, many people think their Eastern roots are in Hong Kong because many overseas Chinese immigrants speak Cantonese. In fact, many of these people come from the Jiangmen region.

The people of Jiangmen are proud to tell you that they were among the very first Chinese migrants who ventured to Western countries, many working as laborers under cruel conditions on railroads and in mines. They also created local Chinatowns that became famous. What’s most impressive about these migrants is the hard-earned money they sent back to Jiangmen, not only for their families, but also for the communities and the infrastructure of the region.

The Jiangmen Wuyi Overseas Chinese Museum displays fascinating artifacts such as bank transfers used to send money home and well-preserved letters written to their families.

While many Chinese stayed on in their adopted Western homelands, some returned, notably to Kaiping, a city within Jiangmen. Proud, patriotic and wealthy, the returnees built architecturally stunning diaolou, which were fortified, multi-story residences and watchtowers to protect from raids by bandits.

Many stand tall in lush green rice fields and look like castles combining a range of styles such as Romanesque, Islamic, Baroque and Rococo, with traditional Chinese elements. The first towers were built in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s, when more than 3,000 diaolou were standing. Today there are around 1,800 in Kaiping.

In 2007, diaolou were recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Quite a few are open to visitors.

Zili Village

One of the most photographed villages in Kaiping, Zili contains 82 striking diaolou, many worth visiting. One of the most notable is Mingshi Lou built by Fang Runwen on his return from Chicago in 1925.

Walking toward the towering structures, visitors can imagine the glamorous lifestyle of rich returned Chinese of the day. They had luxuries such as kerosene lamps (there was no electricity), Western-style toilets and bathrooms, and vast amounts of creature comforts, which people today would envy. Every floor has its own kitchen, bathroom and toilet. There’s an antique German clock, a whisky case, a Western styled bed with a comfortable mattress, and sewing machine.

Every diaolou has a spacious roof veranda providing splendid views of the scenic countryside. Life was comfortable and trouble-free, especially after bandits were banished.

Li Garden

The Li Garden is one of the largest and most spectacular. It was completed by returned overseas Chinese Xie Weili in 1936, after 10 years of construction.

Covering 19,425 square meters, more than four acres, the garden is fusion of traditional Chinese and Western architecture. The estate contains six spectacular mansions and two diaolou. Most buildings are open to the public and are decorated with antique Western and Chinese red wood furniture.

A private canal was built next to Li Garden, connecting to waterways leading to Hong Kong, around 133 kilometers from Kaiping. Foreign construction material was brought in via the canal.

Chikan market town

The tiny, sleepy market town on the Tanjiang River is a quaint and unspoiled destination, 25 kilometers from downtown Kaiping. Walking along the narrow lanes, visitors see life pretty much as it was 350 years ago when the town was founded as a fish market. The area is hugely popular with filmmakers who shot much of “Drunken Master II” and Wong Kar-wai’s recent martial arts epic “The Grandmaster” on location in Chikan.

Visitors themselves are curiosities. Many locals are pensioners whiling away the time, drying fresh fish and vegetables. Cats sun themselves and dogs wander about.

Abundant hot springs

One of the pleasures of living in China is that in the winter, you can venture south on a short flight and enjoy warm sunshine, beautiful scenery and hot springs.

Just an hour’s drive from Jiangmen, Guifeng Mountain and the surrounding area offer myriad hot springs, a much-needed getaway from stressful city life. Jiangmen has a lot to offer, and it all depends on how much time you have. Whether it’s hiking and absorbing the stunning views from Guifeng Mountain, enjoying hot springs, touring diaolou in Kaiping, the region offers plenty of history, charm and surprises.

Where to stay:

Gudou Hot Springs Resort has three luxury hotels with more than 700 rooms and suites. The grounds contain a lake and manmade beach. The resort is dotted with hot springs, popular after-work destinations for locals. The variety of food is seemingly endless.

How to get there

Fly to Guangzhou Airport, take a regular fast train from Guangzhou South Station to Jiangmen Station. Regular express coach service is available from Shenzhen and other cities in Guangdong Province. The trip from Guangzhou takes around an hour.

Getting around:

Taxis in Jiangmen are plentiful. A more interesting way to explore the area is to hire a bike in Jiangmen, or take your own bike — most buses and trains allow them, but ask in advance.



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