Throughout history, there has been a number of periods when Western influences played a role to enrich the architectural developments in China. However, despite occasional outside influences and technological refinements from dynasty to dynasty, the evolution of Chinese architecture remained relatively consistent in terms of its structural principles, construction techniques, planning strategies, and overall aesthetics. This remained so until drastic social changes took place in recent two centuries when first China was forced to open its doors to the West in the 1800s, and second when modern China welcomed the new ideas of urban development, international commerce, and contemporary living in recent two decades. Only hours of bus ride from Hong Kong, the County of Kaiping and City of Guangzhou are two great places to examine how Western influences came to fuse with local habits in defining Chinese architecture that reflect the unique values of two distinct eras.
Four hours of bus ride connects Hong Kong to Kaiping (開平), a county in the Chinese Province of Guangdong. We left Hong Kong early in a Friday morning by bus, and arrived in Kaiping at around lunchtime. We spent a little over a day exploring the Kaiping area, visiting a few of its photogenic villages and diaolous (碉樓) or fortified towers, and the splendid architecture and atmospheric colonnaded streets of the town of Chikan (赤坎鎮). On Saturday, we took a two-hour bus from Kaiping to Guangzhou, the cosmopolitan provincial capital of Guangdong or Canton (廣州) where we stayed for the second night at its unique Shamian Island (沙面島), a small sandbank island where once controlled by the British and French during the 19th century. Lastly, we spent much of Sunday in Guangzhou visiting some of its flamboyant architecture built recently.
Before 2007, few other than photography enthusiasts in Hong Kong and Guangdong knew about Kaiping. After some villages of diaolous were inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Kaiping gradually became a popular destination for both domestic and international tourists. Since the Ming Dynasty, villagers in Southern Guangdong built fortified towers to safeguard their properties from bandits. But it wasn’t until the turning of the 20th century when villagers of the area erected all kinds of towers with a mix of architectural styles from all around the world that Kaiping diaolous became such a unique phenomenon found nowhere else in China. The phenomenon revealed Kaiping’s close connections with the outside world. Many families in Kaiping had members either studied, worked, or even moved abroad at the turning of the century. Popular destinations of the exodus included United States, Canada, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Many of these emigrants settled abroad, but returned to Kaiping from time to time. Many of them returned with foreign design ideas, postcards of Western mansions, or even architectural drawings to build towers full of personal tastes. Some would even imported building materials from Hong Kong or abroad for tower construction. Local contractors, on the other hand, would use their imagination and interpretation to construct the towers based on the limited information provided by the property owners living abroad. As a result, a unique mixture of Western design and traditional Chinese craftsmanship formed the basis for diaolou’s construction. At its peak, over 3000 diaolous were erected in Kaiping. Today, there are about 1800 survived.
Guangzhou or Canton, on the other hand, has always been a vibrant city in China. It is the third largest city in the country, after Shanghai and Beijing. Historically Canton was the most important trading hub between China and the outside world. Since the arrival of Portuguese traders in the 17th century, a romanticized Canton was once the sole source of imagination for the Western world to comprehend the Chinese civilization. In modern times, Guangzhou gradually regained its former glory in recent decades as China reopened its doors to the world. With its close proximity to Hong Kong and strategic location at the core of Southern China’s manufacturing heartland, Guangzhou once again came under international spotlight with its new iconic buildings.
It felt like going back in time when we first arrived at the town of Chikan (赤坎鎮), the transportation hub for most travelers visiting the villages of Kaiping.
Zili Village (自力村) is dotted with diaolous (碉樓) or fortified towers. The village has become famous domestically ever since a number Chinese movies and television shows were filmed here.
Set in the midst of bamboo groves, the diaolous at Majianlong Village (馬降龍村) create another atmospheric scene of unique architecture.
Jinjiangli Village (錦江里村) has the tallest diaolou in entire Kaiping.
Arriving at Zhujiang New Town (珠江新城) of Guangzhou (廣州) from Kaiping was like going to the future.
A Sunday morning stroll in Guangzhou’s Shamian Island (沙面島) felt like walking in a relaxing European town.
Contemporary architecture reshaped the skyline and character of Guangzhou in recent years.
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All posts on 2015 Kaping and Guangzhou
1) TWO EPOCHS OF EAST MEET WEST: Kaiping (開平) and Guangzhou (廣州), China
2) QILOU (騎樓) BUILDINGS OF CHIKAN (赤坎鎮), Kaiping, China
3) DIAOLOU (碉樓) OF ZILI (自力村) VILLAGE, Kaiping (開平), China
4) VILLAGE OF MAJIANLONG (馬降龍村), Kaiping, China
5) JINJIANGLI (錦江里村) VILLAGE, Kaiping, China
6) ZHUJIANG NEW TOWN (珠江新城) AT NIGHT, Guangzhou, China
7) SHAMEEN ISLAND (沙面島), Guangzhou (廣州), China
8) CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE, Guangzhou, China