Kaiping (开平; Kāipíng in Mandarin, Hoi1pen6 in the local dialect) is a pastoral area in Guangdong, China, full of rice fields and old-fashioned villages, that is known for its hundreds of diāolóu (碉楼). These watchtower dwellings, scattered around the countryside, were built in the early 20th century by overseas Chinese in a mixture of western and eastern styles.
The watchtowers, which were built to guard against bandits, are a testament to the importance of overseas Chinese in the history of China and the world. Their unique architecture makes them fascinating and exotic both to Chinese people from other areas and to visitors from abroad.
Kaiping (population 700,000) falls under the administration of Jiangmen City in the Pearl River Delta and is located on the Tanjiang River, 140 kilometres (87 mi) away from Guangzhou. The urban area lies on the eastern edge of the county-level city, which is shaped like a big question mark (see map in pink).
Kaiping dialect is a variant of Cantonese that is very similar to the dialect of nearby Taishan but only slightly mutually intelligible with standard Cantonese. However, as Cantonese is the lingua franca of Guangdong province, most locals will be able to speak and understand standard Cantonese. Mandarin is the primary language of instruction in all schools so most younger individuals would also be reasonably fluent in it.
1 Kaiping South Station (开平南站) is the city's high-speed rail station, opened in 2018 and providing service from Guangzhou, Zhanjiang, and other cities, with connections from all over Guangdong and the rest of China. The trains are fast enough to make Kaiping and its diaolou doable as a day trip from Guangzhou or an overnight trip from any major city in the Pearl River Delta.
Taxi drivers wait around looking for passengers after each train arrives. They're cheaper than Didi if you haggle (which you should).
Kaiping has two long-distance bus stations, Yicizhan (义祠站) and Changshazongzhan (长沙总站) along the downtown bus terminal at the intersection of Xijao Rd and Musha Rd. Yicizhan is most likely the starting point for your journey into the surrounding villages of Kaiping town.
From Guangzhou, you can take a bus from Fangcun bus station (芳村汽车站) at Kengkou Metro Station; the ride takes about 2 hours and should cost ¥57.
From Zhanjiang, take the daily bus at 14:00 in around 3 hours to Kaiping's central bus terminal at the intersection of Xijao Rd and Musha Rd.
From Macau, take the border crossing to Zhuhai and then find a bus station around 100m to the right along the main road after you exit the border control building. The ride to Kaiping should take a little more than 2 hours and cost ¥70.
Because the diaolou and Kaiping's other attractions are spread out around a large rural area, driving is the most convenient and efficient way to get to them. Many travelers hire a car in town; drivers wait around at the train station looking for passengers. Around 300RMB should be enough for a half day (5 hours) of sightseeing. The taxi drivers don't often see this much money, so there's no need to offer them any more.
Kaiping has bus lines which connect to most of the major diaolou villages (more or less—you might find yourself walking a kilometer or two). There are also tourist shuttles which run between the sites, somewhat infrequently.
Kaiping is a great place for biking. The roads are pretty flat, and the entrances to some small villages are too narrow for a car. On two wheels you can explore the farms, villages, and diaolou scattered through the countryside. Just wander around, going off on side roads to see whatever cluster of houses looks interesting. The villages here show you the other side of China's famously rapid urban development—since most people have moved to big cities, you'll see abandoned villages, and lots of nearly empty ones with just a few older folks tending the fields. Use Baidu Maps so you don't get too lost, but be warned that it doesn't have many of the smaller roads in this area. You can also ask for directions—Mandarin is probably adequate but out in the villages Cantonese or Kaiping dialect is helpful.
It's possible to hike around between some of the villages and towns around the main diaolou areas. A collection of paths has been designated as the "Kaiping Cultural Tourism trail of hometown of overseas Chinese" (中国侨都步行径).
Kaiping Diaolou and Villages
Very close to the town of Kaiping there are a number of small villages and small houses that were built by overseas Chinese during the early 20th century. These are the Kaiping Diaolou, by far the most famous attractions in Kaiping. Most buildings resemble the style of western or middle eastern culture mixed with traditional Chinese elements. Often there were designed to defend against bandits. See The Diaolou of Kaiping for background. The buildings have not been taken care of since, but the government started to restore and preserve them recently. Four of them (Zilicun, Sanmenli, Majianglong, and Jinjiangli) have together been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The style of these buildings is often cheaply copied by many "modern" buildings throughout Guangdong. Kaiping diaolou is also the setting for China's highest grossing domestic film "Let the Bullets Fly" (让子弹飞) with Chow Yun-Fat. Visit the website provided for directions as it is a very large and complex place to visit that will easily take an entire day to see and possibly more.
There are tonnes of Diaolou across the countryside and you will get bored of them within a day, so don't worry too much about skipping some. As of November 2019 there is a tourism system set up whereby five major sites can be visited individually for varying prices, or ¥180 when purchased as a joint ticket. There is also a smaller joint ticket including just the most popular sites of Liyuan and Zilicun for ¥150. Smaller kids are free. The joint ticket is valid for two days and includes four villages with diaolou you can go up into, plus one other site:
- 1 Zilicun (自力村 Zìlìcūn). Closes at 17:30, but the diaolou start closing up around 17:00. A village with lots of beautiful diaolou amidst rice fields and lotus ponds. Chickens and vegetable gardens are around too, and you'll see villagers working in the garden. ¥78 alone, or included on the joint ticket.
- 2 Liyuan (立园 Lìyuán). A group of neoclassical and baroque buildings with Chinese ornamental roofs in an elegant garden. Colorfully decorated and beautifully restored diaolou. The complex is well preserved but renovated so much it feels kind of artificial. Hosts a museum about the Xie family, who built the complex in the early 20th century, and other overseas Chinese of the early 20th century. ¥100 by itself, or included on the joint ticket.
- 3 Majianglong (马降龙 Mǎjiànglóng). Diaolou among the bamboo thickets. This village is very quiet, though the chickens and geese in coops prove there are still people living here. Not many villagers and even fewer tourists walking around. ¥60 by itself, or included on the joint ticket.
- 4 Jinjiangli (锦江里 Jǐnjiānglǐ). Two impressively shaped diaolou with bulbous cantilevered upper storeys, one of which you can go up in for lovely views. There are quite a few additional diaolou nearby in various states of disrepair. This is the farthest out of the four main villages, but it has much more life than Majianglong. You can experience a bit of the atmosphere of Chinese rural life—chickens and geese puttering around, peanuts drying in the sun, and villagers cleaning, working, or chatting around a table. ¥50 by itself, or included on the joint ticket.
- 5 South Tower (南楼 Nánlóu). 08:30–17:30. A tower built in 1912 where seven soldiers from Chikan fought and died in 1945 in the war against the Japanese. It's designated as a "patriotic education base", and the information about the seven-day battle is all in Chinese, so it might not mean much to you as a foreigner unless you have a special interest in modern Chinese history and national identity. But the top of the 7-story, 22-meter tower does have nice views of the Tanjiang River, the countryside, and Kaiping's blocks of high-rises. You may be the only visitor there unless you happen to arrive at the same time as a tour bus. ¥4, free for under 18 or over 70; included on the joint ticket.
In general, each of these four main villages has about two diaolou you can go up in. Many of these diaolou have been restored with the types of furniture and personal items that they might have had when they were occupied, and the villages have other interesting historic buildings too. Some of the villages have a signed "Suggested route" or "Best tourist route" that you can follow to see the most interesting parts of the village. Most signs are in Chinese and English; some have Korean and Japanese too. The entrances to the villages have machines where you can fill up a water bottle for free, so there's no need to keep buying bottled water.
For those interested in diaolou architecture, see The Diaolou of Kaiping (1842-1937) for background. It may also be a good idea to look for accommodations in one of the small townships surrounding Kaiping. (Kaiping city itself is a fairly standard modern Chinese town.) Xiangang (蚬冈镇), for example, has entire small streets fitted with baroque-like facades cast in concrete.
Other major historic areas:
- 6 Chikan (赤坎). A market town with many arcade buildings built in the mixed western and eastern style by overseas Chinese during the early 20th century. Lovely short riverfront walk. On the opposite river side, you can rent bikes from the youth hostel to discover the area. Reach Chikan comfortably in 20 minutes using bus 106 running through most of western Kaiping. Chikan old town is under renovations, beginning 2017 and expected to last several years.
- 7 Sanmenli village (三门里). A lovely old village like many others in the area, except that it's quite large, much livelier than most, and has the oldest diaolou in Kaiping, the squat 3-story Yinglong Lou built in the Ming Dynasty. Wander around for a half hour and say hello to the old ladies sorting orange peels, the farmers harvesting rice, the mahjong players near the village entrance, and the chickens milling around. Free.
Other sites around the main diaolou area:
- Leaning diaolou (斜楼) (in Nanxing village (南兴村) of Xiangang township (蚬冈镇)).
- 8 Village without People (无人村 Wú Rén Cūn). A ghost town. The people of Dengbian Village (邓边村) gradually moved away to cities, leaving their village to be overgrown by trees and vines. Inside the houses, many with roofs caved in and roots poking through the bricks, you can see remnants of the former residents' lives—a moldy sweater sleeve, broken pots, a dresser barely held up by a couple of ceiling beams. Given demographic trends, the "Village without People" is probably a harbinger of rural China's future—one day, the countryside may be full of ghost towns like this.
To get there, take village road Y811, and the first sign of the abandoned village will be an overgrown diaolou on the right. Just past it is the dirt road leading to the village. Walk down the dirt road and you'll pass a large complex of buildings that you can walk around and explore. The dirt road ends at a river, but a small dirt path to the right leads to another part of the village. When exploring the buildings stick to the paths where other people have gone. The houses are falling apart and may not be stable. If you're really adventurous, an extremely overgrown path from the first complex leads to the village's diaolou (if you go this way, consider grabbing a big stick to scare away snakes just in case). Don't even think about going up in the diaolou, though—the door is rusted shut.
Dengbian Village was one of many villages in the area where the Gin (甄 Zhēn) clan settled in the late 12 century. The village was considered one of the most prosperous in the area and many of its young men went overseas and remitted funds to support the village and build the Diaolou watchtower, the landmark which today identifies the location of the village. Many villagers established businesses and attended school in the nearby town of Xinchang in the Sanbu district of Kaiping. Today, on the outskirts of Xinchang is a Gin Sun Hall Memorial Hall named in honor of the Gin Sun Hall who 25 generations ago in 1190s settled in the area. The Gin Sun Hall Benevolent Association in San Francisco was established and supported by the descendants from this area.
- Peacock Lake (孔雀湖 Kǒngquè Hú). A beautiful reservoir.
Hot springs in the town of Chishui (赤水 Chìshuǐ) near Jinjiangli.
- Jin Qiao Cheng (金桥城). A shopping mall in Kaiping that was completed in November 1993. It is a shopping and entertainment mall. Inside you can find fashion shops, gift shops, cosmetic shops, and DVD stores. With a construction area of 1.3 million square meters, there are a total of eight floors. There escalators, elevators, central air conditioning, closed-circuit television monitoring system, automatic fire control system, parking and other service facilities. A total of hundreds of city shopping shops, First to fourth floors are commercial space, business is very rich in species, of which the first floor is main selling household appliances, audio-visual products and daily necessities, etc. Second and third floors mainly sell apparel and leather products and so on. Fourth floor is mainly beauty centers. Level five and above is a large-scale entertainment venues.
- Bu Xing Jie (步行街). There are 2 floors of this street ; First floor having 262 shops and second floor having 275 shops. This street features fashion clothing, footwear, stationary, accessories, electronic appliances, etc. Beside the stores are many little stalls selling snacks from drinks to noodles. The second floors features many shops where you can take photos of yourself which is like a sticker (sticker photos).
- Yi Hua Plaza (益华广场). At commercial golden mile of Kaiping, Mu Sha Rd. Built by Hong Kong Capital Groups and Sino Groups' investment. As a multi-functional commercial square, it has an area of 68,000 square metres, 8-storey (a layer in the basement), and includes department stores, supermarkets, brand-name shops, restaurants, snack street, Western-style fast food, movie theaters, kids playground, Internet cafe, karaoke, sauna, fitness, foot, Steppenwolf, rooms, meetings, car park, etc. It is the largest commercial centre at present.
- Kaiping Tourist Shopping street (步行街). Kaiping tourist shopping street is a two-storey large-scale special building, 800 metres long, south from Cangjiang river, north to 325 national highway, and east with Dong Xing road. This building is a highlights of European style, and is similar with many famous building such as The White House, the Arc de Triomphe in France, Germany Castle, London Bridge, the Netherlands windmill, etc.. There are 262 shops on the first floor, 275 shops on the second floor, and a large space garden on the roof which includes fountains, pavilions, porticos and a large quantity of white marble sculptures. Tourist shopping street include many kinds of products, such as clothing, footwear, stationery, electrical appliances.
- Baihui Market (百汇). Baihui Market is relatively close to Yi Hua Plaza. It's just like Bu Xing Jie, but there are several columns of shops that sell tea, fruits, stationary (pens and penicls and paper), snacks, and a lot of other stuff.
- Easco City (东汇城), Easco City is a shopping complex with many places to eat, shop, and play. It is just like Yi Hua Plaza, but more modern.
- 1 Sishi Market (思始市场 Sīshǐ Shìchǎng), 5 Siming Road 思明路5号. Covered produce market with lots of fresh vegetables, plus fruit, meat, and more.
A local specialty is clay pot rice (煲仔饭 bāozǎifàn), rice cooked in a covered clay pot with meat and vegetables on top. Mix it together when it's served—the sauce on the rice is delicious. Some restaurants can make a version without meat for vegetarians.
- Ganbasha Coffee House (甘巴莎咖啡馆), 255 Xiangyuan Xincun (祥苑新村255号), ☏ . Serves western and Chinese food at a reasonable price.
- Vegetarian Restaurant, Level two of the mall 500m east of the bus station (Walk east of the bus station 500m, then ascend to level 2). Great mainland Chinese style vegetarian buffet. Operates from 11AM or 11:30AM to 2PM for lunch. 20RMB/person.
- Café de Coral, in the front of Yi Hua Plaza.
- 1 Hanji Meishiguan (翰记美食馆 Hànjì Měishíguǎn). A big, noisy, busy restaurant serving authentic local food. The specialty is clay pot rice. Vegetarian version available. Cheaper than the restaurants closer to the diaolou areas. ¥20–30.
Most options are downtown, and it's perfectly feasible to do the diaolou as a day trip from your more centrally located lodging. There are also guesthouses and hostels out among the diaolou, with a particular concentration in the towns of Chikan and Tangkou. Staying out in these places lets you enjoy the rural scenery, and they make a good base for exploring the countryside by bicycle.
- 1 TK - Village Inn (塘口空间 Tángkǒu Jiānkōng), 14 Tangxi Road, Tangkou Town 塘口镇塘西路14号. ¥400.
- 2 Tribe of Diaomin (DMBL Inn, 碉民部落 Diāomín Bùluò), 55 Tankou Street 塘口街55号, ☏ . A plain, clean, quiet guesthouse and hostel surrounded by old buildings and rice fields in the town of Tangkou near Zilicun. Downstairs is a bar and a sort of mini-museum of local artifacts. The hostel-style dorm room is separated by a curtain into a men's section and a women's section. There are small lockers with their own keys, and each bunk has electrical outlets fitting several different plug types. Fast wifi. Quality bike rentals available: ¥20 for 2 hours, ¥30 for 4 hours, ¥40 for 6 hours, ¥50 for 8 hours. Bunks from ¥50, rooms from ¥160; more expensive on weekends.
- Xiangyuan Binguan (祥苑宾馆), 261 Xiangyuan Xincun (祥苑新村261号) (Next to the shopping and tourist center), ☏ . Rooms are ¥100 for a double after.
- Xingdu Hotel (星都大酒店), 10 Changshaguangming Street (长沙光明路10号), ☏ .
- A 15-minute bus ride south will bring you to the neighboring town of Taishan, which has a few hundred diaolou of its own.
- 30 minutes west are the numerous hot springs of Enping.
- Further west is Yangjiang, the knife manufacturing capital of China.
- 45 minutes north on the way to Guangzhou is Heshan with its temples in the mountains overlooking the highway.
- The closest major city (1M+ population) is Jiangmen.
- Zhaoqing, a nice city with old city walls, a massive lake with many islands and a national park close by.