The Watchtowers of Kaiping: Liyuan Garden

The Watchtowers of Kaiping: Liyuan Garden

The Kaiping Diaolou are fortified multi-story watchtowers and residences originally built to protect rural villages. Most were built from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, with a fusion of Chinese and Western architectural styles, by returning immigrants with wealth acquired overseas.

The earliest diaolou were built in the Ming Dynasty as a response to banditry and floods. Building reached a peak during the Warlord Era of the 1920s and 30s. More than three thousand diaolou were built, with approximately 1800 remaining in the Kaiping countryside. Most were abandoned after the Communist Revolution. Some are being maintained by families who now live in other countries.

There are three kinds of diaolou: watchtowers, communal towers built as temporary shelter in an emergency, and residential towers built by rich families as fortified residences. Fortified residences became a way for owners to showcase their wealth, with families and clans competing to build the grandest and tallest towers with modern materials and features at the time. Building was financed by Chinese immigrants returning from the West, Hong Kong and Malaysia, who incorporated Western architectural features, like domes, arches, and Roman columns into the structures. Local builders sometimes worked from postcards sent from abroad. UNESCO designated the Kaiping Diaolou and Villages a World Heritage Site in 2007.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden Entrance

Liyuan Garden or Li Garden was our second stop on a day trip to Kaiping from Guangzhou. We also visited Zilicun, Majianglong, and Jinjiangli village.

Liyuan Garden is not a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, but is a great example of the grand diaolou residences built by rich families.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden

Liyuan Garden was built by wealthy Chinese immigrant Xie Weili, who had four wives and more than 20 children. It took ten years to build and was completed in 1936. The compound is split into three zones: the Villas Zone, Grand Garden, and Little Garden. The zones are divided by three canals.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Watchtower between fortified villas

With 30 inch thick walls, iron windows and doors, Letian Lou (on the right) is a traditional diaolou that was built in 1911. It sits between three of the villas on the first row and was considered the security center of the Xie family.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Rearview of watchtower and front row of fortified villas

The six fortified villas that surround Letian Lou resemble French villas that are painted yellow and topped with ornate green tiled Chinese roofs. Panli Lou and Panwen Lou, the two most prominent villas, share the same basic footprint and were built in 1926.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Panwen Lou
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Panli Lou
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Rear villa
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Panli Lou's Chinese style roof

We had a look inside Panwen Lou, which was the residence of Weiwen Xie, older brother of Weili Xie. There was an eclectic mix of architectural styles built with imported materials. The foyer had dark wood panels and doors, ionic column reliefs framing the staircase, and what looked to be Moroccan tiled floors.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Entry hall leading to staircase
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Looking down at the entry hall from the stairs

Terrazzo was used extensively in place of marble and wood on the staircases. Many of the stairs also had carpet. The rooms were filled with imported furniture.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Villa Sitting room
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Villa bedroom
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Closeup view of Moroccan floor tiles

Panwen Lou and the other villas were also equipped with modern conveniences that we take for granted like indoor plumbing. This included flushing toilets. Most Chinese at the time had outdoor toilets. Even now there are many people in China still live without toilets or indoor plumbing.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Kitchen with indoor plumbing
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - indoor toilet

We were in a bit of a hurry, because it was getting late, and we still had to hit Majianglong, and Jinjiangli village. We didn’t have a lot of time to really explore the gardens.

Kaiping Diaolou - Li Garden

The Bird’s Nest and Hua Teng (Flower Vine) Pavilion are two of the structures in the Grand Garden area behind the villas. The roof of the Hua Teng Pavilion is shaped like the crown of the Queen of England, the Bird’s Nest is an aviary.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Picui Pavilion on one of the canals

The Little Garden Zone is separated by a grand canal, connected to the rest of the garden by a series of bridges. The hexagonal Yicui Pavilion is one of several pavilions located around the garden.

Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Yupei Villa
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Walking the canalKaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Chinese tourists crossing walking garden
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Canal landings
Kaiping Diaolou | Liyuan Garden - Chinese tourists crossing walking garden

The The Yupei Villa (above) overlooks the main canal and the Little Garden, which is connected to the Villa Zone and the Grand Garden by a series of bridges over the canals.

By the time we made it back to the entrance, it was well past noon. We looked around a little shopping area, and had a quick lunch of dumplings before heading off to find our driver.

Next stop… Majianglong village cluster.

Some of the information in this post was referenced from Wikipedia, CNN Travel, Travel China Guide and other sources.

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The Watchtowers of Kaiping: Zili Village

The Kaiping Diaolou are fortified multi-story watchtowers built to protect rural villages from ethnic warfare, bandits, and warlords. Most were built from the late 19th century to the early 20th century with a fusion of Chinese and Western architectural styles by returning immigrants with wealth acquired overseas.

The earliest diaolou were built in the Ming Dynasty as a response to banditry and floods. Building reached a peak during the Warlord Era of the 1920s and 30s. Of the more than three thousand diaolou built, approximately 1800 remain in the Kaiping countryside, another 500 in Taishan and other areas nearby. Most were abandoned after the Communist Revolution. Some are being maintained by families of the original owners who live in other countries.

There are three kinds of diaolou: watchtowers, communal towers built by several families as temporary shelter in an emergency, and residential towers built by rich families as fortified residences. Residences became a way for owners to showcase their wealth. Families and clans competed to build the tallest and grandest towers with modern materials and features at the time. Building was financed by Chinese immigrants returning from the West, Hong Kong and Malaysia, who incorporated Western architectural features, like domes, arches, and Roman columns into the structures. Local builders sometimes worked from postcards sent from abroad.

UNESCO designated the Kaiping Diaolou and Villages a World Heritage Site in 2007. The designation covers four separate areas: Sanmenli, Zilicun, Jinjiangli, and Majianglong village cluster.

My partner and I took a day trip to Kaiping from Guangzhou, visiting Zilicun, Liyuan Garden, Majianglong, and Jinjiangli. Li Garden is not a designated World Heritage Site, but was nearby. Our first stop was Zili Village, or Zilicun.

With nine towers, Zilicun has the largest number of diaolou among the four Kaiping villages designated by UNESCO. The drive to Zilicun was surreal. We could see dozens of diaolou rising from the countryside in the distance from the highway, but we were not allowed to get a closer look at any of them, and didn’t have time to stop for roadside photos.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zili Village

Like most tourist spots in China, there’s a long walk from the parking and ticket areas to the village, which is mostly interconnected and tightly packed low-rise buildings with reinforced windows and doors with bars. They were built this way as a defense against attacks.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Reinforced Door
Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Door and molding details

From a distance the buildings looked fairly drab. On closer examination many of the roof edges have moldings and painted bas-reliefs of flowers, birds, and mythological creatures. Many of the doors have paintings and Chinese writing above them.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zili Village - Village resident sitting against a wall

We passed this lady taking a break from morning chores outside her house.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Diaolou at back of village

We had almost walked the entire length of Zili Village before seeing any of the diaolou, three of which rose up over the large pond at the edge of the village. We were surprised to find that most of Zilicun’s diaolou are actually scattered throughout the rice paddies behind the village.

Some of the diaolou look like more traditional watchtowers, while others look more like fortified residences.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Diaolou in the rice fields

The towers somehow managed to stand out from, and at the same time blend harmoniously with the countryside.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Yunhuan Lou Residential Tower

Yunhuan Lou is a residential tower built in 1921 by Fang Wenchen who earned his fortune in Malaysia. One of it’s defenses was a water cannon.

Unfortunately it was not open during our visit.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Watchtower next-door to a residential diaolou

Yunhuan Lou’s closest neighbor is a three story watchtower with small shuttered windows.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village
Ju’an Lou and Anlu Villa were built so close together that they share the same foundation. We assumed they were probably built by members of the same clan.
Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village

Photo by Kathryn Foster

Ju’an Lou is a traditional watchtower with Western design elements, while Anlu Villa looks more like an early 20th Century apartment block from the west.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village

We ran into this lady in the back of the two towers picking wild herbs near the irrigation trench running between fields.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Two Diaolou in the fields behind village

Looking back towards Zilicun, at one of the towers watching over the fields.

Sitting room on upper floor of The Mingshilou Tower

Only two of the towers were on open during our visit. Before heading back to the village, we explored Mingshi Lou (above), a five story residential diaolou which was built by Runwen Fang in 1925 after his return from Chicago, in the United States. In addition to the main building, there is a kitchen building on the other side of the courtyard. It has a veranda with ionic columns on the 5th floor, four towers known as swallow nests, and a hexagonal pavilion on it’s roof. Mingshi Lou appeared in the 2010 Chow Yun-Fat film Let the Bullets Fly.

Mingshilou Tower entry room

With most of the original furniture, family portraits, foreign newspapers and magazines, and other common items, Mingshi Lou is a mini museum chronicling the lives of overseas Chinese who had returned home in the early 20th Century.

Sitting room on upper floor of The Mingshilou Tower
The Mingshilou Tower Family Shrine

A phonograph sits in a corner of a sitting room with Western and Chinese furniture on one of the upper floors. As with most diaolou, the family shrine is on the top floor.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village

The rooftop terrace of Mingshi Lou offered great views of Zili Village, the diaolou in the fields behind the village, and the surrounding countryside. This was taken from one of the swallows nests.

View from the rooftop terrace of Mingshi Lou

Looking down at two other diaolou from Mingshi Lou

Looking over Zili Village from Mingshi Lou

The view of Zili Village from Mingshi Lou.

Kaiping Diaolou | Zilicun Village - Chinese ladies posing and taking photos of each other outside a diaolou

We lucked out and beat the tour bus crowds who were taking selfies and photos of diaolou and each other around the pond.

Next stop… Liyuan Garden.

Some of the information in this post was referenced from Wikipedia, CNN Travel, Travel China Guide and other sources.

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The Hutong Next Door

The Hutong Next Door

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods in Beijing and other northern Chinese cities. These neighborhoods are created by a series of alleys or narrow streets (called Hutong) that are formed by connecting traditional courtyard residences, called siheyuan.

Beijing’s hutongs offer a window into the traditional culture of the city and its residents, and are some of the most popular destinations for tourists. The first hutongs were built in the Yuan Dynasty, and continued to be built in the Ming, and Qing Dynasties. Unesco estimates that 86 – 90 per cent of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished since the 1950s due to modernization, the 2008 Olympics, and continuing development in the city. Most now only exist within the Second Ring Road, which surrounds the Forbidden City, Beijing’s city center.

Many of the remaining hutongs have been gentrified, or renovated by the wealthy, celebrities, and government officials. Some have been transformed into shopping streets or tourist attractions, with trendy courtyard hotels, shops, bars, restaurants and cafes.

Nanluoguxiang, Wudaoying, Yandaixiejie, which are located near the Drum and Bell towers, the Shichahai Lakes, and the Lama Temple, are some of the most famous and popular hutongs in Beijing. These hutongs and others like them are vibrant and fun. Historic residences and temples are scattered amongst all the restaurants, cafes, and shops. When family and friends come to town this is where we bring them.

Wudaoying Hutong - Couple posing for wedding photos with Photographer
Wudaoying Hutong - Young couple posing for wedding photos

Young couple posing for wedding photos in front of a cafe at Wudaoying.

Sunday afternoon stroll Nanluoguxiang

Crowds walking Nanluoguxiang on a cool Sunday afternoon.

Young mother walking baby in a Hutong near Nanluoguxiang
Mini car parked on sidewalk
Suger sculpture treats Maker in the Hutongs
Old door

Walking the alleys between Nanluoguxiang and the Shichahai Lakes. locals hang out in front of shops, venders sell everything from sugary sweets shaped like animals; fruits and vegetables, and more.

Chilling over beer at Great Leap Brewing at #6 Doujiao Hutong.

Chilling out at Great Leap Brewery No 6
When strolling down Nanluoguxiang, eating dumplings at Mr. Shi’s, or going to brunch at one of the cafes, it’s easy to forget that we’re not getting the full picture. Occasionally we’ll pass an alleyway or look inside an open door to see bicycles, hanging laundry or hidden entrances, but not much else about the lives of the people living there.
Hutong side alley
Looking into entryway of a residence

Views down a side alley and inside one of the open doors.

Two Hutongs separated by wall
Shirtless man watering plants

One of the more interesting intersections between hutongs. A resident was watering the plants in the alley on the right.

The vast majority of residents of Beijing’s older hutongs live in outdated, often primitive conditions with no central heating and inadequate or no indoor plumbing. We were talking to an expat who had lived in Beijing for years, marveling at the number of public toilets in the hutongs. They told us there were so many because most people didn’t have one at home.

Many locals consider the alleyways slums, that are not worth protecting. An article about the hutongs from the South China Morning Post writes “Local people have coined the term “messy yard” to describe the chaotic living conditions of many hutongs.”

Occasionally while out and about we will stumble upon what looks like an unassuming Hutong in the shadow of a Communist era apartment block, shopping center, or ultra modern high-rise. Some appear to have been renovated and are walled off.

Guy on scooter outside of Hutong near Sanlitun
Hutong entrance near Dongyue Temple
One of the Hutong entrances south of Galaxy SOHO

The Hutong Next Door

One evening while walking home from Tuanjiehu Park I turned off the 3rd Ring Road onto a side street looking for a shortcut back to our complex, and stumbled upon a series of alleyways that looked a lot rougher than I was used to seeing. While these hutongs were new to me, friends and colleagues who lived in Sanlitun and worked in the Central Business District, cut through the alleys almost daily on their way to work or home.

I went back the next morning with my camera to get a better look. I’ve been back several times. Usually I’m just passing through. Sometimes I take photos. Other times I’ve acted as tour guide for friends from out of town.

This series of alleys is surrounded by parking lots and 1970s era apartment blocks to the south and west, a modern luxury hotel, and business high-rises facing the 3rd Ring Road to the east, and more apartment blocks with shops to the north. From the south most passersby would have no idea these hutongs were here.

Keysmith Cart at front entrance of Hutong

Located between a parking lot and an auto detailing center, Guandongdian 1st Alley can easily be mistaken for a driveway.

During warmer months a keysmith’s trike can usually be found close to the entrance.

Another alley intersects with Guandongdian 1st Alley at the first public toilets. The glass covered skyscraper in the background is the posh 5-Star Rosewood Hotel.

Side alley off Guandongdian 1st Alley
Old Hutong off Side alley off Guandongdian 1st Alley
Traffic Police building

A few yards past the public toilet is the Traffic Police station. I’ve walked past it many times and still wonder why its there.

Hutong Barbershop

A group of courtyards with a barbershop sit next to another public toilet close to the intersection with Huashiying E Alley.

Hutong Barbershop and residences  from the cross roads

Two older men saw me looking around and pointed to a side alley. While taking photos a young girl came out from one of the doorways.

Side alley off Guandongdian 1st Alley
Little girl leaving home
Heading east on Huashiying E Alley

Heading east on Huashiying E Alley, I looked up to see a second story that was probably illegally by the owner at some point.

Second Story
Side alley off Huashiying East Alley

Several narrow side alleys split off Huashiying E Alley. I looked down a couple. Some had doors all the way down. In others the doors started further down or around the back.

Scooter parked in side alley
intersection of Huashiying E Alley and Guandongdian 2nd Alley

The intersection of Huashiying E Alley and Guandongdian 2nd Alley

Walking north up Guandongdian 2nd Alley

Walking north up Guandongdian 2nd Alley toward the north entrance.

Looking down one of the side alleys off of the main alley.

Side alley off Guandongdian 2nd Alley

Guandongdian 2nd Alley intersects with a “proper” street with shops and 70s era apartment blocks. The north entrance looks to be the main entrance into the Hutong.

Roadside Bike Repair Shop

A mobile bike and scooter repair shop sits directly across the street from the entrance to the hutong. There are shops on either side.

Waiting in line at the produce market

These hutongs would definitely qualify as “Messy Yard”. Unlike most of the other hutongs I had seen in Beijing these alleys had not been renovated recently, if ever. The buildings in the first side alley looked particularly rough. It’s hard to determine whether these are the original structures, or buildings added during the 1950s and 60s to pack more people in, which happened in most of Beijing’s hutongs. On many of the renovated hutongs I’ve seen, the brick walls are actually brick shaped tiles covering older walls that had been shored up with cement. Here the brick was exposed or painted pink. Many of the residences were not walled off from the main alleyways. Life appeared to be lived on the street. In one of the side alleys a woman was washing her hair in a wash basin in front of one of the doors. Junk and trash were everywhere.

I have walked through this Hutong many times over the past couple of years, usually on my way to Sanlitun. The city began renovations within a month after my first visit. I will cover that and other happenings in another post.

Check out The Last Hutongs Of Beijing And China’s Urban Change from Culture Trip and Razing History: The Tragic Story of a Beijing Neighborhood’s Destruction from a 2012 article in The Atlantic.

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Desperately Seeking Geishas

Desperately Seeking Geishas

Gion is a famous entertainment and geisha district in Kyoto that is filled with restaurants shops and teahouses, where geisha (called geiko) and maiko (apprentice geisha) perform.

Most tourists looking to spot geisha head to Hanami-koji Street. The street and side alleys are lined with traditional wooden machiya houses, which are now mostly restaurants with a number of teahouses, known as ochaya, mixed in. Ochaya feature some of the most exclusive (and expensive) dining in Kyoto, and guests are entertained by maiko and geiko.

We arrived at Hanami-koji Street just after 7:30 PM and met a friend at the highly recommended local bar Finlandia. After a couple of drinks we strolled through the alleys surrounding Hanami-koji looking for geisha, but gave up after twenty minutes to go to dinner on the other side of the Kamo river in Ponto-chō. Hours later, we parted ways with the friend, and were back on Shijo Avenue debating whether or not to go back to the hotel, or head back to Gion to see if we could see any geisha before calling it a night.

We were on the bridge back to Gion when I spotted a geisha walking towards us. I quickly pointed her out to K. Locals laughed as we pursued her back to Ponto-chō taking photos. It was like chasing a ghost as she disappeared into one of the buildings. I still can’t believe how fast she moved walking on three or four inch high wooden clogs.

There was no stopping us now. By this time it was just after 10 PM, and with the exception of a few locals going about their business, Hanami-koji Street was empty. For the first 20 or so minutes we caught glimpses of geishas in the distance on their way from one tea house to another. 

We settled on a spot across the street from a tea house on Hanami-koji after watching a Geisha get into the back of a cab that had pulled up in front. We stood a few feet off the street in one of the alleys and waited.

From that point on Hanami-koji came to life with geiko and meiko walking from one performance to the next, getting into or out of cabs, or socializing on the street.

At one point we were in the perfect position to see into the entrance of the tea house as the Okasan and another woman escorted a client out. The woman in the white kimono was clearly not happy. We got a quick glimpse of two kneeling geishas as the Okosan and the other women went back inside. Something was clearly wrong.

The client rode off in a cab, and a few minutes later one of the geishas walked the okasan to her car. She bowed, and as the car drove off started to cry. She noticed us across the street taking photos, turned her back to us and quickly composed herself before heading back inside.

At some point two guys walked up to us in our spot with cameras. One looks at us, turns to other and says “This is spot I was telling you about…” We all laughed, and they head off.

A little later, we followed a pair of geishas to the end of the street. An old woman approached us, pointed to an alley and said “Maiko!” We go to the alley and there are two apprentice geisha chatting. We take more pictures, and a few minutes later they went their separate ways. It was well past midnight so we left too.

76 Departments of the Afterlife

76 Departments of the Afterlife

Dōngyuè Temple is a 14th century Taoist temple in Beijing’s Central Business District. From the outside this hidden gem looks like most other small temples in China, but passing through its gates takes one on a tour of the Taoist afterlife.

Dōngyuè Temple is one of the largest Taoist temples in northern China. It is dedicated to the God of the Eastern Peak, Mount Tai, the holiest of the Five Sacred Mountains of China.

The main halls and the main gate were completed in1322. The temple was expanded and rebuilt twice during the Qing dynasty.

The memorial archway opposite the temple, across Chaowai Street, seen through the main gate. It was built in 1602. Another gate between the temple and the archway was dismantled in 1988 when Chaowai street was widened.

Guardian deities greet you when entering the main gate, called the Zhandai (or Dragon Tiger) Gate. Ten imperial guards of Mt. Tai sit in a side room on the other side.

Monks walking the raised pathway named “Happiness Road” that extends through the courtyard.

There are two pavilions on both sides of the path, with memorial stele for Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty.

90 stele with Chinese calligraphy from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties are distributed between both sides of Happiness Road. Many sit on the backs of stone turtles gods. There were originally 140.

Happiness Road ends at Daiyuedian Hall, also known as Mount Tai Palace. Two little towers which hold what appears to be ash, branch off both sides of the path, just before the hall.

Daiyuedian & Yude Halls

I couldn’t get photos inside Daiyuedian Hall, but got several shots in the back rooms known as the living palace called “Yu De”, or Yude Hall.

The Hall was originally dedicated to the statues of God and Goddess of Mount Tai, but now displays Jinsi Nanmu wooden sculptures of statues of the gods of heaven, earth, and water and other Taoist deities.

Departments of the Afterlife

What distinguishes Dōngyuè Temple from just about every other temple we’ve seen in China, are the cubicles on the east and west sides of the courtyard with plaster sculptures that represent the 76 departments of the afterlife, or hell, under the jurisdiction of the God of Mt. Tai. Some of my favorite departments are featured below.

Department of Accumulating Justifiable Wealth

Department of Halting Destruction of Living Beings
Not sure I would trust this guy with a knife.
Department of Opposing Obscene Acts

Department of Instant Rewards and Retribution

Urging Department

Punishment Department

Department of Earth Gods

Department for Demons and Monsters

Department of Forest Ghosts and Spirits
(The cover image is from the same department.)

Animal Department

Department of the Hell
Depending on what you read, there are 15 Departments of Hell. The actual Department of Hell is much more restrained than some of the others.

Recent History

Dōngyuè Temple was was completely gutted during the Cultural Revolution, with the contents burned or taken away to be destroyed. The temple reopened in late 1970s. All but five of the 50 statutes are replicas. The five older statues are originally from the Beijing Sanguanmiao (Three Officials Temple), which currently serves as government offices. They were moved to Dongyue Temple when the original statues couldn’t be found. The three courtyards and remaining buildings occupy only part of the original site. Dongyue Temple has hosted the Beijing Folk Customs Museum since 1997. The temple was restored in 2002.

Check out China’s memory manipulators, a 2016 article by Ian Johnson for the Guardian, for more background on Dongyue Temple, other cultural sites, and the recreation of Chinese history by the Communist Party. A fascinating read.

Information in the post about Dongyue Temple was referenced from Wikipedia and Travel China Guide.

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