by David M. Littlefield | Feb 7, 2022 | Asia, China, Chinese Culture, Culture, Hidden Gem, Landmarks, Travel, UNESCO
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
by David M. Littlefield | Jan 10, 2020 | Asia, Beijing, China, Living in Beijing, Street Life
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.
Young couple posing for wedding photos in front of a cafe at Wudaoying.
Crowds walking Nanluoguxiang on a cool Sunday afternoon.
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.
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.
Views down a side alley and inside one of the open doors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A group of courtyards with a barbershop sit next to another public toilet close to the intersection with Huashiying E Alley.
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.
Heading east on Huashiying E Alley, I looked up to see a second story that was probably illegally by the owner at some point.
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.
The intersection of Huashiying E Alley and 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.
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.
A mobile bike and scooter repair shop sits directly across the street from the entrance to the hutong. There are shops on either side.
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.
by David M. Littlefield | Dec 31, 2019 | Asia, Beijing, China, Cityscape, Expat Life, Landscape, Living in Beijing, Travel
Winters in Beijing are cold and dry. Snow is rare, and it usually doesn’t stick. We can count the number of times it has snowed the past three years on one hand. This year it has already snowed twice before the official start of winter.
We were flying to Taipei the first time it snowed in late November, but this time we were home. After waking up to snow on the ground, and watching it snow off and on for hours I grabbed the camera, and took the subway down to Tiananmen Square and the area around the Forbidden City.
Walking down one of the side streets outside of our compound to the subway station.
The snow picks up on the way to the subway station near the corner of Jianguomen and Dongdaqiao.
I chose the wrong security checkpoint line and it took almost 15 minutes to get into Tiananmen Square. By this time it had stopped snowing. Most of the people I encountered at Tiananmen Square were tourists from out of town, and the usual security and military personnel. There were additional cleaning crews to remove the snow.
After a few minutes of walking around and posing for pictures with Chinese tourists from provences that don’t see a lot of foreigners, the snow picked up again.
Tourists flock to the front of the square to get the best photos of the Forbidden City and the color guard protecting the Chinese flag.
The color guard protecting the Chinese flag on the Square facing away from Mao’s portrait on the Forbidden City.
Beijing policeman walking the sidewalk outside the barrier that surrounds Tiananmen Square.
I walked the subway under Jianguomen to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is the south entrance to the Forbidden City. Tourists took selfies and photos before entering.
Two guards with policemen leaving the security area at one the bridges to the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
While taking the photo of this guard and the portrait of Mao, I noticed he was looking at me from the corner of his eye.
Just east of the main entrance to the Forbidden City is an entrance to the Imperial Ancestral Temple, now known as the Working People’s Cultural Palace. It is a smaller scale replica of the Imperial Palace that was used to honor the ancestors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The layout of the Imperial Ancestral Temple is identical to that of the Forbidden City. It has been called a smaller scale replica of the Imperial palace.
While Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City’s Gate of Heavenly Peace were filled with people from out of town, the Working People’s Cultural Palace was filled with local Beijingers.
The Bridges leading to the Halberd Gate of Imperial Ancestral Temple.
Locals were taking photos and playing in the snow. I was surprised how many photographers were out. I tried to cut them out of my photos as much as possible. One young family was engaged in a snowball fight.
Several young women were posing for photos in Imperial era costumes. I don’t know if these were hastily arranged to take advantage of the snow or if they were regularly scheduled shoots. The woman in the photo on the Bottom is balancing on clogs at the center of her feet.
The Imperial Ancestral Temple houses the Taimiao Art Museum of Imperial Ancestral Temple Beijing, which is one of the sites for Anish Kapoor’s solo exhibition in Beijing. We first saw the show the prior evening. I stepped in to get another look.
Kapoor’s mirrored steel works S-Curve (2006) and C-Curve (2007), Stave (2013), Non-Object (Spire) (2008) and Non-Object (Door) (2008) were on display in the central atrium.
The 600 year old Imperial Ancestral Temple is the probably the best preserved historical site I’ve seen in China. The highly detailed wall and ceiling paint create a more unique experience than the usual white walled gallery spaces, or outdoor settings, when viewing the distortions and reflections of the scultures.
When approaching the C-Curve (above) from the front reflections are inverted until one gets closer to the sculpture, when they shift to right side up. There is no such distortion when approaching from the rear.
The reflections of the S Curve can feel even more disorienting, as the view changes depending on if approaching from the left, (upside down), or the right (rightside up).
Kapoor’s mirrored steel scultures are part funhouse mirror and part portal to another world. The Temple environment adds to this impression.
Back outside, I headed for the back gate, passing more locals taking photos of each other and the Imperial structures in the snow.
These two young women were taking selfies with a snow bunny that had been built, with a crude snow man on a bench facing the moat near the East Glorious Gate of the Forbidden City.
I ended the morning with a quick walk up to the east corner tower. There were about a dozen other people taking photos with smart phones and DSLRs.
by David M. Littlefield | Sep 10, 2019 | Asia, Japan, Kyoto, Street Life, Travel
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.
by David M. Littlefield | Sep 1, 2019 | Beijing, China, Expat Life, Living in Beijing, Travel, Uncategorized
An American Expat in China
How does a middle aged graphic designer find himself living in Beijing, traveling China, Asia and the World?
Four years ago I was commuting daily to my web and graphic design job at a New York healthcare company in the Bronx. The commute was long and unpredictable, and the company’s recent move to the new corporate headquarters added an additional 15 – 20 minutes each way. While I generally liked the job I was looking for a change.
My iPhone was my only camera at the time. My photos (and videos) covered a range of subjects from daily life in New York City, weird or interesting stuff I came across (clouds, shadows, etc.), trips and the occasional food pic. Most of this ended up on Instagram and Facebook.
I originally got into photography as a visual arts student at Duke Ellington, School of the Arts in my hometown, Washington, DC. As with many photographers of a certain age, my first camera was the Pentax K1000. I learned to shoot black and white photos, learning to develop film and work with prints in the darkroom. I was always into comics and drawing, and eventually moved on to graphic design, but never stopped taking photos, eventually making the move to digital. The first digital camera I used was the Nikon E4500 flip camera that I occasionally borrowed from the job. Since then I have shot with an assortment of point and shoot cameras, the occasional DSLR, and every iPhone I’ve owned since the original, and now shoot photos with the Sony a6400.
My first trip outside of North American was to Japan, to visit the Nichiren Shoshu head temple Taiseki-ji with other members from Los Angeles’ Myohoji Temple for the 750th Anniversary of the Submission of the Rissho Ankoku-ron in 2009. I took a few extra days afterward to explore Tokyo. Before Japan the only country I’d been to outside of the United States was Canada for a day trip.
I traveled to Taiseki-ji two more times (2012, 2014), and Sado Island (2012) with members of New York’s Myosetsuji Temple. I hit Tokyo again, and Nikko and Kamakura in 2014.
In 2014 I went to Europe for the first time, celebrating Christmas with my Partner and her family in Copenhagen, and New Years with friends in the UK. We returned to Copenhagen the following year to ring in 2016.
A couple of weeks into the new year, I was on my way to work, when I get a text from my partner asking how much I liked Chinese food. I called her back and she told me that we were going to China for her job. Nine months later we were living in Beijing.
Beijing is a study in contrasts. The city is more vibrant and modern than I thought it would be, with so much landmark architecture, but it’s also the Communist era buildings and apartment blocks, and the hutongs.
I’ve seen more Teslas, Mercedes, Porsches, and other luxury and exotic cars in Beijing than in New York, Los Angeles and London combined. They share the roads with electric motorcycles that I’ve not seen anywhere else, countless e-bikes, bicycles, and ‘old school’ carts (tricycles) pedaled by foot.
It’s still news in the West when ApplePay or Android Pay are available in new cities. Meanwhile in Beijing (and the rest of China) a billion people are using WeChat and Alipay to pay for everything with their phone. Even street vendors and panhandlers have a QR code to accept cash on their mobile phones. I’ve met expats of all ages who have been here for years. Some have been here decades. I was speaking to a gentleman at one of the charity balls last year who said he had lived here for fifteen years, and how much he loved the frenetic energy and how the city was constantly changing. This vibrancy is not just in Beijing, but in cities all over China, and other countries in Asia. I can definitely see how people come here and want to stay.
Since moving to this side of the world, my partner and I have explored Beijing, China, and several other Asian countries. We have also visited several more countries in Europe, and I have circumnavigated the world at least twice since 2016. Not too bad for a guy whose first trip overseas was a little over ten years ago.