June 15, 2012
Photo set on Flickr (Part of the Guangdong Province set)
I feel a little uncomfortable to admit that I often look at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS) list as a reference when planning for upcoming trips. The WHS list is obviously highly political – sites are nominated because the associated parties, usually the respective federal and local governments, want the prestige and tourist dollars that come with a successful bid. Over the past few years, 44% of the nominated sites were deemed to not have met the requirements for inscription by International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body founded to offers advice to UNESCO on WHS.
The hype generated by landing the WHS status can quickly overwhelm a site with a sudden influx of tourists and investment. Massive amount of effort is expended to attract as much tourism revenue as possible with little regard to the location’s uniqueness and universal significance.
Also, those who blindly follow the WHS list will miss out on some of the world’s most beautiful locations. Zion is not inscribed on the list, but it is one of my favorite national parks in the U.S.
With so much downside, why even bother with it then?
Most people know about the Great Wall of China, but how many have heard of Kaiping Diaolou? For me, the WHS list allows me to learn about a relatively diverse range of sites and motivates me to actually visit them. Each site’s ICOMOS report is especially informative, and it is this scientific approach that separates the WHS list from other populist campaigns like the shameful New 7 Wonders of the World.
So on this hot and humid Friday during my weeklong break, I set off for Kaiping to see its diaolou, a type of reinforced concrete watchtower that incorporated architectural influences brought back by laborers and migrants from the Western world during the early part of the 20th century. It didn’t appear to be the most interesting destination – if it is not a WHS I doubt I would ever pay a visit.
My friend Fai picked me up at Zhuhai’s Jiuzhougang ferry terminal. From Zhuhai to Kaiping the drive took a little more than two hours and we arrived right around noon. Villages that contain diaolou are quite scattered, and given my limited time I decided to spend my time mainly in Zilicun (自力村).
Upon arrival it was immediately apparent that the WHS status granted in 2007 has impacted this village of less than 200 locals. We chatted with a middle aged lady at a noodle stall by the entrance while having a quick lunch. She told us that just a decade ago Kaiping was a backwater but now it is a major tourist destination and investment has poured in. According to her, life has become much easier. Next to her stall was a poster of a recent Chinese blockbuster called Let the Bullets Fly, with a bold caption detailing the locations where some of the scenes were shot in Kaiping.
Each village charges separately, and Zilicun’s admission was a whopping 80 RMB. Another reminder that China is really not a cheap place to visit anymore. The village was clean and tidy; many houses had been very heavy-handedly refurbished. All the villagers seemed to be either offering lunch or selling souvenirs to visitors. Nobody was working in the field or at the fish ponds.
Fai, who lives in Shenwan (神灣), a town in Zhongshan (中山), was thoroughly unimpressed by the diaolou. As he put it, there are similar multi-storey buildings all over Guangdong and Kaiping’s are not any more unique than the ones in Shenwan. I have been to Shenwan and I can say that’s not quite true, but I agree that Zilicun’s diaolou is neither very compelling nor photogenic. I didn’t regret my decision to come visit though; being in the countryside is always time well spent.
Nearby is another village called Liyuan (立園). From the entrance I could tell that the village was completely rebuilt – it was even called Liyuan Scenic Area. I simply shook my head and headed back to the car.
My last stop was Chikan Old Town (赤坎古鎮), a water town that is supposed to be Guangdong’s answer to Zhouzhuang. Fai had enough of Kaiping at this point, so I went for a short walk by myself. The riverfront makes a good photographic subject, and the town had a kind of neglected charm. Compared to Zilicun, Chikan Old Town was more interesting. Better yet it was free.