Less than 90 miles away from the city of Guangzhou is Kaiping, an ancient town in Guangdong Province, in China’s Pearl River Delta.
Kaiping is perhaps best known for its “diaolou,” multi-story towers that were built in ancient times to serve as watchtowers to protect the city, and also as communal towers for groups of multiple families and as stronghouse residences for wealthy families. Kaiping’s diaolou were built in the 16th century, though some continued to be built into the 1920s and 30s, when Kailou citizens who had moved to other parts of the world returned to their hometown, and emigrants from several countries around the world came to the area as well, resulting in more than 3,000 diaolou – many with western influences – dotting the Kaiping area. The Ruishi Diaolou, for instance, has a Roman-style dome (it’s also the highest diaolou in Kaiping). Conversely, the Chikanzhen Yinglong Lou is the oldest preserved diaolou and a traditional square structure not influenced by western architectural styles. Its name “Yinglong” means “welcoming dragons” (with dragons being a symbol of auspiciousness in Chinese culture), with the hope that this watchtower would bring its residents safety and good fortune. Today more than 1,800 well-preserved diaolou remain; these Kaiping diaolou and villages were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2007.
Downtown Kaiping offers many places to stay, eat, and shop while getting a glimpse of this historic town’s roots. Near the Tanjiang River in town, you’ll still see locals fishing among the ancient mango trees. Kaiping’s night market is on a pedestrian street and is the place to be to try tasty and affordable street food including dumplings, noodles, and sweets such as grass jelly (served on top of shaved ice or in condensed milk) or tofu pudding.