Old China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2005, 12:00am

History buffs will find plenty to keep them occupied, whether visiting museums and historic libraries or sipping tea in the renovated Waterfront district

Jiangmen?s four counties offer stunning contrasts between different eras in China?s turbulent history. This really is the place to step back in time, and history students will find plenty to keep themselves occupied between visits to museums, former residences of famous figures, film studios, ?ghost towns? and the like.

Rolling on the River: Jiangmen?s Waterfront district

Jiangmen?s historic Waterfront district is home to some of the 2,000-year-old city?s finest architecture, including renovated shophouses selling everything from calligraphy to ladies? handbags. A stretch of Chang Di Middle Road, which faces the Peng River, is lined with these three- and four-storey buildings in the treaty port style.

Recognising their tourism potential, city officials have tastefully renovated these historic edifices, painting them delightful pastels and lighting them up at night. The shops sell everything from children?s toys to sportswear, artificial flowers to stationery. Several bars, discos, and karaoke lounges have opened here over the past two years.

Right on the river are several outdoor cafes, snack bars, beer gardens and restaurants. Some open for breakfast and close early while others open later in the day and remain open until late. Weeknights are pretty quiet, but things naturally pick up on Friday and Saturday nights.

Nearby streets feature more Western-style buildings. An adjoining neighborhood, however, is home to traditional Chinese grey-brick homes. Many still serve as residences but a growing number have been converted into restaurants and other small businesses. A modern plaza with an outdoor performance venue ties the area together.

Time capsule: Chikan Township

This is a tourist attraction waiting to happen. Chikan certainly has the critical mass of historic architecture needed ? most of the buildings were constructed during the 1920s by returning Chinese who had made their fortunes abroad. Though most of the buildings are now in a state of disrepair, the island community remains full of life. People still live on the first and second floors and shops still line the streets, offering an increasingly rare glimpse of pre-Starbucks China. Hopefully, these ageing structures will be renovated and not torn down as prosperity slowly returns to the region.

Situ Family Library

No. 17 Di Dong Road, Chikan Township, Kaiping

Tel: (0750) 261 2250

Opened in 1925, the graceful Situ Family Library still takes pride of place along the Chikan waterfront. Yellow and white, the three-storey building is topped by a clock tower. The ground floor features a reading room with pictures of family members who made good gracing the walls. Portuguese and Roman design elements are incorporated into the first and second floors.

Guan Family Library

No. 116 Di Xi Road, Chikan Township, Kaiping

Tel: (0750) 261 2685

Not to be outdone, the Guan family built the Guanzu Library at the other end of the waterfront road in 1931. There is a reading room on the ground floor and stacks and meeting rooms upstairs. From a distance the imposing structure, which features a German clock tower which rises above the treetops, looks similar to its older sibling down the road. But there are significant differences up close. Both deserve a visit.

Kaiping Cinema City

Kaiping Tourist Development Centre

Tel: (0750) 262 7888

One section of the district was converted into a television and movie set several years back, now known as Kaping Cinema City. While the renovated buildings ? especially the interiors ? look rather disappointing in person, they can provide amateur photographers with great photo ops. A traditional wedding ceremony, which is staged several times a day for tour groups, is refreshingly professional and entertaining. A surprise ending makes the visit worthwhile.

Past master: Liang Qichao Memorial Museum

In Xinhui, history buffs will want to stop at Liang Qichao Memorial Museum. Located at the former residence of Liang Qichao (1873-1929), it includes a two-storey memorial hall paying homage to this political activist and traditional Chinese scholar.

Liang Qichao Memorial Museum

Chakeng Village, Huicheng, Xinhui District

Tel: (0750) 639 0437

Set in stone: Enping?s ghost town

According to legend, about 600 years ago Li Enwen almost drowned while crossing the river, saving himself only when he managed to grab onto a boulder. He took his good luck as an omen and decided to settle down at that location, where he and his descendants built houses of stone. Thus Stone Village in Enping, was founded.

At its height there were 300 households in the village, which is crisscrossed with stone pathways. Families started moving into new housing in the nearby countryside in recent years and the village turned into a ghost town as the last elderly residents died off.

Still, descendants of some of the original villagers return to the village to sell peanuts, fruit, and handicrafts to tourists and can sometimes be seen washing their clothes in the river. There is a family hall, a large lily pond, a waterwheel, and an ancient banyan tree ? reputedly planted by Li himself. A rustic restaurant has been built to cater to tourists.

Many buildings are in disrepair and cannot be entered but a few lanes can be explored. A couple of the houses have been furnished to give an idea of what life in the village was like. Faded quotations from Chairman Mao can still be seen on some of the walls.

Stone Village

Naji Township, Enping

Tel: (0750) 728 2328

Revolutionary son: former residence of Chen Shaobai

Chen Shaobai (1428-1500) was derided by Qing officials as one of the Four Bandits but centuries later found a follower of sorts in Dr Sun Yat-sen, who established the Republic of China in 1911. His former residence and gravesite are considered must-see attractions.

Former Residence of Chen Shaobai

No. 1, Nan Hua Li Road, Lower Alley, Waihai Township, Jiangmen

Tel: (0750) 397 2507

Confucian classic: Chen Baisha Memorial

A noted Confucian scholar, Chen Baisha left an indelible mark on Jiangmen. For this, his former residence has not only been preserved and renovated; it has become one of the city?s top tourist attractions. It is worth a visit not just for its historic value. The complex, which includes a main gate, a bronze statue, lovely gardens, and several buildings, is aesthetically pleasing and architecturally important. The Chastity Memorial Archway dates to 1477.

Chen Baisha Memorial

No 7 Xiqu Avenue, Jiangmen

Tel: (0750) 352 7027

Caffeine fix

There are no Starbucks franchises in Jiangmen yet but we?re not complaining. The city?s first genuine coffee house is located in the heart of its funky Waterfront district. More are surely on the way. Here?s a selective list of cool places to chill along the Waterfront.

Amy Lee

No. 6 Ping Tai, Chang Di Middle Road, Jiangmen

Open: 6pm to 2am; Beer: 5 yuan a bottle

A relaxed outdoor coffee house and beer garden on the banks of the Peng River. Chinese snacks available.

Green Tea Teahouse

No. 229 Chang Di Middle Road

Tel: (0750) 822 2488

Open: 10am to midnight

A stylish teahouse selling a wide selection of tea, pots, and other tea paraphernalia.

Ju Ren Bar

No. 2 Chang Di Middle Road

Tel: 13702280793; Open: 7pm to 2.30am

Beer: 68 yuan a dozen

Don?t let the nondescript entrance put you off. It?s very lively upstairs ? even on weeknights. There is loud music, comfortable seating, a large video screen and private karaoke rooms. A young crowd usually sits around spacious tables playing games.

Parton Coffee

No. 230 Chang Di Middle Road

Tel: (0750) 333 0207

Open: 8.30am to 11.30pm

This is reputedly Jiangmen?s first genuine coffee house. Forty types of bean and 11 brewing methods are available. A wide selection of coffee, specialty teas and paraphernalia are for sale.

Hallowed halls: Feng Cai Tang

More than 10 movies and television shows have been filmed at the site of Feng Cai Tang,, in Kaiping, one of the most significant and best-maintained examples of Western-influenced traditional Chinese architecture in the region ? if not the entire country.

Happily, it still functions as a middle school, and part of its charm is that students can be seen performing morning calisthenics from the windows of the Ever Joint Hotel across the Tan River. Whether it will survive as a school or be converted into a tourist attraction is anyone?s guess.

Construction of the 5,300-square-metre stone edifice began in 1906 and was completed in 1914. Representative of the Lingnan, or Southern Chinese, style of architecture, the picturesque middle school looks typically Chinese from a distance. Closer inspection, however, reveals Roman columns, English-style arched doorways, iron fretwork, and various types of ornamentation reminiscent of a traditional European castle. But Chinese elements such as the emerald green roof tiles predominate.

Feng Cai Tang

Feng Cai Middle School, San Bu Di Hai, Kaiping

Tel: (0750) 232 2283