Jiangmen & Wuyi: Nostalgic Journey for Overseas Chinese -- Part 2

by Heng Wah, Jan 23, 2004 | Destinations: China / Guangdong
My Family Members and I...

My Family Members and I...

My Family Members and I...

Part 2: My Walk Into the Past

Jiangmen City itself holds little appeal from the touristy perspective. As this was my first visit to the city where my paternal grandfather, a Xinhui, was born and had spent his childhood and early teen years until he immigrated to Malaysia in the turbulent years of the first decade of the 1900s it was indeed a nostalgic journey for me, my two sisters and my niece. My father has traveled to Jiangmen several times since China opened her doors to the world.

I was reminiscing when visiting places which, I believe; my forefathers had left their ephemeral but indelible footprints a very long time ago. My siblings and I found our 200-year old ancestral home in Dong Cong Li or Lane behind bustling Xiqu Lu in downtown Jiangmen. The old single level stone and mortar house has so far stood the test of time but not for long, I believe, as like the rest of China which has been undergoing dramatic transformation since the opening of China to the free enterprise system by Deng Xiao Ping in 1979 it must, willy-nilly, make way for modernization.

Though the house looks rustic and quaint it belongs, like my forebears who were its earlier occupants, to a different age and era and it is now out of place with many of the surrounding buildings which have sprouted since the times of prosperity starting from the 1980s. A few doors away, of similar ancient structure and design but still standing tall is the ancestral home of my paternal grandmother and her ancestors too had for generations made it their place of abode. The evidence of wealth and growing affluence is obvious in Jiangmen City. No one, not even the elderly folks are dressed in the monotone, drab and fashion-less Mao-style suits which was de rigueur up to the late 1970s. Most of them are dressed like their kinsmen and women in Hong Kong where style, vogue and image are its byword. One age-old bad habit, however, dies hard as people tend to spit indiscriminately on the streets despite being urged repeatedly through the print and electronic media to cease this practice in view of the SARS epidemic which had afflicted many parts of China in early 2003.

The streets are well paved and maintained. Private cars of the latest models made by Japanese, European and American joint venture companies with the Chinese and Four-wheel drives are starting to outnumber the motor cycles and scooters which spew out noxious fumes. I hardly see on the streets the iconic Red Flag limousines which during the days when China was a closed society were the only motor vehicles in use and for senior Communist Party cadres to be chauffer-driven around.

The one-time ubiquitous bicycles, the king of the roads, have become a fast disappearing breed. Crossing the busy streets of Jiangmen City can be a nerve-wracking experience as the drivers seem to relish blowing the vehicle horns all the time. Perhaps this was a carry over of practice of incessant ringing of the bicycle bell when the streets were clogged with the once-upon-a-time king of the roads.

Western fast food chains such as the McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken are opening more and more outlets in Jiangmen City and other larger cities in the Wuyi Region. A Five-star hotel the Celeste Palace Hotel located along the main thoroughfare, the Gangkou Lu stands on par with the many of the posh hotels in Singapore. Promenades have been nicely built along both sides of the Jiangmen River (a Xijiang tributary) which cuts across much of the city. Many gazebos can be found along the river front for the locals, sitting in fashionably Chinese style, cross-legged or squatting position, to pursue their past-time passion, that is, Chinese checkers under the protective shades of willows and banyans.

However one place not to be missed is Donghu (East Lake) Park which is located smack in the downtown area right in front of Celeste Palace Hotel. This Park has a beautiful lake graced by the charms of flocks of white and black swans and ducks. The waters too sparkle from the reflection of the sunlight against violent movements of the Chinese carps which are attracted by morsels of bread crumbs or pellets of feed meal thrown by visitors.

The Chinese-styled pavilion bridge adds beauty and serenity to the variety of flowering plants and trees. Located on the hillocks are an amusement park and a Pagoda. At night the star attraction is the multi-hued musical fountain playing Chinese classics as well as Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. At the break of dawn the local residents make a bee-line for the Park through its multiple entrances. They jog, walk but many will congregate in small groups and execute against a background of soft and spiritually-uplifting music the graceful movements of Tai-chi, a Chinese calisthenics of a few thousand years old. One should not miss the opportunity of climbing up the steps of the highest hill past a Chinese-style gate to a traditional Pavilion. Do climb further up the hill along a gravel path to enjoy a panoramic view of the Park and the city. It is wise to wander round Jiangmen City's recreation halls to watch youths perform gymnastics as Jiangmen is renowned throughout China for excellence in this field of sports.

In the oldest part of Jiangmen City there are a few rows of 19th Century European-style shop houses with their cobbled streets. This quarter has been turned tastefully into a pedestrian mall selling all kinds of local products .Well preserved in the old quarter is Baisha Memorial built in memory of Jiangmen's most famous Ming Dynasty Confucian scholar/philosopher-cum-poet, Chen Baisha (1428-1500). He and his followers started the Lingnan or Southern Chinese School of traditional culture. He was also the founder of the Xinhue School of Confucianism.

At the Memorial sit down, relax and take your pick among the various types of tea offered by the tea house. At the same time appreciate the demonstration of Chinese calligraphy and the soothing music emanating from the Chinese zither, a musical instrument with many strings on a box-like body played by plucking with fingers.

The surrounding Wuyi countryside offers visitors places of sightseeing interest. Close to the city of Xinhui is a place known locally as Xiaoniao Tiantang or Little Bird's Paradise located 15 kilometers southwest of Jiangmen City Its main attraction is a small island with a sprawling 500-year old banyan tree in the middle of the Tianma River (Skyhorse River). Flocks of cranes, egrets, pond herons and water fowls have made the island and the venerable tree its home for a few centuries. It is a sight to behold in the morning when they fly out in droves in search for food and when they return at dusk to roost on the over-arching tree. There are walkways around the tree and paddle boats for hire to get a closer look at the birds. Drive into nearby Xinhui City and remember to take a breather at Yuhu or Jade Lake. Walk to the water's edge and feast your eyes to thousands of Chinese carps with a myriad of colors from golden, white, black to a palette of colors. Then cruise along the main street and one would not miss a large building known as the Baishaci Temple built in memory of Chen Baisha. His birth place was the village of Baisha in Xinhui County and naturally the Xinhuis are still very proud of him.

Close by and 10 kilometers west of Jiangmen is the town of Duruan which provides the access to Mount Guifeng Shan a well-known scenic spot. A car will be able to take one half-way up Guifeng Mountain to one of Guangdong's four most famous temples the Jade Terrace (Yutai) Temple which was first built during southern China's Huang Empire of the Han Dynasty. The trees within the compound of the temple are adorned with red paper flowers placed by the devotees for the gods to grant them good health and luck. From the temple one can hike up the mountain past another age-old Ziyun Temple, a few waterfalls and lakes to reach the summit at the windswept Chishi Crag.

Traveling south of Xinhui City towards the South China Sea would bring one to Yamen Cannon Terrace part of the Yamen Ancient Fort which lies on elevated land with the Ya Hill in the east and Tangping Hill in the west has been an important strategic defense post as it guards the entrance into the Wuyi Region from the sea.

The ancient fort takes the form of a semi-circle cannon fortification built along the Tanjiang estuary. It has 22 battlements with 3 original cannons left while the rest are replicas. The site featured prominently in the history of China. The story had it that the Southern Sung Minister Lu Xiufu (1236-1279) was surrounded by Yuan (Mongol) troops at Yamen. Realizing that there was no escape he held the young eight-year old Sung emperor and jumped into the sea committing suicide thus ending the Sung Dynasty. Visitors travel to Yamen Ancient Fort to revere Minister Lu for the great sacrifice. Looking out from the ancient fort one can enjoy a breathtaking view of the new Yamen twin span suspension bridge, Yinzhou Lake and the Tanjiang river mouth.

The Diaolou or Fortified Watch Towers of Kaiping

Traveling through the countryside of Kaiping County one cannot miss the many fortified watch towers of different architectural styles including European, Gothic and Moslem domed arches and minarets. Notwithstanding their different shapes and designs they share some common characteristics such as thick grey walls, rusty iron-made doors, small and fully defended slit windows and shooting holes hidden on each side of the walls.

The first of such castle-like structures were built during the late Ming and early Qing (Manchu) periods. Initially the fortified watch towers were constructed to guard against floods. During the waning years of Qing reign and the early years of the new Republic overseas Chinese and local people from Kaiping County built more castles to guard themselves against continuing civil wars and rampant banditry and rapacious robbers. A recent survey indicated that there are currently some 1833 castles most of whose owners had gone abroad or had passed away with their living descendants still overseas or had moved into Kaiping and other cities. As a cultural heritage these fortified watch towers constitute a huge architectural museum with historical, artistic and tourism value. The Diaolou have been proposed for inclusion in UNESCO's World Heritage Classification.

Another Overseas Chinese Cultural Contribution-Liyuan Garden

Situated at Tangkou town, Kaiping County is the Liyuan Garden. It was constructed in 1936 by Xie Weili a Chinese emigrant of the United States who though born and lived in the States wanted to share the pleasure of Chinese and Western culture with his Kaiping people. Liyuan Garden represents an ingenious combination of Chinese traditional garden architecture with the features of Western villas. The layout consists of the Villa Zone, Grand Garden and Little Garden and they are separated by man-made rivers or walls but connected by Chinese pavilion bridges and winding corridors. In the Villa Zone there is a fortified watch tower .Liyuan Garden is listed among the protected cultural relics of China and is also one of Jiangmen's Top Eight Attractions.

Liyuan Garden is located 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) from the main Kaiping-Enping road. All along the secondary road way one can see many abandoned fortified watch towers which bear mute witness to the troubled old times.

Moving Around Wuyi Region

The best way to travel around the Wuyi Region besides hiring a car or van is to travel by public bus from the Jiangmen City Main Bus Terminal located along Jianshe Lu in the city center. This bus terminal is the major hub from where regular buses ply between Jiangmen City and all the five major cities of Wuyi Region.

In addition there are also regular buses to Guangzhou and other major cities in Guangdong Province such as Foshan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai, Macau (through Zhuhai border town of Gongbei), Yangjiang, Zhanjiang and many other Guangdong cities. The Wuyi Region has an excellent network of good roads and expressways and road tolls are collected for inter-city travel. At the city bus terminals of Xinhui, Heshan, Kaiping, Enping and Taishan many taxis will be waiting for passengers at convenient times of the day.

A single traveler who travels on a tight budget can board the motor cycle taxis as the riders in their easily identifiable yellow safety helmets and similarly colored vests can always be found milling around all the bus terminals and most of the bus stops.

Getting To Jiangmen: A Guide for Overseas Chinese and Inquisitive Travelers

The gateways into Jiangmen City are through Guangzhou, Macau and Hong Kong. The most convenient way to get into Jiangmen City from Hong Kong is to board a ferry from China-Hong Kong City China Ferry Terminal in Kowloon. The sea journey takes about two hours twenty minutes and after a 40-minute journey across the Pearl River Delta Estuary the ferry will chug all the way upstream along the Xijiang soon after one reaches Macau and travel beneath the gigantic hump-back Zhuhai Bridge.

The journey offers travelers an enjoyable experience. On both left and right one gets a splendid view of the South China's countryside with paddy fields, farms, orchards, water wheels with pedals, fish ponds and water buffaloes the dominant sights. Along the way one will encounter with fishing sampans, sand dredgers and tug boats transporting all kinds of goods and materials. From Macau one can take a five-minute walk from the Macau-Zhuhai Immigration-Customs Complex to the Gongbei Bus Terminal to board a bus which takes about three hours to reach Jiangmen City. As Jiangmen City is only 100 kilometers from Guangzhou the bus journey would take an hour to reach the Jiangshe Lu Main Bus Terminal.

Jiangmen Municipality has recently been agressively promoting the Wuyi Region as a tourist destination. In the near future more and more foreigners not just descendants of the sons of Jiangmen who had emigrated overseas would be able to enjoy the sights and sounds of many interesting places in the Wuyi Region and savor the excellent Cantonese cuisine and other local fruits such as Xinhui Mandarin oranges whose dried peel is also used for cooking and purchase as souvenir palm leaf fans of which Xinhui has been renown for centuries.

Visit Jiangmen and your visit will remain an unforgettable and enjoyable experience!

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