The foundation of Chikan (赤坎) is somehow linked to the invasion of north China by a nomadic tribe named the Jurchen during the 13th century. As they were pushing south from their base in Manchuria, the Song dynasty (宋朝) was forced to flee their capital of Kaifeng (开封) in Henan province. While the Jurchen established the Jin dynasty (晋朝) in the north, the Song withdrew south of the Yangtze River. They reigned as the southern Song dynasty (南宋) in their new capital in Hangzhou (杭州) until the Mongol invasion of the mid-13th century.
The moving of the Song dynasty capital from Kaifeng to Hangzhou contributed to a massive influx of migration towards the south. And it’s precisely during this period of Chinese history that Chikan was built.
First built as a wharf on the Tan River (潭江), one of the many tributaries which flows into the Pearl River Delta, Chikan flourished during the Ming dynasty. Traveling merchants and vessels converged in Chikan which became a regional maritime transportation hub linking the different cities and towns of the delta : Macau (澳门) , Dongguan (东莞), Foshan (佛山), Guangzhou (广州), Zhongshan (中山), Jiangmen (江门) and Humen (虎门) to name but a few.
A taste of Western architecture
Chikan and this type of ‘east-meet-west’ architecture are irremediably linked.
First, the town is located in the heart of the Kaiping countryside where more than 1800 watchtowers (碉楼) that combine eastern and western architecture were built by local migrants who had come back from North America. Although a few of these Kaiping watchtowers (开平碉楼) have been listed as UNESCO world historical heritage site, the majority of these imposing structures built between the 18th and the beginning of the 20th century to protect rich newly-returned migrants from bandit raids are not protected.
If there is one of these watchtowers or diaolou (碉楼) in Chikan, the town is the epitome of the Lingnan style arcade buildings called qilou (骑楼) in Chinese. If the Kaiping Towers scattered in the region are impressive, there is something absolutely surreal in Chikan’s architecture.
The ups and downs of Chikan
While the wooden junks had prevailed on the Tan River and contributed to the prosperity of Chikan, the town lost its importance during the beginning of the Republican era with the mechanisation and the development of road transportation.
In the mid-1930s, Chikan’s western style architecture attracted movie producers who used the ancient town as a movie set. There is a museum dedicated to the movie industry in Chikan which I skipped because it was crowded with several tour groups when I visited. Instead, I decide to go and walk in the back streets.
Once I got away from the river-front street where most tourists hang out and that I had been walking in back alleys in the middle of these arcade buildings most which were built during the early 20th century, there was something surreal.
Most of the building look run-down, plants are growing in the gutters, the paint is decayed and washed-down. It seemed to me like nobody had maintained these qilou since they were built in the 1920s. On top of that, the old western architecture style in this corner of south China adds a layer of strangeness.
I would be tempted to compare Chikan to Havana in Cuba, but it would be far-fetched … or would it?
How to get there
Chikan is located on the Tan River 15-20 km southwest of Kaiping town in south Guangdong province. It is a very interesting town to see which deserves a detour only if you are in the region visiting the Kaiping watchtowers (开平碉楼).
Chikan is located between The Li Garden (立园) and the Majianglong diaolou cluster (马降龙雕楼群). It’s roughly 2 hours away from Guangzhou and 1 hour from Zhongshan and Macau (Zhuhai).