The picture at the top of this page (EDIT: I changed the picture, but now you can see it above) may give the impression of me being a nomadic, fearless wanderer travelling the world with just a camera and a sense of adventure (or at least, that’s what I like to imagine). However, the reality is a little different.
I was kicking my heels in Guangdong waiting for the ferocious weather in central China to clear so I could take the train north. While I waited, I caught a bus to Kaiping, a fairly nondescript city that in typical Chinese fashion is both ‘small’ and bigger than 95% of British cities. I had read about the Kaiping Diaolou, watchtowers built in the Qing dynasty by returning overseas Chinese as fortresses to protect their wealth from bandits.
I’d arrived out of season and there was no public transport to the diaolou. Outside the bus station I was mobbed by taxi drivers who tried to charge me extortionate prices, so I left the melee and found a guy with a motorbike who agreed to take me out to the countryside.
It was my first time on a motorbike and, wearing an ill-fitting plastic helmet and zooming along pot-holed roads, I regretted not paying more for a taxi. I gritted my teeth and held on so tight that my hands hurt. But it was exhilarating and the diaolou were stunning. On our return to the city, the situation turned sour when he reneged on our agreed price and charged me double. A crowd formed and things started to get a little heated so I paid up (it wasn’t worth arguing over the equivalent of £4) and headed on to Macau.
I was reminded of the Kaiping houses a year or so later when I saw a show by Li Yimo at Beijing’s 798.