One hour out: Guangzhou

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Mention Guangzhou to the Chinese and they instinctively think of two things: food and money.

As the capital of the Guandong province, the city is the hub of the Cantonese cuisine and so, naturally, things like dim sum and char siu taste just a bit better than in other places. And as the factory workshop to the world, this sprawling city of 13 million—China’s third-largest—is the engine for the Chinese economic miracle. Guangzhou is your place for cheap jeans and fridges.

Food and money come together in the city’s countless gilded and chandeliered restaurants, where the upwardly mobile are eager to show their new riches by ordering expensive delicacies in excessive quantities. Here, Chinese diners clutching luxury handbags order Cantonese preparations of Californian abalone, Australian lobster and Thai prawns. New China indeed.

But a short trip into the heartland proves that New China isn’t that removed from the Old. The origins of both modern Chinese globalism and Cantonese cuisine can be found just 120 kilometers southwest, in the small villages that surround Kaiping. (The day trip is a welcome reprieve from the sometimes overwhelming and choking city.)

Jason Chow/The Wall Street Journal. Li Garden is lasting evidence of a fortune made in Chicago.

The main attraction in these villages are the diaolou—flamboyant towers in a melange of local and Western architectural styles that were constructed a century ago with money sent by rich overseas Chinese. Long before the Guangdong province was known for its factory goods, the region’s most important export was labor: In the 19th century, thousands from this tiny corner of the province were recruited for railway construction in the U.S. and Canada. Later, many left to start businesses, mostly in North America and Southeast Asia. This human outflow is the reason why Cantonese has been, until recently, the lingua franca and culinary norm of Chinatowns around the world.

Many didn’t see themselves as permanent emigrants. They left their families behind and built dream homes to return to—by the early 20th century, large estates with multistory diaolou towers. The towers served two purposes: To flaunt wealth and to protect the estate from raiding bandits, a common threat then.

Of the more than 3,000 towers that once stood, 1,833 remain; the villages won recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site designation in 2007.

Getting to Kaiping is simple. Many buses run from the depots near Guangzhou’s railway stations or the Fancun Passenger Station in the city’s southwest. The ride will take up to two hours, though you can cut that in half by renting a car—if you’re brave enough to handle Chinese expressways.

Jason Chow/The Wall Street Journal. Zili Cun seems locked in time.

From Kaiping, rather ugly and scruffy, the most convenient step is to hire a taxi for the afternoon (about 200 yuan, or $30, depending on your negotiation skills) and ask the driver to take you to the diaolou villages.

There are many to choose from, but Li Garden, about 10 kilometers south of Kaiping, is one of the most popular. The idyllic vision of an immigrant named Xie Weili who amassed a fortune as a merchant in Chicago, his collection of colonial-inspired homes and diaolou towers is open to anyone with 60 yuan admission.

Unfortunately, like most Chinese sites designated by Unesco, it can be overrun by the bus-tour set. But there’s a very easy way to avoid crowds at the diaolou villages: Go late. Charming, peaceful Zili Cun, for example, doesn’t admit tourists after 5 p.m., but those who arrive beforehand can stay. Zili Cun seems locked in time. Not only does it have an impressive collection of diaolou, its inhabitants—mostly of retirement age—seem to live in an ancient agrarian paradise, sitting outside their homes in cheerful conversation. It’s a contrast with the constant motion and materialism of Guangzhou, though the diaolou towers are proof that at one time, like the big city, it was a place where global entrepreneurs hailed from.

Here is also where you can find some of the freshest and purest forms of Cantonese cuisine. A small restaurant in town, with a simple “Home Style Restaurant” sign in English, is run by Mrs. Feng—who boasts, in a Cantonese inflected with the rural dialect, that she cooks rustic, old-fashioned Cantonese food so tasty that people from Guangzhou drive especially to have it. And all the ingredients, she adds, are found right in the village.

Hungry, I decide to taste her claims. Asked for her best dishes, she responds with a wide, giddy smile, skips around the corner of her home and emerges a minute later carrying a live chicken. She quickly slaughters the bird in front of me, deplumes it and sets it poach it in a wood-fired wok.

Meanwhile her husband transfers some freshwater eels—caught in a local nearby pond by Mrs. Feng—from a bucket into a large sack, which he bashes a few on times on the stone path: In the absence of a mallet, this is how you knock out a live fish. The eels would later be stir-fried with a black-bean sauce and served atop rice (harvested by Mrs. Feng herself, of course, in the nearby paddies). For a third dish, green leaves are plucked from the melon plant in her garden, cooked in the chicken stock and served as a soup.

Locavores would be impressed: Everything on the table is from within a hundred meters of Mrs. Feng’s home. The freshness—a hallmarks of Cantonese cuisine—and quality of ingredients comes across in her simple cuisine: The organic, free-range chicken is full of flavor, the claypot rice aromatic; the greens a refreshing contrast and the soup intense with chicken flavor. As I feast outside in the shadows of the diaolou with a gentle summer breeze, it’s not hard to imagine why a migrant worker abroad would plan to return—and build a dream house for his arrival.



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