Cash-poor municipal officials in Kaiping, China, sign US$900 million deal to turn a once-thriving riverfront town into a tourist attraction in the interest of "heritage protection", with half of families resisting pressure to agree to compensation and relocation agreements.
Twelve years ago I visited Chikan, a picturesque if rundown township in the Chinese countryside two or three hours north of Hong Hong.
I was the guest of tourism officials from Jiangmen, the equivalent of a county seat, who were keen on developing the district's tourism industry.
Chikan was one of the many spots I visited on that trip. Others included hot spring resorts, off-shore islands, an upscale golf course, a river rafting course, bar streets, a monastery, and the legendary watch towers of Kaiping, which were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status two years later in 2007.
The purpose of my trip was to research a 20-page pull-out travel supplement to be published in the South China Morning Post. It was my second trip to Jiangmen, and I had developed a deep affinity for the place.
Birthplace of the Overseas Chinese
Comprising Jiangmen City as well as Enping, Heshen, Taishan, and Kaiping, Jiangmen proudly bills itself as the Birthplace of the Overseas Chinese because so many of its native sons have emigrated to Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and North America to realize their dreams.
Some of them eked out an existence running laundries or working at restaurants in their adopted homes, but others were successful - some of them, in fact, were wildly successful.
Many of Hong Kong's richest and most successful businessmen and women, in fact, have roots in Jiangmen. Take Lui Che-woo, who emigrated from Jiangmen to Hong Kong with his family at the age of four in the 1930's.
Lui grew up to establish a company called K Wah, which would develop into a multinational conglomerate with more than 200 subsidiaries and more than 33,000 employees in various parts of the world.
Lui's family and tens of thousands of others like it left Jiangmen for a reason - to escape poverty and unrest. And many of them - after striking it rich abroad - did return later to build watch towers or ancestral halls, schools or hospitals, temples or shrines.
While Chikan was founded in 1649, its success in the late 19th the early 20th century was, in fact, fueled largely by emigres that returned from abroad and opened businesses there.
In its heyday in the 1930s, there were 1,000 shops, most of them run by returning emigres or their families.
It was with mixed feelings that I learned that 4,000 families were being forced out of their homes by municipal officials so that Chikan could be turned into a tourist attraction.
Kaiping city officials have signed a 6 billion yuan (US$899 million) deal with Citic Private Equity Funds Management to redevelop the town in a bid to boost the economy.
Under a plan that was announced in April 2017, all of the residents of the Old Town are being evicted. About half of the residents of the town are resisting pressure to sign compensation and relocation agreements.
They claim that city officials have disrupted road access, boarded up buildings, and closed the bus terminal, suggesting that the moves were designed to make the town uninhabitable so they would be forced to leave.
Chikan was pretty run down when I visited in 2005. If you look closely at the photos I found on Wikimedia Commons, you will find that few if any of the storefronts along the waterfront house stores - not to mention boutiques or cafes or galleries.
If the exteriors of the buildings look pretty forlorn, I'm sure the living conditions inside were even worse.
Was there running eater, did they have flush toilets, could the electrical supply support air-conditioning?
I remember writing that it was "a tourist attraction waiting to happen". This was my not-so-subtle way of warning for potential tourists that unless they were hardcore "off-the-beaten-path" types, they might want to give the place a miss.
After learning about plans to spruce up Chikan, I went to my very dusty clipping file - does anyway remember those? I found copies of the Destination supplements that I wrote in 2004 and 2005 (pictured above).
Excerpts from the reports I wrote about Chikan in the "Destination Jiangman" travel supplement published on 20 April 2005 follow:
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 in 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-Starbuck’s China.
Hopefully, these ageing structures will be renovated and not torn down as prosperity slowly returns to the region. - Michael Taylor, 20 April 2005.
Siu Family Library
Opened in 1925, the graceful Situ Family Library (No. 17 Di Dong Road, Chikan Township, Kaiping, China) still occupies pride of place along the Chikan waterfront.
Yellow and white, the three-story building is topped by a clock tower. The ground floor features a reading room and pictures of family members who made good gracing the walls.
Portuguese and Roman design elements are incorporated into the first and second floors. - Michael Taylor, 20 April 2015.
Guan Family Library
Not to be outdone, the Guan family built the Guanzu Library (No. 116 Di Xi Road, Chikan Township, Kaiping, China) 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 towers which rises above the4 treeops, looks similar to its older sibling down the road.
But there are significant differences. Both buildings deserve a visit. - Michael Taylor, 20 April 2015.
Kaiping Cinema City
One section of the district was converted into a television and movie set several years back, now known as Kaiping Cinema City
While the renovated buildings – especially the interiors – look rather disappointing in person, theyu can provide amateur photographers with some great photo opps.
A traditional wedding ceremony I, which is staged several times a day for four groups is refreshingly professional and entertaining. A surprise ending makes the visit worthwhile. - 20 April 2015.
According to the South China Morning Post, Chikan will be tuned into a "historical theme park" with hotels, cafes, bars, and shops. None of the current residents will be allowed to remain.
The project will be similar to one that was done by the same developer in Wuzhen in Zhejiang province several years ago.
By coincidence, I was taken on a tour of the ''theme park" during a press trip to the Yangtze River Delta in 2014 to attend the grand opening of the Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort.
I thought the place was spectacular. My only regret was that I had a flight to catch and only got to spend about 45 minutes there. I could have easily spent an entire day there, wandering through the beautifully restored village.
When I learned that the same chief designer that oversaw the Wuzhen project would oversee the Chikan project, I felt reassured.
Wuzhen is a historic town in the north of China's Zhejiang province. It is one of the six ancient towns south of the Yangtze River, 17 kilometres or 10 mile north of Tongxiang.
Wuzhen lies within the triangle of Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Suzhou. While Shanghai is China's most populous city, Hangzhou and Suzhou have long been considered to be two of China's most beautiful cities.
Was Wuzhen as rundown as Chikan was before it was turned into a historic theme park? Did the developers have more to work with?
Or could Chikan be transformed into something equally attractive?
Wuzhen has become a very popular tourist attraction. Could the same thing happen to Chikan?
I shudder when I hear the word "theme park" bandied about. I especially don't like the idea that visitors will have to pay admission to gain entry.
Wouldn't it be better if it were a zone that people could wander into and out of - for a bite to eat, a drink with friends, or some retail therapy?
I hate the idea of tour buses parked along the streets, with tour guides screaming through megaphones as weary tourists follow behind them like a gaggle of goslings waddling after Mother Goose.
I would prefer that Chikan could be turned into a living, breathing district, inhabited by real people running real businesses, something along the lines of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Realistically speaking, however, that is unlikely. The French Quarter was already a popular food and beverage district, chock-a-block with jazz clubs and strip-joints before a commission was established to oversee its development.
The French Quarter was already successful, but it ran the risk of being spoiled by its own success. So design restrictions were imposed to prevent a thriving commercial district from being ruined by thoughtless and tacky over-development.
From what I learned during my two visits to Jiangmen in 2004 and 2005, the district simply doesn't have the funds necessary to turn things around. Without some kind of intervention, Chikan would continue its slow decline.
Otherwise, the young and ambitious would continue to vacate the place, leaving behind crumbling edifices inhabited only by ghosts.
Chikan has more in common with the ghost towns that dot the American West than it does with a place like New Orleans.
They survive on tourists that stop by for lunch or dinner or to spend the night on their way to somewhere else.
I sympathize with the elderly denizens who would like to spend their last days in familiar surroundings, and their forced evacuation seems a bit draconian. Surely a more sensitive approach could have been adopted.
But looking to the future, I think that plans to rehabilitate the place are a positive move. When I consider what was done to Wuzhen, I can't help but think that Chikan could surely suffer a much worse fate than being turned into a historical theme park.
We're not talking about a Disneyland style amusement park with cartoon characters, a Ferris wheel, and roller coasters. Hopefully, there won't be any rides.
Rather than a theme park, I would like to think of this as a "living museum" along the lines of Williamstburgh, Virginia.
Some of the buildings could be turned into bed-and-breakfasts. Others could house shops and boutiques, art galleries and antique shops, cafes and tea houses opening on to the street.
And I see no reason why the upper floors couldn't be turned into flats and/or offices, where real people could live and work.
Current residents should be given priority. But I see no reason why others willing to contribute to the rebuilding of a once-thriving community should not also be given a chance to live, work, and open businesses there.
And Jiangmen's most talented native sons will no longer have to seek their fortunes elsewhere ...