Since as far back as the Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368), the small town of Xiaozhou and its narrow waterways have been home to the Tanka, or "on water people," who traditionally lived in their boats, fishing for sustenance.
Today, just 45 minutes away from Guangzhou, the quiet waterways remain, crisscrossed occasionally by weathered stone bridges. Ancestral temples and abodes still occupy the area. Guangzhou has a total of 14 protected historic and cultural sites, and the water town of Xiaozhou was easily one of the first to be designated as such.
Other hints of the Tanka people can be found, such as the two last remaining houses covered in oyster shells.
Xiaozhou holds on to some sense of its tradition, though that history is now coupled up with an arty trendiness. In 2002, a Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts professor set up the town's first art studio. In fact, the town already had a reputation as a place whose picturesque scenes were perfect to capture with a pencil or brush.
Later, in 2008, the first Xiaozhou Art Festival was held, promoted by independent organizers. The very next year, the Guangzhou Planning Commission began chipping in money to develop Xiaozhou as an artsy tourist resort. It wasn't long before local media dubbed the village a "cutting edge cultural hub."
By 2012, more than 500 artists were residing in Xiaozhou, and over 20 galleries and art spaces had been established. Comparisons with Beijing's 798 Art District were not uncommon. But in Xiaozhou, Dadaist works of art could be found next to locals still selling their own traditional crafts.
Art students regularly tuck easels under their arms and pop over from the neighboring Guangzhou University Town to practice their skills, or just to talk art in one of the ever-growing number of cafes.
The town is a case study in development; the number of visitors increases, building demolitions and constructions increase, rents skyrocket, forcing out original community members, and much of what originally drew people to the place disappears.
But for now, a sense of past times still lingers in the quaint canals, original architecture and back alleys of Xiaozhou. Local foods such as the porridge, flavored rice rolls or sesame desserts remain popular with residents and visitors alike. That, plus all the galleries filled with many-flavored arts, makes for a place whose charms are more than obvious.
Getting there: From Kecun subway station exit D, take bus No. 252 and get off at the Xiaozhou stop.