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The Architectural Heritage of Kaiping


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Arriving in Kaiping, a small, nondescript town on the eastern edge of the industrial Pearl River Delta region, you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. Billboard signs suggest this is the water faucet capital of China, supplying taps and flushing toilets to the world. But as soon as you board a taxi or local bus bound for the surrounding subtropical countryside, impressions soon change.

Fields of luminous rice carpet the broad plains between the hill the villages of weathered Qing Dynasty and Republican-era farmhouses sit like stone islands in a sea of green. Almost all of these villagers have at least one lurching, strange tower or “diaolou” peering over them.

Kaiping is a Chinese county like no other, a land festooned with fascinating, fort-like buildings known as diaolou, watchtowers that arouse notions of Western architectural styles as much as they embody the spirit of the dragon.

Of an estimated 3,000 original towers, there remain over 1,800 diaolou in and around Kaiping. But same questions soon flood the mind of any traveller, seasoned or novice: Where did they come from and what are they doing here?

Movie Town

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To piece this puzzling story together, you best base yourself in Chikan, a centrally located river tower comprising of some marvellously mottled, arcade-lined streets. Part of Chikan is dubbed Movie Town and is periodically cordoned-off from public view while films are being made. Such hits as Jiang Wen’s Let The Bullets Fly and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmasters were shot in and around Chikan. It’s easy to see why. Few Republican-era towns remain so unaltered by the waves of change that have washed across China since the revolution in 1949. This is perhaps testament to how far from China’s political centre Kaiping is.

Beyond the historic imbued streets, there’s some good street eats in Chikan and a few hotels, the most foreigner friendly being Tribes of Diaomin, where bicycles can be hired. Should you visit outside of the humid summer months peddle-power is the way to go, otherwise Chikan’s bus station connects with all the regional wonders.

Zili Village

Surrounding Chikan there are several diaolou clusters included on the UNESCO world heritage list, some of which have been opened to tourism. Zili Village, for instance, has some incredibly well preserved towers as well as a tourist friendly visitor centre, car park, and, alas the accompanying ticket price of RMB80. It’s a good place to begin your tour, however, as it is so photogenic and the diaolou have been brandished with informative English-language plaques, despite many still serving as homes for local villagers.

On the side of Yangxian Villa we read, “This is a building built by Fang Wenji in 1919 after his return from Southeast Asia…”

It may be difficult to imagine now, but economic heavyweight Guangdong was once one of China’s poorer provinces, a troubled place at the turn of the twentieth century forced to send its sons overseas in search of fortune. Many young men from the Greater Jiangmen Region built the railroads in America, worked the mines of Australia or served as navvies in the British merchant navy. And those who made good, following the codes of Confucian filial piety, returned home, bringing with them exotic ideas from overseas, particularly the West. This is why the dialou appears so curiously occidental.

The description of Yangxian continues, “Five stories high, it is a reinforced concrete structure.” You might wonder why the diaolou was built so tall and strong, but consider that these wealthy returnees were making homes in a lawless, bandit plagued land. They needed protection as well as to see an enemy coming from afar. As such the dialou were watchtowers as well as homes.

Additionally, as one informative local explained to me, “the diaolou also enabled people to put their money in bricks and mortar, they were a sound investment as well as being the outward expression of success in business.”

Jinjiangli Villages

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Of the many buildings that sought to express the Overseas Chinese sense of savoir-fair one of the most colourful diaolou is undoubtedly the Ruishi Lou located in Jinjiang Village to the far west of Chikan. Built in 1923 by a villager who’d been a merchant in Hong Kong, this fantastically elaborate, nine-storey tower is topped with domes that recall the Middle East combined with decorative elements that are more in keeping with what one might see adorning a merchant’s home of Venice.

Despite its pretensions, this is a quintessentially Chinese construct that fuses the exoticism of the wider world with native traditions. This is why the diaolou are so intriguing, because they are more like a dream of the West melded with the practicalities of the day and the traditions of ancient China, rather than a simulacra of a foreign locale per se. And compared with the dower, residential towers, the likes of which are the scourge of architecture today, one can't help wish the diaolou idea had cottoned on.  

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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