March 2015


Tower Hamlets
March 2015




Diaolou towers amongst the fields in Zili village

Ask a native of Kaiping, Guangdong Province, the population of the town and they'll likely give you the curious answer of 680,000 plus 750,000 overseas. The fact that many of this "overseas population" may never have set foot in Kaiping does not matter; this town tells the fortunes of Chinese emigrants.


Words Mark Andrews

Situated around an hour and a half away from Guangzhou by car or bus, it is the only World Heritage site in Guangdong Province.


An easily accessible area of countryside, it makes an ideal day trip or overnight stopover. UNESCO inscribed Kaiping in 2007 because of the tower like structures, known as diaolou, which litter the surrounding countryside. At one time they numbered as many as 3,000 but at the last count there were 1,833 of what today appear to be follies. Twenty buildings are inscribed in the four villages of Sanmenli, Zili, Majianlong, and Jinjiangli.

An easily accessible area of countryside it makes an ideal day trip or overnight stopover


A cacophony of ducks greets visitors to Zili village. Nine dialou and six Western style villas rise out of the rice fields. Built around a century ago they combined the latest construction techniques and Western architectural styles with traditional Chinese elements and were in that respect a reflection of their owners. In their day, they were the epitome of wealth and success but their expense and fortification belie the blood, sweat and suffering that went before. The village museum takes up the story.


Times were hard around the mid-19th Century due to civic unrest and population pressures. This resulted in three major waves of emigration. The first in the early 1840s was to South East Asia to work for Western colonists in mining and infrastructure construction. In the late 1840s the second wave started in response to the gold rushes in the US, Canada and Australia. The third wave began in the late 1860s to provide navvies for the North American railways. Whilst Kaiping's "overseas population" is spread across 67 countries, around a half live in North America and nearly a third in Hong Kong.


A visit to Minshi Lou in Zili, shows the success of those from the early 20th Century. The first emigrants had often worked in near slavery like conditions but some did well and through trade amassed fortunes. Lack of acceptance in their adopted countries led those that did succeed to channel their money back to their hometowns and families. Fang the builder of Minshi Lou became rich as a restaurateur in Chigago. Made with the latest Western building techniques and materials, such as reinforced concrete, and steel doors from Germany, the attacking Japanese were kept out during World War II.


Located outside the village is a watch tower, another type of diaolou, used to warn of impending bandit attacks. As wealth flowed into the area around Kaiping so did bandits. Diaolou were necessary to guard against these intruders and to protect against flooding.


Ruishi lou, in Jinjiangli, at nine storeys is the tallest tower. Whilst easy to spot, the problem is getting to it. A maze of roads meanders through the rice fields and even locals have problems knowing which to take. Persistence will be rewarded with what is acclaimed as the best diaolou thanks to its mix of Western style with Chinese stucco work and original furnishings.


Majianlong has a peaceful location protected by the Tan River on one side and Baizu Mountain at the rear while enveloped in a bamboo grove providing respite from the summer sun. Laid out on Feng Shui principles the village has seven diaolou; including Tianlu Lou built communally by the village.The tops of the towers peak out from the surrounding trees and bamboo.

Li Garden is the lasting edifice of Xie Weili who made a fortune from trade in the US and Hong Kong
Chikan township, along with being a good lunch spot-try the local speciality bao zai fan, rice cooked with meat or fish and vegetables-also has its own special type of building. Known locally as qilou the picturesque buildings down by the Tan River are famed for their balconies. Dating from the turn of the last century they were also built by returning Chinese and incorporate Western architectural elements. They are three storeys high with the lower one used as a store front and the upper two for living. Movie buffs might recognise the nearby film set from the Jackie Chan film Drunken Master, with its reconstructions of traditional buildings.


Li Garden is the lasting edifice of Xie Weili who made a fortune from trade in the US and Hong Kong. He was from the third generation of the family living overseas and had amassed a fortune in trade in the US and Hong Kong. Despite the name it is more a collection of six villas and one tower belonging to his family. Security though was paramount with an escape tunnel from the diaolou leading to the canal, just in case they needed to escape once again. The garden itself features man made canals and footbridges blending traditional Chinese style and water-town landscaping with Western architecture.


Diaolou were not actually a type of building new to the twentieth century, with their origins lying in the sixteenth century. A visit to Sanmenli reveals one of the original diaolou of around 450 years old which is almost unrecognisable compared to those in other villages. Although still a defensive building, it is quite different in style being low rise and occupying a larger area.


Whether you choose to traverse the paths of this intriguing town on a day trip or stay overnight, the stories of the diaolou and the interesting architecture would indeed provide an enthralling adventure.

 

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    Jinjiangli village with two diaolou buildings in the foreground

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    A communal diaolou building in Majianglong village surrounded by bamboo

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    The interior of Minshi Lou a diaolou in Zili village

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    Waterfront image of Chikan township with qilou buildings

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    Street scene in Chikan showing the traditional qilou buildings with their ground floors still in use as shops

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    Local speciality bao zai fan being cooked up on the stove in Chikan

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    A traditional gateway on the Chikan film set

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    The interior of a mansion building on the Chikan film set

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    A statue of Xie Weili in front of one of the houses that make up Li Garden

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    Buildings that are part of the Li Garden estate

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    Buildings that are part of the Li Garden estate

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