Scattered across fields around Kaiping – a small city in Guangdong province with a population of 700,000 – is a remarkable architectural vista of about 1,800 towers that are a unique Chinese take on castles. Known as diaolou, the earliest date back to the Ming dynasty. But many were also built during the 1920s and ’30s, when diaolou construction reached its peak. Having made their fortune in America, returning Chinese added to the region’s array of high-rises – augmenting their historic form with Baroque, Roman and Gothic touches. Some local builders created designs inspired by images on postcards sent from abroad.
The first diaolou were built as fortified houses, with thick walls and small windows as defensive features against bandits, who were rife at the time. At around six storeys, their height was also a response to frequent local flooding. The flurry of creation in the early 20th century resulted in more than 3,000 towers dotting the Kaiping landscape – before World War II and the hard times that followed led many to fall into ruin. But the 1,800 that remain are now slowly being restored, spurred by UNESCO World Heritage status that was granted in 2007 to several clusters of diaolou, some of which are still inhabited.
Perhaps the showiest structure is at Li Garden in the Beiyi Xiang district. Built in 1936 by Chinese businessman Xie Weili, the palatial complex features a golden garden pavilion shaped like a birdcage, amid little waterways.
– TEXT BY NORMAN MILLER
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.