The Diaolou of Kaiping
Kaiping is both a city and a county and is famous for its architecture and in particular the fortified watchtowers called “Diaolou” (<em>pron “dow lo”</em>).
On their historical and cultural importance the Diaolou were World Heritage listed in 2007. Movie makers trek to Kaiping to take advantage of the ancient architecture which were still being built up to 1932.
The Diaolou had different purposes according to need, but in the main were defensive structures. Some of the more elaborate structures were built for both defense and housing. It seemed every village worth its salt in Kaiping had one of these Diaolou.
The first of these Diaolou appeared in Kaiping during the transitional period between the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty in the mid seventeenth century. Robbers and bandits ever apparent, a Diaolou offered protection or early warning for a village.
There’s a story of a man, Xu Long, from Longtian village. His wife was kidnapped by bandits who demanded a ransom. His son, Xu Yi, collected the money, but his mother, through a mediator, said it wasn’t such a good trade for all that money. She told Xu Yi to use the money to protect his father by building a fortified Diaolou. That night she jumped off a cliff and Xu Yi duly built the Diaolou, known as the Father Honouring Diaolou, to protect his father. However, most of those early Diaolous, built of timber and earth, have decayed over time and very few remain.
There is a saying that there are two Kaipings; one at home in China, and one abroad. The gold rush of the 1850’s in Australia, USA and Canada brought many Chinese to those countries, and a very large portion of those came from Kaiping and neighbouring regions, Taishan and Xinhui. Those returning to their home lands, Jinshanke, “Guests of the Gold Rush”, would possess one or more wooden or leather boxes, Jinshanxiang, “Box of Gold Rush”.
This new wealth arrived to the families and villages in Kaiping and it didn’t take long for word to get around that there was a surplus of gold and cash. The need for protection apparent, there was a surge of Diaolou construction right up to the 1920’s, but unlike the earlier ones, these were made of stone or brick and it is many of these constructions that survive today.
There are some excellent options for tourists to Kaiping to witness this architecture. My favourite was the Nanlou Memorial Garden near a village called Tengjiao, just south of the township of Chikan, about twenty minutes’ drive from Kaiping.
At the village I witnessed an amazing experience on the side of the road. We got off the bus, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and there was a long procession of people, single file, with a wailing trumpet-like sound coming from the front, some people dressed in white cloaks, and a constant drumming. Occasionally the line of people would stop, someone would let off some firecrackers, and then the procession would continue as before.
It was actually an ancient funeral procession in this tiny village. I felt so privileged to witness it, and I desperately wanted to follow them and film them but I didn’t want to be disrespectful. I kept my eyes and ears fixed on them the entire time I was at Nanlou Garden.
This Diaolou was a structure more for defense, and the historic site is where seven martyrs held the Japanese at bay in July 1945 until they eventually succumbed to the enemy. The Diaolou has the eerie site of mortar fire holes all over it.
Climbing into the Diaolou, trying very carefully not to slam my head into low concrete ceilings, moving upwards on a surprisingly low and narrow staircase, I witnessed where the mortar had blasted holes on every level of the defense tower. Apparently the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Army) forces had fled when the Japanese arrived so the local Situs from four local towns dug in to hold Nanlou. They fought bravely for seven days and nights, holding off the Japanese, but eventually ammunition and food ran out and they were overrun by the enemy.
Arrested, tortured and killed. Cut into pieces they were thrown into the Tanjiang River. After the war there was a memorial with 30,000 people from Kaiping, Enping, Taishan and Xinhui to honour the seven martyrs. At the top of Diaolou, I stood, looking out for miles through the hazy sky over Kaiping and said my own special prayer for the seven brave heroes.
That’s just one diaolou in a region where there are hundreds, all unique in their own way, but in particular, unique to Kaiping.