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THE FORGOTTEN FORTRESSES OF KAIPING (69 photos) Send this reportage Send this reportage
At Kaiping and its surroundings in the province of Canton (Guangzhou, South China), subtropical region, a country of monsoon stand architectures fortified towers quite amazing, called Diaolou. These towers shuttered, usually topped terraces and domes of Baroque inspiration European overlooking bucolic landscapes and wetlands where farmers still work with bare hands in ricefield.
© P. Wang./
Categories: Architecture, History, Houses & gardens, Trekking, Tourism, Travel, Offbeat, Men Interest, Outdoor, Culture, Woman Interest, Archaeology
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These architectures provide a sophisticated contrast with the rural landscape where time seems to stand still, we came across yet plows pulled by oxen. Some of these forts dating to the earliest 16th century, but most were built in the 20s and 30s.

They served both residential, watchtowers and defense against bandits. They are equipped for the most deadly and iron shutters. They were built with funds from overseas Chinese, the region with long
abundantly Canada and the United States in labor for gold mines and the railroad. Some became wealthy, and were willing to give their village and family structures of solids can also be used to store and protect people and crops by floods or attacks by bandits. There had about 3000 diaolou 1833 which are still standing. Confiscated at the height of communism, the government was suspicious of these defensive structures, capable of harboring potential rebels, yet they often belong to expatriate families. They are closed and uninhabited except for a few. It is possible to visit some, if we are lucky! One of them is transformed into a museum. In 2001 the Chinese State Council said these fortified towers to protect cultural relics, and UNESCO has ranked on the list of World Heritage protection. These architectures have remained unknown because the area remained rural and little seen

He must hurry to go and see them as a local tourism began to organize, and China today, the changes are surprisingly rapid, especially if there is room for profit.

Much of China's Guangdong Province is a sprawl of untidy and often grim manufacturing, where sweated labour produces the world's toys. But Kaiping county, halfway between the provincial capital of Guangzhou and the border with Macau, is China at its most bucolic. Peasants in conical straw hats, knee-deep in ooze, bend over their plants or hoist hand-powered threshing machines on shoulder poles, and squelch their way to a suitable position for processing the ripened crop.
Here they often toil beneath extraordinary watchtowers called diaolou, which are part Gothic, part 1970s prog-rock album art, and part Citizen Kane's Xanadu broken into pieces and sprinkled across the county.

A few diaolou are squat, brick fortresses dating back mostly to the 17th century, and were intended as places of refuge for whole villages. But the more alien and romantic watchtowers were mostly built by Chinese who travelled out through the foreign-influenced treaty ports and returned wealthy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to buy land, build a house, and marry.

Some early concrete towers are simple fingers, merely lookout points from which to provide warning of approaching bandits in the protracted period of lawlessness between the fall of the Qing in 1911 and the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. By the peak of construction in the 1920s and '30s, these had evolved into fortified residences up to nine storeys high, sprouting turrets and loopholes, balconies and cupolas borrowed from half-understood European styles. Of around 3,000 originals, 1,833 still stand, poking up from the low-rise clutter of almost every village.

Views of a representative sample can be snatched in a day by taxi, but it's better to use Kaiping town as a base for exploring on foot and by public minibus. High-speed catamarans run directly to Kaiping from Hong Kong, but like most of China, the town is almost unknown to foreign visitors unless, as in this case, they're the descendents of those who didn't move back. These number 750,000 worldwide, some of whom form a substantial minority of Vancouver's Chinese.

The oldest surviving diaolou is the Yinglong Lou at San Men Li, 15 minutes west of Kaiping town by local bus, just off the main road. A narrow pine-lined path leads to the village, past farmers still carrying water from the well on shoulder-pole-mounted buckets, and past elderly ladies seated in the shade of a banyan. The villagers are delighted to see a foreigner, and lead the way through a narrow passage between ancient houses.

It's a three-storey solid brick refuge from floods, the lower two reddish levels built sometime between 1436 and 1449 and an upper grey one added in 1919. The walls are more than 90 centimetres thick, and there's a loopholed turret at each corner. In a country where most structures are of wood, precious few buildings of any kind are genuinely of this antiquity, but the villagers have kept the roof in good repair, and a child is sent to fetch the key, revealing a bare yet atmospheric interior, littered with mouse droppings.

When the village suffered flooding in 1884 and 1908, the residents moved to the upper storey, and survived. Their descendants are proud that they took care of their diaolou in return. Brick can be recycled to other uses, they point out, whereas concrete cannot, so other surviving towers are of a much later date, although Communist Party antipathy to any military structure not under its immediate control ensured many others were pulled down.

The largest single collection of diaolou is at Zili Cun, two further minibus rides and a 45-minute walk away; peasants point vaguely across the paddies and duck ponds to a mini-Manhattan of towers. Taxis from Kaiping will drive out, wait an hour, and return for the equivalent of about $15.

The 15 towers are mostly three or four storeys high, made of concrete, but their top storeys are a clutter of arches and balustrades, ornamental urns, and turreted corners. Perhaps the most elegant is the taller Mingshi Lou, on the right toward the rear of the village. There are plans to open this as a museum, as it contains late-Qing furnishings and a top-floor ancestral shrine, which affords superb views across the countryside. Its owners are still overseas.

Narrow stone paths weave through the marshy ground on which they stand; the sogginess no doubt contributing to the slight lean some of them display. Wooden signs point out a viewing route, but as yet there are no hordes of visitors to elbow aside. Life goes on as normal: villagers chop sugar cane, geese seek shade beneath banana palms, and crabs cluster beneath bridges, although a village convenience store has already learned to add a couple of yuan to the price of goods purchased by visitors.

Farther southwest, about 35 minutes by bus from Kaiping, Xiabian Cun has a rather different tower, the slender five-storey Shi Lou of 1924, standing in a little market garden. Since cement was almost unknown in mainland China, it had to be imported from Hong Kong at considerable expense, and although the original owner had lived in Peru and Singapore, he could mostly only afford the ingenious alternative mélange of rammed earth, sugar, lime, and sticky rice. The red-clay soil has left its warm colour in the pink-ochre walls, and its extraction created the fish ponds at the tower's foot. What cement could be afforded was reserved for a pseudo-European topping of balcony, pepper-potted corners with inverted-T-shaped arrow slits, and domed pavilion.

Farther southwest at Xiagang, 50 minutes from Kaiping, are both the oddest tower and the most impressive. Motorbikes meet buses to offer pillion rides to smaller villages, but it's much more enjoyable to do this on foot, and the first tower is only about a 2.5-kilometre walk away. Beyond a river clogged with small vessels that are also homes to their owners, a path along the bank leads to the unspoiled and friendly little village of Dong Xi. Down the third narrow alley between the houses lies a vast European-influenced mansion, whose owners went back overseas again and are said by the villagers to be in San Francisco.

Back on the path there's a descent to a metalled road that leads to the left past the occasional armchair-shaped grave and water buffalo wallowing in the paddies, their dung collected and raked neatly out to dry on the road. Nan Xing Li, on the right, has China's answer to Italy's Torre di Pisa, a slender six-storey concrete finger named the Nan Xing Xielou (Leaning Tower of Nan Xing), inclined severely but very photogenically to one side, and reflected attractively in the village pond. Its top is two metres out of alignment, with an annual increase of two centimetres, so although it has survived since 1902 it may lose its fight with gravity at any time. Even by its completion, it was leaning so far that the watchman who lived on the top floor had to put bricks under one side of his bed.

Passing back through Xiagang, I paused to admire another tower, and was invited inside. Its owners say it's too old, and they use it merely for storage; their family of 15 lives next door in a modern house. But they happily showed me up to the roof, from which watchtower-mansions could be seen springing from the fields in all directions.

A short walk farther at Jin Jiang Li, villagers shoo pigeons away from drying rice, and any of the narrow alleys lead to the Ruishi Lou, perhaps the most magnificent diaolou of all, built by a man who ran a bank and herbal-medicine store in Hong Kong. Completed in 1925, its nine storeys took three years to complete using local labour but imported materials, and it dominates the village. Decorated corners and windows run from top to bottom and a cantilevered gallery embraces all four sides, with domes at the corners and a two-storey octagonal folly at the top. Clearly in competition, the neighbouring Shengfeng Lou, also completed in 1925 but by a returnee from the U.S., has Egyptian columns running up two storeys of cantilevered galleries. Both buildings dwarf a more utilitarian watchtower built by the ordinary villagers in 1918.

There's much pleasure to be had by rambling at will through the countryside and heading toward any towers visible on the skyline. Few are still occupied, but many are used for storage, and an invitation inside is not unusual. A small but enthusiastic local-government team is working to obtain UNESCO World Heritage listing for the Kaiping towers, and has placed plaques with good English at some sites. But unusually, and much to their credit, they are proceeding cautiously with the tourism development that such an action always brings, and which in China inevitably causes destruction rather than conservation. Roads cannot yet accommodate tour buses, and schemes to control entry to the narrow spaces in the towers are being considered before any are opened as museums.