A couple weekends back Andy and I met up with my good friends Nick and Vicky to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Diaolou sites around Kaiping, Guandong. In Kaiping there are five government-sanctioned Diaolou and village sites that we needed a ticket for entry (Zili Village, Majianlong Village, Jingiangli Village, Li Yuan Gardens and Yinglong tower, 150 RMB for all five over two days) and there are countless of other individual Diaolous scattered across the countryside.
The Daiolous are family villas that were built by “overseas Chinese” in the 1930s. These Chinese families spent time abroad, typically in South Asia, Australia and North America, then returned to Guangdong, bringing with them a new architectural taste.
The buildings are considered a significant architectural form because their defensive features and for the way they combine Western and Chinese styles. To protect from bandits of the day they built high walls with ironclad windows and slots for firing weapons. Wealthy families built most of the Diaolous, but each village would also have a less decorative Diaolou that was shared by the rest of the village population during a raid. Today village residents and visitors alike only need to be weary of modern-photoshop-bandits like these two outlaws.
Family portraits and artifacts were displayed in the buildings. Artifacts ranged from chopsticks and chopping blocks, to a 300 year old toilet and an Ashland, Ohio made water pump. The design of the buildings, with tall stories, internal windows, and shaded upper story balconies allowed for air circulation and kept the insides a cool temperature (much appreciated on hot summer days!)
In 1980s many of the families entered into entrusted management agreements with the Chinese government. The government took charge of maintenance and repair of the buildings, while the families remain the owners.
The different sites were in varying states of repair and slow deterioration. The Li Yuan Garden site was by far the best maintained and all the buildings still boasted their original bright yellow paint. At the Ruishi Lou Tower I could see how sun and rain was washing away the once vibrant blue paint. In the tall stairways, protected from elements, colorful stencils still line the walls.
On our first sightseeing day we hired a driver to take us between three sites. On our second day we started early to beat the heat and rode tandem bicycles the 11km between Chikan, where we stayed the night, Zili Village and Manjianlong Village. And we even found the almost fully paved “Guangdong Greenway” to ride home!