Picture this in your mind’s eye:
A fortress tower, not one, but many.
Towers peppered throughout an old, weathered countryside.
Castles in the sky…
Concrete and stone structures built almost a century ago. Roman and Greek inspired columns… Mediterranean themed arches – some nicely proportioned, but many not. Architectural domes that echo Byzanthium places of worship from days gone by. But wait, what’s this?
A Chinese styled roof form adorned next to the western neo-classical column and arches?
You wouldn’t expect western and eastern architecture to mix like this.
These are the “diao lou”, or diaolou (開 平 碉 樓) … phallic structures that are dropped onto many old villages in a small area in southern China, in the area known as Kaiping, the land of my ancestors. On the piece I wrote for Wikipedia, I describe the diaolou as:
… fortified multi-storey towers, generally made of reinforced concrete. These towers are located mainly in Kaiping County, Guangdong province, China. Kaiping together with its neighbouring counties of Enping, Taishan and Xinwei are collectively known as the “Four counties”. It was from the four counties that many of the Chinese labourers to North America originated from.
Also known as the “Kaiping diaolou”, the first towers were built during the early Qing Dynasty, reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s, when there were more than three thousand of these structures. Today, approximately 1,833 diaolou remain standing. Although the diaolou served mainly as protection against forays by bandits, a few of them also served as living quarters.
Kaiping has traditionally been a region of major emigration abroad, and a melting pot of ideas and trends brought back by overseas Chinese. As a result, many diaolou incorporate architectural features from China and from the West.
The oldest Diaolou in Kaiping was built during the Ming Dynasty (around AD 1530).
It is located near Xingang [clam hill] market town (pronounced “Hin Gong” in the Kaiping dialect).
Note that the entire 3 storey building is built almost entirely of brick
… and oversized BIG bricks (that were the common standard during that time).
A question had been presented to me:
“if the diaolou were a result of overseas contributions at the turn of the last century, how do you explain the existence of a Ming dynasty diaolou?”
I believe the diaolou as a generic term for “fortress building”. Meaning, late 18th to early 19th century fortifications were modelled after these 15th century structures for the very same reasons – for protection of life and material goods.
The 19th century structures grew in height, as techology of the day made it economically possible (ie. the appearance of reinforced concrete as a building material).
It is also interesting to note that the early Kaipingnese/ Cantonese word for concrete is “hoong moe nie” – meaning: red hair’s soil [red hair=foreigner]
Tian Lu 天 裸 樓 Diaolou, at Wing On Le 永 安 里 (Yong’an Li) Village
The tower image on the right is the Diaolou located in our ancestral village.
It was built in 1922 and is seven stories tall. It is one of several in my ancestral village of Yong An Li. It is named Tian Lu Diaolou: Tian 天 meaning “heavenly” and Lu 裸, meaning “success”. Like other Diaolou, it is a “young” structure compared to the vernacular buildings found all over China. And they are unique, because each diaolou is different and they are found no where else in China.
As indicated earlier, the Diao lou (or Dialou) is both the singular and plural form for the noun. These towers are found only in the ancestral homeland of early overseas Chinese communities that had members (mainly males) who travelled abroad – to Canada for example. Thus, they are found in the four county districts (Siyi) of Guangdong province, and in particular, in Taishan and in Kaiping counties.
They are ecclectic Chinese interpretations of “western” architectural elements brought home and financed by the overseas sons. Built as towers for protection against bandits who targeted families because of perceived wealth.
And looking at how extravagant some of them are, I believe they represented status symbols for the village. Unfortunately, many of them are now falling apart due to age and neglect. But thankfully, the Chinese government has recognized the cultural and historic importance of these buildings and are now presently repairing and protecting many of them.