Multi-storeyed defensive village houses in Kaiping display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms. They reflect the significant role of emigre Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Kaiping Diaolou and VillagesIn the Han period (255BC-220AD) Han people from the Central Plains of China began to move into the area and intermingled with the Yue people, who cultivated rice and fished. Settlements based on clan groupings emerged laid out according to Feng Shui principles and with houses built of mud bricks or fired bricks and timber.
From the 16th century, in response to increasing raids by bandits from the north coming into the area along the rivers, and to frequent heavy floods, villagers begun to construct fortified towers, known as Diaolou. An example is Yinglong Lou in Sanmenli Village. Following the creation of the Kaiping County in 1649, the security of the area greatly improved and few Diaolou were constructed in the Qing Dynasty: Kaiping means ‘Beginning of Peace'.
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From the mid-16th century, many villagers began to trade from the nearby coast, sailing in wooden junks to south-east Asia. In 1839 a poor farmer left his village and travelled to America. This was the start of a large migration of people drawn on the one hand by work on gold-fields and railroads, and prompted on the other by an increasingly difficult situation at home, brought about by warfare against Hakka migrants from the north and an increase in population which had led to food shortages. Many thousands of Kaiping villagers left the area, travelling to Macao and Hong Kong and then on to USA, Canada or Australia.
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In North America the immigrants had to take jobs involving hard manual labour. Nevertheless by the end of the 19th century the Chinese community had begun to amass savings, and after the First World War, with rapid economic expansion in many countries, the fortunes of the overseas Chinese steadily improved. What they did not believe they had achieved however, was social recognition for their input into the expansion of the countries they had chosen to live in. Their dreams came to be associated with contributing to the wellbeing of their ancestral villages or returning to live there, and many did just that building conspicuous tower houses.
The influx of wealthy people attracted the attention of the bandits from the north who raided, robbed and kidnapped. Between 1912 and 1930, 71 incidents of banditry were recorded. The new houses needed to be built as defensive towers. The overseas Chinese also contributed to the construction of communal towers and watchtowers in most of the villages. Of the 1833 Diaolou in Kaiping, 1648 were built between 1900 and 1931, just under 90% of the total. In the same period most of the villages were built or rebuilt. In the short space of 30 years the rural landscape of Kaiping was completely transformed with funds from overseas Chinese.
The Depression of the 1930s, and the war against Japan and the Pacific war of the 1940s brought development to a halt. Between 1943 and 1947 immigration control in the USA and Canada was abolished with the result that many Chinese moved back to North America. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, banditry was halted and flood mitigation measures were introduced: the role of the Diaolou disappeared. In the 1980s following the re-opening of China, many villagers moved away. Now many Diaolou are empty, cared for by caretakers, but still regarded by overseas Chinese as their spiritual home to which they return on family occasions or remit money for prayers to be said to their ancestors. Some still contain all their original furniture and fittings.
The surrounding villages and farmland are still part of an active rural economy, the village houses, rice fields, bamboo groves and surrounding grazed hills reflecting rural landscape patterns and practices that may have persisted for over a millennia.