Standing Tall

2013年12月04日

Towers that fuse Chinese and Western architecture win UNESCO award

By Louise do Rosario

A picture of Fang Yun-wen, dressed in a smart Western suit with a waistcoat, greets visitors to his imposing six-storey home in Kaiping in western Guangdong. Next to his picture are photographs of his three wives – a local lady, a Chinese-American from New York and the third one from Hong Kong.

From the roof, you can see fruit orchards and rice paddies glistening in the hot summer sun. Fang’s home is one of the 1,833 Kaiping diaolou (towers) which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in June 2007.

His first wife and two sons lived in the tower; each son had a floor to himself, with his own kitchen. Fang visited but never lived here. After he died in New York in 1935, his body was brought back for burial in his native land.

His profile is typical of those who built these imposing structures. Born in 1878, he left at the age of 11 for New York, where he worked in the restaurant business. He earned enough to build the tower and support three families in a comfortable condition.

“There used to be 3,400 towers in Kaiping, with the first built in the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644),” said tour guide Wu Mei. “The largest number was built from the mid-1850s. It was a period of chaos and disputes over land between local people and those who had come from outside.”

The towers had three functions – as homes, as a defence against bandits and as protection against flooding.

From the 1860s, thousands of people left Kaiping to seek their fortune abroad – building roads and railways and digging for gold in the United States, Canada and Australia. They also went to Hong Kong, Macao, the Philippines, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. Their three main professions were the restaurant business, barber shops and laundries.

By the end of the 19th century, they had begun to amass savings; after the First World War, with economic expansion in many countries, their fortunes steadily improved. In their adopted countries, however, they did not achieve the social recognition they had hoped for. The United States and Canada introduced legislation to restrict or ban Chinese immigration.

In 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigration of Chinese labourers and prevented those already there from becoming citizens. It was not repealed until 1943. These laws made it very difficult for Chinese men in the US to find a wife – they outnumbered Chinese women by 26–1. Blend of East and West

Many decided, instead, to contribute to the well-being of their ancestral villages; they returned to live there, married local women and built these striking tower houses as a sign of their success. They were built in the middle of villages, as a place to keep valuables and take refuge in the event of attacks by bandits. They were made of concrete and steel, with thick walls and bars over the windows, stronger and safer than the other houses around them.

Fang’s home has a door made of two plates of German steel – the highest quality available at the time. On the roof there are lookout posts to survey the landscape, with holes to drop stones or fire bullets at intruders. There is also a gong to alert the village to an attack. It has a secret escape route via a rear wall; others had routes through tunnels in the basement.

The architecture blended traditional Chinese styles with that brought by returnees from their new countries. These included Greek, Roman, Baroque, and Byzantine styles. People call Kaiping a ‘museum of modern architecture’; there are bricks from Italy, toilets from Germany and ashtrays from Britain.

The tallest is the Ruishi tower, boasting nine storeys, built in 1923 from reinforced steel. Its owner was Huang Bi-xiu, who made his fortune from banking and Chinese medicines in Hong Kong. He built the tower to protect the life and assets of his family in Kaiping.

He spent HK$30,000 on cement, steel rods, glass and timber, all imported from Hong Kong. The first floor has large reception rooms; the second to sixth floors contain dining rooms, bedrooms, toilets and a kitchen. The furniture is traditional Chinese. For its opening, Huang spent HK$10,000 on five days of feasting and invited everyone in the villages and those who were staying with them.

The Fangshideng Tower was built in 1920 with contributions from local villagers. Five storeys high, it is called the ‘light tower’; it had an enormous searchlight like that of a lighthouse and an alarm bell from Germany that could be heard for more than five kilometres.

The towers proved to be effective places to store guns and ammunition, torches, searchlights and police alarms. They did not come cheap; one, built in 1925, cost 12,000 silver dollars, the equivalent of 480,000 yuan in today’s money. They became a symbol of prestige and wealth of the family; people competed to build larger and better ones

“The migrants also made a major contribution to education,” said tour guide Wu Mei. “In the early Republican period, they funded 597 of the 600 schools here.”

Between 1900 and 1931, 1,648 towers were built. Over the same period, most of the villages were rebuilt; in just 30 years, funds from overseas Chinese transformed the rural landscape of this part of Guangdong. Repelling bandits

This influx of wealthy people attracted the attention of the bandits who raided, robbed and kidnapped. Between 1912 and 1930, 71 incidents of banditry were recorded.

One of the most famous raids occurred one night in December 1922. A gang of more than 100 attacked the Kaiping Middle School, where many children of the wealthy returnees were studying. They planned to kidnap the headmaster and over 20 pupils and hold them for ransom. As they passed a tower in Chikan village, however, they were spotted; the tower had been built by a returnee who had brought a police alarm, searchlight and guns back from the US. He set off the alarm, fired at the gang and alerted the residents. They were able to rescue the headmaster and students, capture more than ten of the gang and drive away the rest.

The towers were not always successful deterrents, though. At three in the morning on 19 January 1949, a band of 80 armed with pistols and swords attacked the three-storey Cong Jian Lou, which had been built by a returnee from the US hoping for a quiet life at home. The two doors of the towers were built of steel; it took the bandits more than half an hour to break them down with steel hammers, knives and fire. Five women, one of them pregnant, and one child were killed in the fire.

Migrants

Kaiping borders three counties – Enping, Taishan and Xinhui. Together they are known as the ‘four counties’, which were the main source of Chinese migrants to North America, Australia and Southeast Asia. Wu said that today Kaiping has a population of 700,000, while there are 750,000 people who originate from the area spread across 69 countries in the world.

Building of the towers reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, when there were more than 3,000. As local security began to improve, it became unnecessary to build such elaborate structures.

The depression of the 1930s slowed the flow of money; then came the war against Japan from 1937 to 1945. Between 1943 and 1947, immigration restrictions in the US and Canada were abolished, with the result that many Chinese moved to North America. The last tower was built in 1948.

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 halted banditry and improved flood control. This removed the role of the towers.

Wu said that about 1,000 were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), where the Red Guards were encouraged to attack anything old and traditional. “Destruction during wars was limited because this is an isolated place,” she said.

Others fell into disuse, with their owners living abroad and no family members able or willing to look after them. In the reform era since 1978, most young people have moved away to find work in the booming cities of Guangdong or elsewhere on the east coast. Those who stayed prefer to live in a new home with modern conveniences. “Only ten percent of the towers have people living in them, the descendants of the original owners,” said Wu. “They all belong to individuals.”

World Heritage Site

It was in June 2007 that UNESCO named the Kaiping Diaolou and Villages as a World Heritage Site.

The UNESCO citation states: “The Diaolou … display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms. They reflect the significant role of émigré Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia, and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the close links between overseas Kaiping people and their ancestral homes. The property inscribed here consists of four groups of Diaolou, totalling some 1,800 tower houses in their village settings.” It was the first World Heritage site in Guangdong province.

The designs are a mixture of styles from China and the West, reflecting the history of their owners; they also brought back items from abroad, like furniture, gramophones, gaslights and steel suitcases.

“Each of the 1,833 towers is different,” said Wu. “Some owners used foreign designers after inviting bids. Others used architects from Guangzhou or from the local area.” There is no collection of buildings like this anywhere else in China.

The World Heritage designation has been a mixed blessing. It has made Kaiping famous around the world and attracted many tourists; last year four million Chinese and 670,000 foreigners came. It has become popular as a site to make films and television series. The township of Chikan in Kaiping has a film studio, where many scenes were shot for the Grand Master, by Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s most famous director; released in January 2013, it stars Tony Leung as Wing Chun Kung Fu master Ip Man.

Chikan has 600 homes built in the first two decades of the 20th century with money from those who had migrated overseas. It is an ideal site to shoot films set in that period.

The downside is that the towers cannot be destroyed or altered. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to turn them into shops, restaurants or boutique hotels; this would involve modern wiring, computer systems and other necessary alterations.

Some will be preserved, therefore, and treasured for the tourists. Most will be left to decay, with no-one to take care of them.

Photos by Xinha News Agency

Standing Tall

Towers that fuse Chinese and Western architecture win UNESCO award

By Louise do Rosario

A picture of Fang Yun-wen, dressed in a smart Western suit with a waistcoat, greets visitors to his imposing six-storey home in Kaiping in western Guangdong. Next to his picture are photographs of his three wives – a local lady, a Chinese-American from New York and the third one from Hong Kong.

From the roof, you can see fruit orchards and rice paddies glistening in the hot summer sun. Fang’s home is one of the 1,833 Kaiping diaolou (towers) which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in June 2007.

His first wife and two sons lived in the tower; each son had a floor to himself, with his own kitchen. Fang visited but never lived here. After he died in New York in 1935, his body was brought back for burial in his native land.

His profile is typical of those who built these imposing structures. Born in 1878, he left at the age of 11 for New York, where he worked in the restaurant business. He earned enough to build the tower and support three families in a comfortable condition.

“There used to be 3,400 towers in Kaiping, with the first built in the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644),” said tour guide Wu Mei. “The largest number was built from the mid-1850s. It was a period of chaos and disputes over land between local people and those who had come from outside.”

The towers had three functions – as homes, as a defence against bandits and as protection against flooding.

From the 1860s, thousands of people left Kaiping to seek their fortune abroad – building roads and railways and digging for gold in the United States, Canada and Australia. They also went to Hong Kong, Macao, the Philippines, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. Their three main professions were the restaurant business, barber shops and laundries.

By the end of the 19th century, they had begun to amass savings; after the First World War, with economic expansion in many countries, their fortunes steadily improved. In their adopted countries, however, they did not achieve the social recognition they had hoped for. The United States and Canada introduced legislation to restrict or ban Chinese immigration.

In 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigration of Chinese labourers and prevented those already there from becoming citizens. It was not repealed until 1943. These laws made it very difficult for Chinese men in the US to find a wife – they outnumbered Chinese women by 26–1. Blend of East and West

Many decided, instead, to contribute to the well-being of their ancestral villages; they returned to live there, married local women and built these striking tower houses as a sign of their success. They were built in the middle of villages, as a place to keep valuables and take refuge in the event of attacks by bandits. They were made of concrete and steel, with thick walls and bars over the windows, stronger and safer than the other houses around them.

Fang’s home has a door made of two plates of German steel – the highest quality available at the time. On the roof there are lookout posts to survey the landscape, with holes to drop stones or fire bullets at intruders. There is also a gong to alert the village to an attack. It has a secret escape route via a rear wall; others had routes through tunnels in the basement.

The architecture blended traditional Chinese styles with that brought by returnees from their new countries. These included Greek, Roman, Baroque, and Byzantine styles. People call Kaiping a ‘museum of modern architecture’; there are bricks from Italy, toilets from Germany and ashtrays from Britain.

The tallest is the Ruishi tower, boasting nine storeys, built in 1923 from reinforced steel. Its owner was Huang Bi-xiu, who made his fortune from banking and Chinese medicines in Hong Kong. He built the tower to protect the life and assets of his family in Kaiping.

He spent HK$30,000 on cement, steel rods, glass and timber, all imported from Hong Kong. The first floor has large reception rooms; the second to sixth floors contain dining rooms, bedrooms, toilets and a kitchen. The furniture is traditional Chinese. For its opening, Huang spent HK$10,000 on five days of feasting and invited everyone in the villages and those who were staying with them.

The Fangshideng Tower was built in 1920 with contributions from local villagers. Five storeys high, it is called the ‘light tower’; it had an enormous searchlight like that of a lighthouse and an alarm bell from Germany that could be heard for more than five kilometres.

The towers proved to be effective places to store guns and ammunition, torches, searchlights and police alarms. They did not come cheap; one, built in 1925, cost 12,000 silver dollars, the equivalent of 480,000 yuan in today’s money. They became a symbol of prestige and wealth of the family; people competed to build larger and better ones

“The migrants also made a major contribution to education,” said tour guide Wu Mei. “In the early Republican period, they funded 597 of the 600 schools here.”

Between 1900 and 1931, 1,648 towers were built. Over the same period, most of the villages were rebuilt; in just 30 years, funds from overseas Chinese transformed the rural landscape of this part of Guangdong.

Repelling bandits

This influx of wealthy people attracted the attention of the bandits who raided, robbed and kidnapped. Between 1912 and 1930, 71 incidents of banditry were recorded.

One of the most famous raids occurred one night in December 1922. A gang of more than 100 attacked the Kaiping Middle School, where many children of the wealthy returnees were studying. They planned to kidnap the headmaster and over 20 pupils and hold them for ransom. As they passed a tower in Chikan village, however, they were spotted; the tower had been built by a returnee who had brought a police alarm, searchlight and guns back from the US. He set off the alarm, fired at the gang and alerted the residents. They were able to rescue the headmaster and students, capture more than ten of the gang and drive away the rest.

The towers were not always successful deterrents, though. At three in the morning on 19 January 1949, a band of 80 armed with pistols and swords attacked the three-storey Cong Jian Lou, which had been built by a returnee from the US hoping for a quiet life at home. The two doors of the towers were built of steel; it took the bandits more than half an hour to break them down with steel hammers, knives and fire. Five women, one of them pregnant, and one child were killed in the fire.

Migrants

Kaiping borders three counties – Enping, Taishan and Xinhui. Together they are known as the ‘four counties’, which were the main source of Chinese migrants to North America, Australia and Southeast Asia. Wu said that today Kaiping has a population of 700,000, while there are 750,000 people who originate from the area spread across 69 countries in the world.

Building of the towers reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, when there were more than 3,000. As local security began to improve, it became unnecessary to build such elaborate structures.

The depression of the 1930s slowed the flow of money; then came the war against Japan from 1937 to 1945. Between 1943 and 1947, immigration restrictions in the US and Canada were abolished, with the result that many Chinese moved to North America. The last tower was built in 1948.

The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 halted banditry and improved flood control. This removed the role of the towers.

Wu said that about 1,000 were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), where the Red Guards were encouraged to attack anything old and traditional. “Destruction during wars was limited because this is an isolated place,” she said.

Others fell into disuse, with their owners living abroad and no family members able or willing to look after them. In the reform era since 1978, most young people have moved away to find work in the booming cities of Guangdong or elsewhere on the east coast. Those who stayed prefer to live in a new home with modern conveniences. “Only ten percent of the towers have people living in them, the descendants of the original owners,” said Wu. “They all belong to individuals.”

World Heritage Site

It was in June 2007 that UNESCO named the Kaiping Diaolou and Villages as a World Heritage Site.

The UNESCO citation states: “The Diaolou … display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms. They reflect the significant role of émigré Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia, and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the close links between overseas Kaiping people and their ancestral homes. The property inscribed here consists of four groups of Diaolou, totalling some 1,800 tower houses in their village settings.” It was the first World Heritage site in Guangdong province.

The designs are a mixture of styles from China and the West, reflecting the history of their owners; they also brought back items from abroad, like furniture, gramophones, gaslights and steel suitcases.

“Each of the 1,833 towers is different,” said Wu. “Some owners used foreign designers after inviting bids. Others used architects from Guangzhou or from the local area.” There is no collection of buildings like this anywhere else in China.

The World Heritage designation has been a mixed blessing. It has made Kaiping famous around the world and attracted many tourists; last year four million Chinese and 670,000 foreigners came. It has become popular as a site to make films and television series. The township of Chikan in Kaiping has a film studio, where many scenes were shot for the Grand Master, by Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong’s most famous director; released in January 2013, it stars Tony Leung as Wing Chun Kung Fu master Ip Man.

Chikan has 600 homes built in the first two decades of the 20th century with money from those who had migrated overseas. It is an ideal site to shoot films set in that period.

The downside is that the towers cannot be destroyed or altered. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to turn them into shops, restaurants or boutique hotels; this would involve modern wiring, computer systems and other necessary alterations.

Some will be preserved, therefore, and treasured for the tourists. Most will be left to decay, with no-one to take care of them.

Photos by Xinha News Agency

MACAUHUB FRENCH