October 15, 2010

Mist and Mirage - Kaiping Daiolou

The last place I visited during my epic 40 day trek through the Middle Kingdom was Kaiping. The county is famed for its distinctive watchtowers, known as diaolou. Rising magnificently from fields of green, the diaolou fuse Western and Chinese architectural styles. Originally constructed to keep bandits away during a time of rampant poverty, 1800 of the approximately 3000 structures remain standing today. Many are shuttered and not open to the public, while some still function as active living quarters for locals. Although Kaiping has a population of 700,000 people, it is estimated that another 700,000 Kaipingers are scattered throughout the globe. On a rainy day, I wandered through the cobblestone paths from one diaolou to the other in the village of Zili, accompanied only by a group of clucking roosters. I also visited the nearby Li Gardens and the town of Chikan, both of which also had similar fusion architecture.

After the practice of slavery was largely outlawed in the colonies of the Western powers, the colonialists still needed a source of low cost labour for construction, mining, gold-digging, and other economic pursuits. Their eyes turned to Canton in the 1800's, and Kaiping in particular, for here there was an untapped resoirvor of workers willing to accept any offer for a chance to work abroad. The worker would often get passage to North America or Australasia, and painstakingly work off the debt owed for the ticket in exchange. Many never made it back alive to see their families, others came back much worse off than before, but a few made fortunes in these far off places. These wealthy overseas Chinese then brought back Western ideas and money to fund the construction of these unique structures in Kaiping.


"Americans are very rich people. They want the Chinaman to come and will make him welcome. There will be big pay, large houses, and food and clothing of the finest description. You can write your friends or send them money at any time, and we will be responsible for its safe delivery. It is a nice country, without mandarins or soldiers. All alike; big man no larger than little man. There are a great many Chinamen there now, and it will not be a strange country. Never fear, and you will be lucky. Money is in great plenty and to spare in America." - advertisement for recruiting workers in Kaiping