The UNESCO-listed Kaiping watchtowers, (开平碉楼 – kaiping diaolou), are dungeon-looking fortified buildings scattered in the countryside west of Kaiping (开平), a town located half-way between Guangzhou (广州) and Macau (澳门) in southern Guangdong (广东) province.
These watchtowers, or diaolou (雕镂), represent a fusion of Chinese and Western architectural styles. Designed to protect villagers against bandit raids during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), most of them were built at the beginning of the 20th century when wealthy Kaiping native returned from North America.
Today, there are over 1800 of diaolou still standing. In 2007, four clusters of Kaiping watchtowers were inscribed on the UNSECO World Cultural Heritage list.
Where East meets West
In Chinese, Kaiping means “Beginning Peace”. The town of Kaiping was officially established in 1649 during the fifth year of the reign of Shunzhi (顺治), the first emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911). Wealthy villagers around Kaiping started to build fortified villas and watchtowers to protect themselves against flood and bandits.
In 1839, a poor Kaiping villager set off to the United States and unknowingly triggered a wave a migration. Thousands of villagers from the region departed to the New World. By the end of the 19th century, many of these Kaiping migrants decided to return home with the wealth they made in North America.
The return of these new rich compatriots in an impoverished region attracted bandits and the newly returned overseas Chinese started to build more watchtowers and fortified villas against the endemic problem of banditry in Kaiping. Insecurity during the years following the fall of the Qing dynasty contributed to Kaiping natives to build large numbers of watchtowers in the 1920s and 1930s.
From an architectural point of view, the Kaiping Watchtowers are considered to be a merger between Chinese and Western influences, specially when it comes to the structure of the buildings and the decorative patterns founds inside them.
Three types of diaolou
- julou (居楼) or residential towers which were fortified homes and richly decorated living quarters built by the wealthy migrants who had returned home.
- zhonglou (众楼) or communal towers which were built by several household together and was used as a temporary shelters.
- genglou (更楼) or watch towers which were built in the outside of the villages with the purpose of watching the area and alert villagers in case bandits approached.
How to visit the Kaiping Watchtowers
Only four clusters of dialou and fortified villas that made it to the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List : the villages of Liyuan (立园), Zili (自力村), Majianglong (马降龙) and Jinjiangli (锦江里) which attract the bulk of the visitors. All the diaolou you can see in these four villages are officially protected by UNESCO. Some are private residences and others are open to the public. Everyone can go inside and see what the life of these rich families was back in the days.
There is 180 RMB entrance fee that will grant you access to the four villages of Liyuan (立园), Zili (自力村), Majianglong (马降龙) and Jinjiangli (锦江里). If you want to visit only one village, you may purchase a single-entry ticket (50 RMB for each village). Since the villages are scattered, it is not possible to visit them on foot and you will have to hire a driver
The UNESCO-listed Kaiping watchtowers represent only a fraction of the 1800 existing diaolou that are scattered throughout the countryside. You will find that many are abandoned but many others are still used as residential housing.
How to get to the Kaiping watchtowers
There are frequent buses to Kaiping from Guangzhou (2 hours) and if you come from Macau, you will have to take bus from Zhuhai 珠海 (1 hour), the city across the border. The bus station of Gongbei (拱北汽车站) is located near the border.