China's lost citadels a showcase of wealth – and force

In Guangdong, the watchtowers of Kaiping are one of the world's newest and strangest heritage sites.

A quiet street in Chikan.
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It's rare in travel these days that you see something before you've heard about it but the diaolou of Kaiping, the hundreds of ornate watchtowers that dot the landscape in one region of Guangdong province, may be southern China's best-kept secret. Even in China, they had been forgotten for decades.

I first saw these dreamlike follies, an eerie mixture of classical Western and Chinese styles, on a bleak run down the Yangjiang to Zhuhai motorway last year and spent days retracing the journey on Google Earth to find out what they were.

Guangdong is known as the factory of the world and the vista of industrial architecture is generally unrelieved until this area of the province when it suddenly turns into a little pocket of Bali - all green paddies and towering clumps of bamboo.

Sifting through the online Panoramio photos of the area, I eventually found a picture of a squat version of the type of tower I'd seen and at least had a name, Kaiping Diaolou, or the watchtowers of Kaiping.

In China, the buildings have only just entered the country's list of the Top 20 sites and the area has yet to sag under the inevitable onslaught of domestic and foreign tourism.

Huang, whose family still owns the most ornate diaolou, Riushi Lou, bears a faded photograph showing the strange turn of events that brought the early 20th-century structures out of 80 years of obscurity.

"See this forest of bamboo along the highway," he says, pointing from the Byzantine cupola of his family fortress across the psychedelic green of the region's rice paddies. "It completely obscured our diaolou until this happened," he says, producing the photo showing a gap in the curtain of bamboo that reveals the strikingly weird structure we're now standing on.

"The bamboo died just in that section in 2005. The mayor of the region was travelling by car and saw our dialou from the highway. One thing led to another and by 2007 all the diaolou were Unesco-listed."

The watchtowers are now one of the world's newest and strangest world heritage listings, providing a snap-frozen portrait of China in the 1920s and '30s. As if to prove the point, Huang points to a family photo on the wall.

"This is my father," he says, pointing to a patriarch in full Qing dynasty regalia flanked by a host of direct descendants. "This boy in the spectacles is me and these are his wives - this one is my mother - and these four women are his mistresses," he adds.

Family dynasties such as these vanished after the Communist Revolution in 1949, but the structures they built to house and protect their sprawling clans still stand. There are 1,883 of them remaining in the counties of Kaiping, Enping, Taishan and Xinhui - one small area of Guangdong province, which, between the 1880s and 1930s, had a disproportionate number of emigres to the new world because of land shortages and violent civil disorders that still carry chilling names such as the Hakka-Punti wars and the White Terror.

Returning from Canada, the United States and Australia with new ideas and new styles, the émigrés built towers to protect their families and fortunes in a lawless region governed by rival warlords, gangs and factions - a function of the fact the Qing dynasty raised its armies according to the dialects of the region so the soldiers could understand military orders.

The style of the buildings - a kind of martial Edwardian - caught on in the region and, eventually, more than 3,000 of the towers were built, turning the province into a Chinese version of Italy's San Gimignano.

The Fang Clan watchtower, a typical example of the style, stands on a short rise outside Zili village. The dome on the stout five-storey watchtower covers a pavilion that was used to house a searchlight that swept the paddy fields for approaching brigands; a marriage of 20th-century technology with medieval security solutions.

I asked my driver, Fong, if the ornate style meant the towers were largely for show.

"No. They [bandits] used to come in their hundreds - sometimes on horseback," he says, conjuring up a scene straight out of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai.

A closer look at the diaolou reveals that many of the architectural fittings have a nasty and efficient business end - overhanging eves hide snipers' spider holes that point straight down to the front door step. The generally good state of repair is due to the fact they were made from reinforced concrete and the internal metal doors often have complex systems of bars and wheel locks designed to keep home invaders from making it to the next floor.

The diaolou, however, were not just a show of force but also a show of wealth, reflecting grand styles in the country where the émigré had amassed his fortune. At various junctures, Fong's local knowledge gives out - towers not on the Kaiping city's guide could only be found by asking locals or making dirt track detours.

"The German diaolou is around here somewhere - I know it is," he says, finally pulling up beside a collection of tiny farm shacks from which a Chinese version of Schloss Neuschwanstein erupts, its turrets, known locally as "swallows' nests", pinpricked with tiny gun ports.

Why it was built in this style is lost to memory - Fong suggested the owner had made his fortune in Europe - but obviously the neo-Gothic resonated with its owner.

The best clusters of diaolou are museum pieces, many of them with their original furniture, and form part of a growing tourist industry with Kaiping the jumping-off point. Thankfully, the kitsch of diaolou-themed hotels is a good 30 minutes from the best clusters and it pays to hire a bicycle to thread through the paddies on your own.

Some of the towers still show graffiti or signs of forced entry from the Cultural Revolution. Even more remarkable are the groups of yang lou, or foreign villas, which have yet to gain heritage protection.

After 1928, when the warlord era nominally ended in China, the architecture in the region began to relax and wealthy families constructed elegant two- and three-storey Italianate villas with minimal fortification.

Most of them are empty, and where people aren't in southern China, agriculture rushes in. Peering through the windows reveals bundles of hay and firewood stacked against sticks of 1940s furniture or beneath beautifully executed wall murals. A common theme of yang lou and diaolou murals is the modern ocean liner, usually shown steaming towards a Fritz Lang-style metropolis, the conduit of the family's wealth and the source of its dislocation.

The area has not been lost on film-makers and the latest Chinese mainland blockbuster, Let the Bullets Fly, the first mainland film to have the rights bought by Hollywood, uses the area around the town of Chikan as the backdrop for a surreal spaghetti western-style drama as baroque as its setting.

The colonnaded streets of the town have changed little since the 19th century. Tracey Situ, who runs a small stuffed-toy factory in the town, gives a brief outline of the culture war that developed between two feuding families in the town.

"There are two families here, the Situ and Guang clans, and they competed by building these libraries," she says, pointing out the imposing Portuguese-style structures that sit adjacent to each other. "They had bell towers that sounded the hours, but the rivalry became so intense that the clans were sounding the bells ahead of the hour just to be first. Eventually all the clocks and bell towers in town were hopelessly fast."

The town still retains strong links with the United States and, according to Tracey, the dialect of the Chinatown in San Francisco comes from Chikan alone. It's not hard to see why they like to come back; the Cantonese cuisine at the open air restaurants along the banks of the town's river is at a quality not seen in Hong Kong for years.

Back at Riushi diaolou, Huang's story is typical of the diaspora of the region.  His father, a successful businessman in Hong Kong, had moved most of the immediate family to the British colony but returned before 1949 with the young Huang to attend to a sick relative. History and events overtook Huang and his father. They remained in communist China while the rest of the family still lives in Hong Kong.

Standing in the pan-opticon of the top cupola next to a rusted 1930s searchlight, I asked Huang if the tower had ever been attacked.

"No," he says, with more than necessary directness. "They never came."

If you go

The flight

Return flights from Dubai to Hong Kong with Emirates ( cost from Dh4,195, including taxes.

The hotel

Kaiping Helenbergh Hotel (00 86 750 2360 222; book through offers value-for-money accommodation. Double rooms cost from US$48 (Dh176) per night, including breakfast and taxes.