Tradition Mission

Fortresses as homes

Updated: 2010-01-05 10:20
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Related story: Old residences in Kaiping-slideshow

               UNESCO sites certified

They built America's railroads. They toiled in laundry shops and restaurants. They sent money back and built some of the sturdiest private homes in China. Yet they did not have the good fortune to live in them.

They were China's diaspora, who made their money overseas, mostly in North America. They intended to come back home and spend their golden years in the villages they grew up. But wars and chaos prevented them from realizing this dream.

Most of these homes were built in the early 20th century in a part of Guangdong province known for its large number of emigrants. Kaiping and its vicinity have a diaspora population that rivals that of residents.

In an era when bandits roamed free and flooding was frequent, people who made an honest living must defend themselves with thick walls…narrow alleys…high towers… and small windows, many used for sharp-shooting. Only the upper floors were opulently decorated.

These structures did not come cheap. So who would not want to show off the fruit of their hard work?

By local standard, these were luxury housing, somewhat like castles for the newly rich. But they did not have the luxury to enjoy this fruit. Shortly after they were built, the owners had to leave because their homeland was caught in the fire of war. Many of these fortresses have been lying in dereliction ever since.

Now these odd remnants of past glory have been marked for protection. Kaiping diaolou and villages, as they are known, have been listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Even though you still cannot see many adult men in these villages, visitors have been arriving to get a feel of this unique fusion of East and West, high brow and low brow. Even filmmakers have noticed it. This film, starring Chow Rum-fat, is in production in this house with scaffolding. Will it bring more public attention to the old residences in Kaiping? We don't know yet.

Many owners live in the US, and their descendents carry on their lives as usual. The upheavals throughout the times have left indelible marks on these buildings, which now serve as a reminder of a special time, a special place, and a very special people.


Filming: Raymond Zhou

Narration: Raymond Zhou

Video editor: Christie Lee