I had already seen one unique housing structure during my travels, but it was time to see another. I took a day trip from Guangzhou to Kaiping to look at the Diaolou, or stone house. The other houses I’ve seen were called Tulou, or earth houses, and were made out of packed earth. So I think you can guess what the Dialou’s are made out of.
Southern China must have been really rough back in the day, because just the like Tulou’s these houses were built as fortresses to keep away bandits and crooks (and later, invading Japanese troops.) While the tulou’s are big and round, Dialou’s rise out of the ground, like some strange stone plant.
These houses were built about 100 years ago by returning immigrants. In the mid-19th century the West began to export workers from china to do manual labor. What sounded like a good opportunity for the Chinese, quickly turned into a nightmare. They were treated no better than slaves (indeed they were recruited to replace slave labor) and were packed onto boats destined for the West. Many didn’t survive the trip. Once they arrived working conditions weren’t any better and instead of the safe happy, prosperous jobs they were told about, they got demeaning, back breaking labor. Many died and only a few were able to return home to see their families. These immigrants from southern China earned the undistinguished named of “piglets,” because they were treated like farm animals.
But a few “piglets” ended up making a fortune and they returned to their hometowns as wealthy men. They brought more than just money back with them though, their heads were filled with Western influence and ideas and the houses they began to build with their new wealth reflected their growing minds. Diaolou’s were built with a mix of Ming Dynasty and Western architecture.
On the outside the bottoms of the buildings looks quite flat. No special ornaments or decorations. But as you got higher and higher, the upper levels portrayed the western influence. Elaborate rooftops, turrets on the corners of building, columns and arches all mark the tops of the buildings. From a distance the Dialou’s look a lot like small European castles.
The insides of the buildings also reflect the mixing of cultures. While many of the rooms are based on traditional Chinese architecture, it was decorated in a very western manner. Grandfather clocks, ornate siting chairs, even phonographs. In one room I saw an ancestral tablet on top of a chest of drawers from England.
At one point there were about 3,000 of these unique houses in the area, but nowadays there is about 1,800. At the one village I went to, Zili Cun, most of the dialou’s were open to the public and no longer lived in. The day I went was during the week, so it was very quiet, and overcast. There were few tourists and even fewer shop keepers and touts. As I wandered from empty building to empty building the place did feel a bit spooky. I saw more chicken than people as I wandered the village.
The dialou’s are a unique mix of eastern and western culture at a time when they cultures did not mix easily. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and while not entirely easy to get to, it is totally worth the trip if you are in Guangzhou.
Good writing. I will go there to have a look. It is not far from Guangzhou.