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Watchtowers of history

ByHuo Yan (China Daily) Update:2016-09-23

Most of the overseas villagers are engaged in service trades such as the food and clothing industries. Overseas remittance is a major source of income of the villagers.

When the village was founded, there were only two houses surrounded by wasteland. As more and more came to reclaim the wasteland, groups of houses were established.

During the early years of the 20th century, many villagers went abroad to seek a livelihood, and many of them came back to buy land after they earned some money.

In the 1920s, villagers began to build diaolou to ward off the bandits. The diaolou were named either after the owners' names or their wishes, like "Leisurable Life Villa" (Yangxian Bieshu) and "Safe Dwelling Building" (Ju An Lou). Wu led us into the well-preserved "Stone Building" (Mingshi Lou).

Built in 1925, "Stone Building" is a five-storey diaolou of reinforced concrete. Every storey consists of one sitting room and four bedrooms. The rooms were not only well-furnished, but luxurious by the standards of the time.

The owner's suitcase, thermos bottles, gramophone, and box for whiskey all looked as if they had just been used the day before. On the walls hang black-and-white photos of the owner and his family. Walking upstairs, we noticed that the handrail was steady and exquisite.

On the top of the diaolou, four towers known as "swallow nests" occupied the four corners, each with embrasures, and cobblestones and an alkali water sprayer which were used against the bandits.

According to Wu, the owner Fang Runwen did business in the Unites States. He had three wives, and all his offspring lived abroad. When Fang got rich from his business, he spent huge amount of money building his home, which became the most spectacular and beautiful diaolou in Zili Village.

After Fang died in the United States in 1948, his concubine Yang and his children used medicine to guard his body against infection, and shipped the body back to Zili. After burying him in a small hill outside the village, his family members left quietly, taking away jewellery and valuables.

After half a century, Fang's offspring came back to Zili from abroad. When they saw their well-preserved house, they felt grateful and relieved to let the government administer the diaolou and open it to the public.

Wu said that most building materials used for diaolous, like iron and concrete were bought abroad and imported via Macao. Only blue bricks and wood were local. Therefore, the cost was very high.

In terms of design, some diaolou were constructed according to the blueprints that the builder brought from abroad, and some just to the owner's ideas. It is interesting that one can roughly tell which country the owner lived in from the architectural styles of the diaolou, or at least whether they were the "American-European style" or "Nanyang (Southeast Asia including the Malay Archipelago, Malay Peninsula and Indonesia) style."

When the foundation of a diaolou was dug, a big awning was usually established on the whole construction site to prevent weather damage. Workers were mostly locals.

Now there are 15 diaolou in Zili Village, all under national protection. All the diaolou owners in Zili have emigrated abroad, and entrusted management of their property with the local government.

Driving from Kaiping to Taishan, and to Xinhui, one will see diaolou of various styles all along the 100-kilometre road. With regard to the defensive function and scale of their architecture, I do not think it is exaggerating to call the area the "Great Wall of Diaolous."

(China Daily 12/27/2004 page13)