Kaiping, Szeyup, Guangdong: Money, bandits, buildings
Szeyup means ‘four counties’ and refers to Taishan, Kaiping, Enping, and Xinhui. In the second half of the 19th century, countless Szeyup residents were pushed out of China by the Taiping Rebellion and Punti-Hakka Clan Wars, and pulled into the US by the California Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railways. By the first decades of the 20th century, many of them had started to make good money abroad and were sending considerable amounts to their relatives at home.
Unfortunately, wealth rarely travels alone. Szeyup’s increasing riches tempted hungry bandits from near and far, who started plundering villages and taking people captive for ransom. Bandits ranged from river-pirates and former soldiers, to returned coolies, traveling artisans, banished villagers, and poor peasants. They were also typically members of local secret societies, more commonly known as ‘triads’ or mafia.
In response to the banditry, elders of the Szeyup clans began collecting donations from their family members overseas to build fortified, multi-storey, defensive towers made of stone, brick or concrete. Some of these watchtowers would offer shelter to several families, while others were built by single, rich families and used as fortified homes. Today, the Kaiping towers, called ‘diaolou’, are recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
An interesting element about the diaolou is their architectural mix: together with traditional Chinese architecture, there are traces of Roman and Greek columns, Mediterranean arches, Turkish domes, Scottish mansions and Mogul Indian manors. This was not the influence of foreigners that had gone to China. Instead, it was the result of Chinese emigrants who had returned to Kaiping from America, Europe, Hong Kong and Malaysia, bringing back new ideas from overseas architecture.
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