December 4, 2009
Taishan Journal
Fortresses Inspired by West Crumble in a New China

In the village of Zili, the towers have been turned into mini-museums.

Cai Hetian, director of the Taishan museum, had a cigarette in front of a "yang lou" villa. Mr. Cai is an advocate for the preservation of the European-style villas and towers built by returning Chinese immigrants in Guangdong Province early in the 20th century.

TAISHAN, China — Hundreds, maybe thousands, of towers rise from the rice fields here in a tableau that is more Tuscan countryside than Chinese landscape.

It is a sight found nowhere else in China: rectangular towers, some made of concrete, some built of stone or other materials, jutting four or five stories high from the flatlands. They have balconies and turrets and Roman-style arches. There are metal shutters to keep out criminals and portholes where defenders can take aim at assailants, explaining why the locals call these buildings “pao lou,” or cannon towers.

So common are the towers that until just a few decades ago, virtually every town in this fertile patch of Guangdong Province, just west of Hong Kong, had one.

Most were built in the early 20th century by overseas Chinese who returned from abroad with newfound wealth and an abiding fear of being parted from that wealth by bandits. So up went the fortress towers, an architectural amalgamation of Chinese mansion and European medieval castle.

But now the towers, built to withstand raids and storms, are crumbling, left to rot by the overseas Chinese families as forgotten relics of a bygone age.

“It’s the responsibility of the overseas Chinese to donate these to the country,” said Cai Hetian, director of the museum here in Taishan and an advocate for the preservation of the towers. “These are falling apart, and they’re potentially dangerous.”

Mr. Cai estimated that since the 1950s, about 3,000 towers have crumbled or been destroyed in Taishan, leaving about 2,000 standing today. Barely any of the oldest ones — village guard towers made of mud and earth and dating from the late Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1911 — are left.

Also in danger of disintegrating or being torn down are European-style market arcades scattered in towns across the region, and thousands of multistory villas called “yang lou,” or foreign buildings, that were built as fortified homes by returning Chinese. Like the towers, they incorporate European architectural elements — upper-floor balconies with arched porticos, for example — but also have distinctively Chinese features, like niches for family altars.

For much of the 20th century, this poor area of China was also, paradoxically, one of the most cosmopolitan regions of the country. It was the point of origin for many Chinese who emigrated overseas and settled in Chinatowns around the world, working in restaurants and on railroad projects. Huang Tang, the head of the Wong’s Association in Taishan, which tracks the genealogy of Wong families from the area (including this reporter’s), estimates that there are 1.3 million Taishanese and their descendants around the world. Perhaps the most prominent Taishanese descendant in the United States is Gary Locke, the current commerce secretary and former governor of the state of Washington.

“Taishan is a little bit freakish, from the speech of people here to the way they do things to the way they dress,” Mr. Cai said, referring to the inescapable mix of East and West.

But Taishan is depopulating, as families continue emigrating overseas to join their relatives or settle in large Chinese cities like Guangzhou. Taishan now has about 900,000 people, a drop of 10 percent since the 1990s.

So the towers are neglected or, in some cases, being destroyed. Such was the case in Hehe, a village in Taishan, where a five-story tower at one end was torn down sometime in the last 30 years. In another village, Changgang, a tower still stands, but its metal shutters are rusted and one wall is defaced with graffiti from the Cultural Revolution: “Chairman Mao 10,000 years.”

In Miaobian, a peasant family has moved into a three-story villa built about 80 years ago by a wealthy relative. Ringed by palm trees, elements of the house could be described as Victorian or Georgian or Edwardian, but not so much Chinese. It has bay windows, cathedral ceilings and a balustrade along the wide staircase leading to the front door.

“I’ve lived here 10 years,” said Wen Weihui, 58, as he stir-fried vegetables in a wok in the villa’s basement. “It’s my family that built this. The original owner died in America.”

Mr. Wen moved in with his wife and adult son after the previous occupants left for the United States. Mr. Wen’s family once lived in a cramped, single-story house. “Of course this is better,” he said. But they have done little upkeep; some windows remain shattered, and dirt is smeared over the walls.

The house is one in a row of five villas built by members of the Wen family. Mr. Cai said they were among the most beautiful yang lou in Taishan. The one next door is grander but empty and derelict, fallen plaster on old tiles in the rooms and rusted bars in the window frames.

“There should be maintenance work done here, but we can’t contact the owners,” Mr. Cai said.

The owners live in Hong Kong and have not put any money into preserving the home, he said. But neither are they willing to turn it over to the local government.

Here and there, as in nearby Pingzhou, evidence of restoration efforts can be seen. Bamboo scaffolding covered the two towers, and two large Chen family ancestral halls were covered in fresh coats of paint.

There is no real estate market for the towers and villas, so it is hard to estimate their financial worth. But some people are recognizing their aesthetic value. In the farm region of Kaiping, next to Taishan, where about 1,800 towers survive, officials applied to the United Nations in 2001 for listing as a Unesco World Heritage site. The application was approved in 2007, spurring preservation efforts.

There, in the village of Zili, management of the towers, called “diao lou,” or fortresses, by the locals, has been turned over to the government, and families have donated heirlooms — old steamer trunks, bed frames, wooden chairs — to transform the buildings into mini-museums. The towers, the Unesco Web site says, “display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms” and retain “a harmonious relationship with the surrounding landscape.”

Li Bibo contributed research.