Kaiping, in Guangdong (Canton) province, was the heart of the piglet trade.
Around the turn of the 20th century, thousands of impoverished Chinese were tricked into going abroad in search of streets paved with gold, money showering down from trees. What they found instead: more poverty, exploitation, heartless countries that did not love them, would not understand them, only wanted them to make money out of them…
The same old story. Nowadays, it’s called people-trafficking.
But still, there were opportunities to be had. For every ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred who lost everything, who never came back, there were the few who returned to China with their pockets lined with money and their heads full of grand ideas. These are the ones who built the Kaiping diaolou (watchtowers).
Every village and small town in this area is a grey jumble of tall concrete towers and balustraded concrete mansions, all in a strange and forbidding sort of Disney architecture, a half-remembered or half-understood approximation of Scottish castle mixed with Italian villa.
They were villagers, these men and boys who went overseas and worked in laundries and building railroads; hard-working, single-minded, self-taught and self-made. You can see it in the style of their buildings. The diaolou have none of the elegance of traditional Chinese architecture, nor the frivolous charm or grace of the European classical or gothic or baroque, the romance of those castles they imitate. What they have got is a defensive boldness, a sort of single-minded self-confidence and determination. Fortified to keep out thieves and bandits, fancified to impress the neighbours.
They are very ugly, most of them, but incredibly atmospheric; each village with its fancy, falling-down front of grand buildings facing a duckpond where geese sit under umbrellas in bamboo enclosures, and narrow dark alleys behind threading between the high forbidding walls. Kaiping district must have been rich for such a short time, when the piglets, the overseas Chinese, came back. But then everyone who could afford to left again.
Now these towns and villages are frozen in the 1930s. They look like wild west towns after the gold rush has gone. Sleepy and crumbling, trees and cacti growing out of the grand facades, broken stained-glass window panes and cracked tile floors, rooms full of abandoned bedsteads and bureaus. Photographs of the owners still hang on the walls, a glimpse of that fascinating turning point, when the nearly 300-year-long Qing dynasty was coming to an end and China was giving in to the modern world, when men still had long plaited queues but wore western suits, when women bobbed their hair and dressed in fitted qipaos.
In a room at the top of every diaolou is the ancestral shrine, of carved and gilded wood and painted glass. A reminder that family is everything.
Childless (son-less) wives of the men who emigrated and never came home to them would adopt boys, to ensure that the family name carried on. And then there were the paper sons and daughters. Paper children born out of fire, because it was after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed all the immigration records that the city’s Chinese population could claim US citizenship and therefore the right to bring their foreign-born children into the country – or, after visits home, claim new births.
These made birthright ‘slots’ – children who existed only on paper – which could be sold to young people to enable them to come to America.
And that’s where they still are, leaving their (true or adopted or bought) ancestors’ pretensions to grandeur, a family life in the Old Country, to moulder and crumble into the palm trees and the flowered creepers and duckponds. Lots of the diaolou now are home only to ducks and geese – and piglets.
Mr Jiang, an overseas Chinese from Canada, wanders among the diaolou, lifting the trails of creepers, turning over the clutter of crockery and broken balustrades, looking for history, for beauty, for clues about ownership. “No one cares about the architecture,” he says sadly. “No one cares about the past of these places.” An old couple living alone in great echoing mansion (all they can find to fill it are a few tiny stools, a heap of firewood, some cooking pots) show us around its high empty rooms and grand staircases, delighted if bemused to have visitors.
Mr Jiang wants to buy one or several diaolou, to preserve them as museums or as holiday homes, if he can track down who to buy them from. It seems an impossible task to an outsider, especially since entire villages have the same surname. But the village is everything. Family is still, even overseas, even after all this time, everything. In Chinatowns all over Canada and the US, everyone knows each other, Mr Jiang says. He will ask about such and such diaolou in such and such village, and someone will know who it belongs to, will remember family.