EDTORIAL: Jiangmen's Diaolou towers

A tale of two cities

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

Last week your humble editor had a chance to visit an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Diaolou towers in Jiangmen, situated between Guangzhou and Macau. These building were erected by Overseas Chinese who had been successful in their adopted countries and wanted to document both their wealth and their newly acquired tastes by building houses of several stories with many Western architectural elements like columns, turrets, glazed tiles, iron doors and window shutters. The first diaolou was already built in the 16th century as a defensive structure against pirates and robbers, but most of the 3,000 buildings were erected in the 1920s and 1930s, a symbol of the wealth of those families which had been successful among the many emigrants from this region.

Many of them were later abandoned and about a third of them even destroyed, but as a result of the relaxation in the relations between the Beijing government and the Overseas Chinese communities in the last 25 years, some of them have been renovated and opened for visitors. In 2007 the UNESCO granted clusters of diaolous in four villages the much coveted World Heritage Status. Some local NGOs have done additional work in the last decade to renovate ancestral halls and to create community centres, which also offer hostel-style accommodation for international backpackers.

There are many Chinese visitors to the diaolous, both domestic and from Overseas Chinese communities, ‘long-nosed’ visitors however are few and far between, even though the destination is close to Macau and Hong Kong. The region is a good example of the international tourism in both directions: Many Chinese visitors to Europe concentrate on the ‘hot spots’ like Barcelona, Venice, Santorini etc. contributing to the problem of overtourism, often based on the lack of information about other places worth a visit, especially for Chinese. In the same way do Western travellers seldom find the way to the Diaolou villages, even though the curious mixture of Western and Chinese architectural styles, often build by local craftsmen with the help of postcards of historical buildings in Western countries which were sent to them by the Overseas Chinese principals, is of special interest to them. The exhibition in the new visitor centre does however not try to track the origins of the Western elements, but concentrates rather on a ‘harmonised’ representation of the history of the Overseas Chinese and their relations with their home region in the last 100 years.

A lack of marketing and a lack of product adaptation, based on the lack of a sound understanding of the specific value of the diaolous for Western visitors, cannot overcome even the fact that the UNESCO World Heritage status should convince potential international visitors of the high level of importance of these sights. Same deficits – same results for tourism in both directions.

Postscriptum: Choi Park-lai, for many years the leading feng shui master in Hong Kong and author of the “Tung Shing” Almanac, which informs Cantonese when auspicious days for specific activities are, was buried last week in Hong Kong with all important political and business leaders present at the funeral and wreaths on display even from the neighbouring Mainland Chinese county governments. The Tung Shing almanac is banned in Mainland China, but was nevertheless named intangible cultural heritage in 2013 by the Guangdong government. China!

A successful and peaceful week for all our readers!

Prof. W.G. Arlt and the COTRI Weekly team

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