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Classical Architecture and the Kaiping Diaolou: Diasporic Identity in Late Qing and Early Republican Guangdong, China

Helen Wong

University of Pennsylvania

Diaolou are houses or structures with watchtower characteristics that are unique to the Kaiping region of Guangdong province, China. Diaolou were built continuously from the Ming era to the end of the Republican period in the 1930s, and while their general function and form remained relatively unchanged over time, the examples dating from the late Qing and early Republican eras are of particular interest. These diaolou display Western and recognizably Classical architectural and decorative elements such as Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian columns, egg-and-dart motifs, and Neoclassical/Baroque carving. Western-style domes and arches are also common, as are turrets and balustrades. These elements are smoothly integrated into the fundamentally Chinese structure of these buildings and their many traditional features, which include Chinese frescoes, shrines, inscribed name plates, and carved reliefs. These structures’ “complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms” (UNESCO 2007) led UNESCO to designate the Kaiping diaolou as a World Heritage Site in 2007.

Kaiping is a region with very strong ties to the Chinese diaspora, as it was a major source of emigration abroad to Southeast Asia, Australia, and North America from the 1800s to the early 1900s. When they returned, they built diaolou, partially as a way to safeguard their newfound wealth from frequent bandit raids, but partially also to conspicuously display their fortunes. By the time the diaolou were no longer being built in the late 1930s, the landscape of Kaiping had been radically changed by the influx of overseas money and returning migrants, many of whose descendants later emigrated west once again. In this paper, I examine the following: how Classical elements influenced what migrants understood to be broad visual and architectural representations of the stereotypical West, and the significance of the diaolou in diasporic constructions of individual and collective identity. Current literature on diaolou focuses mainly on their architectural features (Knapp 1989, Hu 2002), but I contextualize these buildings and their construction within narratives of migrant interactions. I draw upon anthropological and ethnographic theories of self and community within immigrant narratives to frame my discussion of migrant interaction with the West and its Classical elements, grounding my theoretical discourse in the material features of the diaolou themselves.

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Classics In/Out of Asia

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