Tall multi-storied buildings in Kaiping County were listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2007 as China's 35th World Heritage Site. These old buildings were built mainly at the end of the Qing Empire and in the beginning of the 20th century when ethnic warfare, village battles, wars, bandits and lawlessness troubled this area of Guangdong Province. Kaiping County was considered a backwater, and the people built these buildings to be small fortresses and watch towers for protection. Overseas Chinese and Chinese returning with wealth that they acquired in other countries funded most of the buildings, and this explains why the tall buildings have modern features and often include Western architectural styles.
There are three basic kinds of towers: watch towers, fortified residential apartment dwellings, and buildings constructed to be emergency refuges. In order to protect themselves and defend their area, guards needed tall little fortresses to use as their base and survey the countryside. These were the watchtowers. Clans and villages constructed fortified residential apartment buildings that they lived in or prepared as a refuge in case of danger. The area is a rice-growing area, and the tall apartment buildings had high foundations and also helped people to escape floods.
Life was hard in the Kaiping area (开平) when the Qing Dynasty collapsed and in the 20th century. Kaiping is on the coast, so a large number of people were able to leave to work in other countries, and some people returned with enough wealth to build fortress dwellings and towers. These were called diaolou in Chinese. Those who went overseas saw various styles of architecture in other countries, and they helped to design the buildings to mimic what they saw. So the mix of architectural styles that adorn the buildings is surprising.
Some buildings have domes and arches, and others employ Western-style columns. Many look somewhat like apartment buildings that were built in cities in the West at that time, but there are bars over the windows and other defensive features that weren't common in the West. The families and clans competed with one another for prestige and power, and they competed to build the tallest and grandest looking buildings. You can see Spanish or Muslim domes, towers that kind of look like pagodas, and buildings with Western architectural elements for decoration.
It is thought that about 1,800 diaolou structures remain in the area. Some of them are only three stories high, and the tallest is called the Ruishui Diaolou. It was built in 1921, and it is 9 stories high. The Chinese government is preserving many as a national heritage.
The UNESCO World Heritage Organization included the diaolou and the villages they are in as the "Kaiping Diaolou and Villages" historic site. The buildings are considered historic because they are in a relatively good condition and serve as a record of the migration of Chinese workers and of the their contact with the West.
Kaiping is about 130 kilometers or 81 miles southwest of Guangzhou.