A “protected” Hakka village is gradually being abandoned to the elements

In the northern outskirts of Shenzhen, on the banks of the Guanlan River, the remnants of a centuries-old village of the Hakka people endure. Guanlan village, though modernizing as rapidly as the rest of the Pearl River Delta, has been preserving the architecture of generations past even as bulldozers and skyscrapers encroach on all sides.

The village traces its history back to the Qing dynasty, circa 1750, during the Fourth Wave of the Hakka Migration. A branch of the Han clan left their home in the southern Yangtze River valley due to droughts, plagues, and other calamities. As they moved to China’s southern coast and the regions beyond, they carried a language, cuisine, culture, and architecture that endure to this day.

Guanlan’s watchtowers, or diaolou (碉楼), are perhaps the most distinctive part of this legacy. The earliest, wooden towers are lost to the ravages of time, but 114 examples of 20th century diaolou remain, according to a paper by local researcher Jiang Po. Built in the 1930s to protect food and families from bandits’ raids, the tall towers were built with carved stone frames and a composite of earth, sand, and ash. As overseas Chinese returned, they built newer diaolou using concrete and increasingly Westernized designs. The village’s now-abandoned hotel bears the columns and flourishes that mark this era.

This is subscriber exclusive content

Become a subscriber to continue reading

Ghosts of Guanlan is a story from our issue, “The Noughty Nineties.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Adam Robbins

Adam Robbins is a writer and editor based in China since 2014, with work appearing in The World of Chinese, NewsChina, City Weekend, and That’s Shenzhen, along with his recently published Plagueworld Chronicles: Day by Day Through the 2020 Pandemic with an American Locked Down in China. This peripatetic Yankee is originally from a small town in Maine, educated at Harvard College, and worked in Minnesota for ten years to help achieve marriage equality. He’s already enjoyed his ten minutes of fame, on a 2011 episode of The Daily Show, and now looks forward to baking at home. He’s lived and worked in Boston, Austin, Minneapolis, Taipei, and Beijing before moving to Shenzhen with his husband.

Related Articles