It is a sight found nowhere else in China: rectangular towers, some made of concrete, some built of stone or other materials, jutting four or five stories high from the flatlands. They have balconies and turrets and Roman-style arches. There are metal shutters to keep out criminals and portholes where defenders can take aim at assailants, explaining why the locals call these buildings “pao lou,” or cannon towers.
So common are the towers that until just a few decades ago, virtually every town in this fertile patch of Guangdong Province, just west of Hong Kong, had one.
Most were built in the early 20th century by overseas Chinese who returned from abroad with newfound wealth and an abiding fear of being parted from that wealth by bandits. So up went the fortress towers, an architectural amalgamation of Chinese mansion and European medieval castle.
But now the towers, built to withstand raids and storms, are crumbling, left to rot by the overseas Chinese families as forgotten relics of a bygone age.