Meet the Man Fighting to Conserve the Famous Kaiping Diaolou

By Joshua Cawthorpe, March 11, 2021

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Wanderlust is a regular series where we speak with a notable individual from the travel industry.

Kaiping is a unique historical gem located less than two hours south of Guangzhou that we highly recommend. The Kaiping Diaolou, dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007, are beautiful fortified towers built at the end of the Qing Dynasty and into the 1930s. The buildings highlight a blend of Chinese and Western architecture that rose from wealth being sent home from overseas Chinese, and the need for increased fortifications to defend ancestral villages from ethnic battles and raiding bandits. On a recent visit to this beautiful area of the countryside, we sat down with Rocky Deng, owner of TK Space in Tangkou, to talk about his project and restoration efforts in Kaiping.

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What is your connection to the Kaiping area?
When I turned 50, I decided to do something different and had visited Kaiping many times out of a fascination with the history of overseas Chinese like myself. A friend who was studying conservation at Hong Kong University, and who had been my tour guide around the area on previous visits, told me about a project restoring the ancestral hall in [nearby] Cangdong. In addition to revitalizing two very beautiful buildings, I discovered the old stone foundation of a temple in the forest behind the project, so we also rebuilt the temple. Because of the project’s success, I received a UNESCO award in 2015, and the site is still open to tourists today. With my background of community involvement in Vietnam, I wanted to set up an education base and community center.

READ MORE: There Is an Abandoned Canadian Village in South China and We Visited It

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TK Space is viewed as a ‘hostel slash art space slash restaurant.’ How would you describe TK and its role in the community of Tangkou?
For the restoration projects, we employed a lot of residents from the nearby villages to help because they had experience in the style of these buildings. We also brought many students who were studying this type of conservation at universities like HKU, UBC and Stanford. TK Space is a hostel and a restaurant, so we can host the students who bring expertise and passion to cultural conservation projects that we organize around the area. We also have three acres of farmland where our staff and members of the community grow fresh food for the restaurant and neighbors. We are always looking to create opportunities for residents of Tangkou and work with the local disabled rehabilitation center. We offer free bikes and free breakfast to our guests so that they can have a memorable experience while learning about the history, local culture and conservation efforts. The farm and big open kitchen let guests and student groups come and learn about organic farming and cooking local cuisine.

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TK Space’s outdoor dining area

“Since people did not travel as much and stayed in Guangdong, we had a lot more people coming to see the diaolou during the Spring Festival”

Would you say that tourism has been increasing in Tangkou in recent years?
Yes, very much so. In our first year, we started the Tangkou Summer Country Fair. We wanted to bring people to the area for a fun and educational event, and we set up tents so that local residents could operate booths to share their traditional crafts and products. The first year we had about 3,000 people come to the fair, and the local government took notice. In the second year, more than 10,000 people came. The Jiangmen government recognized the opportunity for tourism and invested in the infrastructure by paving the roads, building a large public washroom and renovating the canals and pathways. 

How did this year’s CNY tourism traffic compare to previous years?
Since people did not travel as much and stayed in Guangdong, we had a lot more people coming to see the diaolou during the Spring Festival. For example, February 13 and 14 were record-breaking days at the restaurant, and we needed to get a lot of part-time staff from different villages. We were exhausted but very happy with that. It really gives me a lot of encouragement about the coming year.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. To learn more about TK Space, scan the QR code below:

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For more Wanderlust, click here.

[Images via Rocky Deng, That’s]

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