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A detail of a black-and-white photograph showing a portion of a tower at the center. In the  foreground, tall, overgrown bamboo blocks a full view of the tower. A detail of a black-and-white photograph showing a portion of a tower at the center. In the  foreground, tall, overgrown bamboo blocks a full view of the tower.

Lookout Towers

For Perspectives on Place, artist Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong (British, Mexican, and American, born Mexico 1970) presents a selection of photographs from his series Lookout Towers, which documents the distinctive dīuláu (碉樓) buildings of the region directly west of Macau and Hong Kong. A personal essay by the artist follows the images.1

The Close Faraway

While working on a series of photographs exploring how history is erased and rewritten in China, I learned of an idiosyncratic genre of buildings spread across the counties of Toisan (台山) and Hoiping (開平) in the Sze Yup (四邑) region directly west of Macau and Hong Kong.[1] The buildings—which include houses, shophouses (which combine ground-floor commercial space with living quarters above), ancestral halls, and libraries, as well as towers looking out over their surroundings—were unlike any of the innumerable historic structures being destroyed throughout the rest of the country’s territories: they were neither obviously “regional” in a conventional sense nor easy to place.[2] Instead, they seem to be of many places at once, as though architectural consolidations of distant and various locations and eras. Although I knew that my grandfather was born in Toisan in 1890, it was not until my father started investigating his father’s early life—many years after I first encountered these buildings—that I learned that my grandfather had been part of these structures’ history, sending money to help construct several buildings displaying a similar interweaving of styles in and around his ancestral village.2

The heterogeneous composition of the buildings felt like a reflection of my life experiences and those of many other people of the southeast Asian diaspora.[3] History is evident in their form, much as history is evident in who I am as a person. When my grandfather left Toisan for Liverpool around 1911, he set off a chain reaction that directed my family’s course through nations and nationalities. Accumulated generations would accumulate migrations: my father’s family’s more than a century of life in Britain, and my mother’s family’s equally long life as part of Penang’s Hokkienese community, came to include dispersals from the United Kingdom and Malaysia to Mexico, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, the United States, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia. With each new home, notions of belonging became increasingly layered and complex. For me, I feel a sense of belonging in my birthplace and childhood home, Mexico City; in my later childhood (and now current) home, Los Angeles; in London, where I lived periodically with my grandmother; and in my Mexican, British, and American nationalities. They are reflected in my name, Spanish nestled between Portuguese, Scottish, and American spellings of Cantonese sounds. Belonging, for my family, is manifold, extending beyond single places and spread among the paths we have made across the world.3

While learning about my grandfather and the history of Sze Yup, I found out that migrations and close relationships to faraway places, which have been a defining aspect of my life, had already been part of my ancestry for centuries. One unique building type particular to my grandfather’s birth region seemed to embody this complex relationship to distance: the imposing and seemingly incongruous towers known as dīuláu (碉樓). Built between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, these towers once numbered in the thousands, but only a fraction remain today. Like their surrounding villages, they are largely empty and abandoned, a result of a centuries-long exodus of the land’s peoples to sites around the globe.4

The lower part of each tower is a mostly unadorned fortress, usually made of reinforced concrete (though sometimes of brick, rammed earth, or stone), meant to protect against the frequent banditry, provincial disputes, and armed conflicts the region experienced. They served as temporary shelters, where a single family or groups of families would barricade themselves during pillages and invasions. The defensive form of this lower portion—grounded in the local earth and surrounded by rice fields, vegetable patches, or densely built rural villages—resembles military constructions such as the Han watchtowers and Tang walled fortifications introduced to the region when the land and its peoples were repeatedly conquered, then colonized, and eventually sinicized under waves of imperial rule from the far north.5

The upper part—which rises several stories above the ground, is visible from afar, and was designed to facilitate looking into the distance—is composed of an amalgam of styles and iconographies that reference less the stereotypically regional and more the engagement with the wider world of the emigrants who built them. They meld features such as the balconies and verandas of local línghnàahm (嶺南) architecture with medieval turrets, neoclassical corbels, British Indo-Saracenic domes and pergolas, ancient Roman arches, and ancient Greek pediments. This “international style,” which resembles the collaging of eclectic styles in French Beaux-Arts structures and drawings, grew out of the builders’ increasingly international frame of reference (influenced by ideas trickling down from architects educated abroad), the new colonial architecture being built in Hong Kong and Macau, the spectacles of global cultures as displayed at world’s fairs, and the emigrants’ frequent travels back and forth between Southeast Asia and Europe and the Americas.6

The manifold nature of these towers reflects the stories of the people who built them: emigrants who, beginning as early as the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries and reaching a peak during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, left for places such as Palembang, Liverpool, Lima, and Vancouver. Economic opportunities abroad enabled the emigrants to fund construction of the towers. Their construction was also indirectly encouraged by US laws—later copied by other nations—designed to prevent people of Asian descent from establishing roots in the country by restricting the immigration of women, criminalizing interracial marriage, and prohibiting the ownership of property. These policies prevented births in the US and kept families separated, forcing women and children to remain in unstable homelands, supported by husbands, fathers, and sons living abroad who sought to protect their families by sending money to build defensive towers. Although the towers were built to commemorate ancestral sites and to showcase the new culture and prosperity gained while living abroad, their martial, protective function indicates that these lands of origin had also become dangerous places to live. This dual function is evident in the architecture itself, the structures’ bases monuments to the loss of a safe and stable homeland, and their tops testaments to the establishment of faraway connections and intercontinental lives.7

The emigrants’ motivations for resettling were complex—a combination of immediate threats and ingrained cultural experiences. Recurring strife and political instability created persistent reasons to leave. The Cantonese exodus was also prompted by a deeply conditioned suspicion and disdain of control by distant powers, as expressed in the Cantonese adage “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Although imperial law prohibited contact with foreigners and punished emigration by death, the region’s position at the fringe of empire made subverting the rules possible. And, when British colonization replaced control by northern dynasties, further pathways to the world were opened up.8

The erasure and molding of local cultures by outside rule has long been a defining aspect of this region: from the defeat of the indigenous Nàahm Yuht peoples (南越, also known as Nam Việt in Vietnamese or Nan Yue in Mandarin) by the Han in 111 BCE; to the naming, in the third century, of the region that is now Sze Yup as Pingyi (平夷) in Mandarin, which means “Suppressed Barbarians”; through successive conquest, colonization, and settlement from the north by Chinese, Mongolian, and Manchurian forces; to the expansion of British and Indo-British economies and global trade; to ongoing repressions of local cultures and languages under state narratives and policies of Han purity and homogenization.[4] During the Cultural Revolution, genealogy records were burned, dīuláu were destroyed or defaced, and families and individuals were purged, persecuted, and in many cases massacred because they were considered polluted by foreignness. Today, tourism, real estate development, and forced evictions are further displacing remaining local populations. China’s recent suppression of nearby Hong Kong through its 2020 national security law is again creating exoduses and diasporas. Cantonese, Toisanese, and other of the region’s myriad languages, as well as traditional characters and script, are being replaced by Mandarin—known as “Han language” (漢語), or “speech of officials” (官話)—and its Pinyin romanization and simplified new writing systems.9

Because this land has spent long stretches of the last two millennia under foreign control, because self-determination has been gradually suppressed such that it has become effectively unimaginable, because foreign interchange had long been an integral part of local identity, and because of deeply ingrained indigenous Nàahm Yuht practices of riverine and maritime mobility, by the nineteenth century the idea of leaving for foreign lands and absorbing ideas from distant places came as a natural extension of past experience.[5] A close relationship with the faraway, for better or worse, had become part of Cantonese—including Toisanese and Hoipingese—cultures.10

As emigrants attempted to build new lives and homes in distant places, however, the dangers they left behind were replaced by xenophobia and hostility abroad. Their presence was met, starting in the late nineteenth century, by violence in the form of expulsions, purges, arsons, and massacres in places from Eureka and Los Angeles in California to Torreón in Mexico.[6] This violence was so severe that only a small fraction of the hundreds of original communities formed in these locations (and the buildings, neighborhoods, and spaces associated with them) survive today. From the 1870s to the 1970s, racial exclusion laws—first enacted in the United States and then in Australia, Canada, Mexico, and beyond—cemented xenophobia in the identities and legal structures that define nations, and planted the seeds of today’s restrictive definitions of who “belongs” and who remains perpetually foreign.[7]11

Photographing the towers in 2018, a decade and a half after I first learned of them and more than a century after my grandfather embarked for Britain, allowed me to learn about my grandfather and his history. The international nature of the towers added a new and wider context to the name of his restaurant on Denmark Street in London’s West End—the Universal Restaurant (大世界樓 or, literally, “Big World Building”)—as well as the globe inscribed on the facade of a family building in Toisan. The towers’ view toward the distance helped me make sense of my own and my family’s paths through the world. For me, the towers are the built expression of an identity historically shaped by connections with the faraway.12

I composed these photographs to reflect two traditions: Acknowledging the towers’ representation of ancestral experiences, I draw on ancestor portraits from East and Southeast Asia, whose figures possess an almost architectural frontality and solidity. I also reference Beaux-Arts architectural studies—typically elevations rendered in pencil, ink, and watercolor—as their style, based on historical and cultural collage, both inspired the design of the towers and reflects a similar cultural melding.13

First built as symbols of a unique cosmopolitan culture and then becoming symbols of overlooked histories, these towers show how a desire to engage with and find a home in the larger world—to move toward distant horizons and make the foreign familiar—can find visible form. In many ways, the towers mirror the experiences of their builders and those builders’ descendants, embodying how originary places become unfamiliar and distant; how distant places become familiar and near; and how looking out into the distance, absorbing the far, and being many become embedded in a people’s identity.14

While the effort and dedication required to build the towers demonstrate an idealistic desire for a safe place to live, they also express sorrow at the disappearance of a viable homeland. As I was photographing one tower, my guide told me they reminded her of tombstones, a comparison that evoked for me the structures’ embodiment of loss and the tragedies faced by migrants in the Americas. The towers’ existence responded to perils near and far, to the local desperation of banditry and the faraway desperation of racism, which kept families apart and necessitated continued construction of the towers. The towers were a way to bridge distances, both between cultures and places separated by history, by adopting and incorporating their iconography, and between close relatives separated by oceans, by providing them protection. The towers express the search for a place to call home while also showing how difficult it is, and how much resistance we may face, in finding a place to belong.15

Banner image: Detail of Géi Lòuh, Fūkwòh Village, Hoiping (紀廬, 福和裡, 開平), 2018. All images © Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong. Courtesy of Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Los Angeles, and Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.16


  1. I would like to acknowledge the important work of historians Selia Jinhua Tan, Erica Fox Brindley, Kevin Carrico, Beth Lew-Williams, and Erika Lee, whose research informed this essay. Please see the notes for citations of specific publications.

    Throughout this essay, I use Cantonese place names and terms, romanized using the most common spellings, or the Yale system.

  2. For a sociocultural history of Hoiping and its residential architecture, see Selia Jinhua Tan, The Culture of the Lu Mansion Architecture in China’s Kaiping County, 1900–1949 (PhD diss., University of Hong Kong, 2013).
  3. Although the terms Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian are conventionally understood to denote the region enclosed by (moving clockwise) the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar, in light of geographic and cultural connections, what is today considered southern China should be regarded as part of this region as well. The rivers and oceans that characterized Southeast Asian geography, and the social practices of mobility and exchange that they enabled, connected the cultures that lived in what is now southern China, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. These peripatetic and maritime societies were fundamentally distinct from the plains-based societies north of the Nàahm Líhng (南嶺 or Nanling in Mandarin) mountain range, which created a natural geological division. These Southeast Asian cultures were further linked by centuries of migration, as the Cantonese and Hokkienese dispersed southward.
  4. For Pingyi, see Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004), 6–7. For the relationship between the Cantonese and the Han, see Kevin Carrico, “Recentering China: The Cantonese in and beyond the Han,” in Critical Han Studies: The History, Representation, and Identity of China’s Majority, ed. Thomas Mullaney, James Patrick Leibold, Stéphane Gros, and Eric Armand Vanden Bussche (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 23–44.
  5. For the history of the Nàahm Yuht (or Nan Yue in Mandarin), see Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BCE–50 CE (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  6. For histories of emigrants in the United States, see Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).
  7. For the relationship between American society and xenophobia, see Erika Lee, America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

How to Cite

Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong, “Lookout Towers,” in Perspectives on Place, ed. Elizabeth McGoey and Jeanne Marie Teutonico (Art Institute of Chicago, 2023).

This contribution has been reviewed through an open-review process.

© 2023 by The Art Institute of Chicago. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license:

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