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Tianjin

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And there were sections of the city where different foreigners lived – Japanese, White Russians, Americans and Germans – but never together, and all with their own separate habits, some dirty, some clean. And they had houses of all shapes and colours, one painted in pink, another with rooms that jutted out at every angle like the backs and fronts of Victorian dresses, others with roofs like pointed hats and wood carvings painted white to look like ivory.
-  Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club

And there were sections of the city where different foreigners lived – Japanese, White Russians, Americans and Germans – but never together, and all with their own separate habits, some dirty, some clean. And they had houses of all shapes and colours, one painted in pink, another with rooms that jutted out at every angle like the backs and fronts of Victorian dresses, others with roofs like pointed hats and wood carvings painted white to look like ivory.

Massive and dynamic, TIANJIN (天津, tiānjīn) is China’s third-largest city, located near the coast some 80km east of Beijing. The city has few actual sights; its streetscapes – ageing nineteenth- and early twentieth-century foreign architecture, mostly European, juxtaposed with the concrete-and-glass monoliths of wealthy contemporary China – are its most engrossing attractions. Locals say, not altogether with pride, that the city has become a massive construction site, requiring a new map to be printed every three months. Though wide swaths of the city are being redeveloped, much of the colonial architecture has been placed under protection, though not from over-zealous renovation – look for the distinctive plaques on the relevant buildings. Feng Jicai, one of China’s best-known writers and a Tianjin resident, led a campaign to preserve the old city, noting, “Once a nation has lost its own culture, it faces a spiritual crisis more dreadful than that brought on by material poverty. If you regard a city as having a spirit, you will respect it, safeguard it, and cherish it. If you regard it as only matter, you will use it excessively, transform it at will, and damage it without regret.” Contemporary Tianjin is an illustration of the latter, an unwieldy fusion of Beijing’s bustle and Shanghai’s Bund, though delivered without the character of either.

Nevertheless, Tianjin has enough architectural attractions and shopping opportunities, particularly for antiques, to justify a day-trip from the capital, especially now the city is within easier reach of Beijing than many of the capital’s own suburbs, thanks to the high-speed train link, a legacy of the 2008 Olympics, which means it takes just thirty minutes to shuttle between the two. On the journey you may well be joined by young Beijingers coming to shop for clubwear, older residents in search of curios and businesspeople on their way to the next deal.

The part of the city of interest to visitors – the dense network of ex-concession streets south and west of the central train station, and south of the Hai River (海河, hăi hé) – is fairly compact. Many pinyin street signs help in navigating the central grid of streets, as do plenty of distinctive landmarks, notably the T-shaped pedestrianized shopping district of Binjiang Dao and Heping Lu at Tianjin’s heart.

The old city was strictly demarcated into national zones, and each section of the city centre has retained a hint of its old flavour. The area northwest of the main train station, on the west side of the Hai River, was the old Chinese city. Running from west to east along the north bank of the river were the Austrian, Italian, Russian and Belgian concessions, though most of the old buildings here have been destroyed. Unmistakeable are the chateaux of the French concession, which now make up the downtown district just south of the river, and the haughty mansions the British built east of here. Farther east, also south of the river, the architecture of an otherwise unremarkable district has a sprinkling of stern German constructions.

Brief history

Though today the city is given over to industry and commerce, it was as a port that Tianjin first gained importance. When the Ming emperor Yongle moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, Tianjin became the dock for vast quantities of rice paid in tribute to the emperor and transported here from all over the south via the Grand Canal. In the nineteenth century, the city caught the attention of the seafaring Western powers, who used the boarding of an English ship by Chinese troops as an excuse to declare war. With well-armed gunboats, they were assured of victory, and the Treaty of Tianjin, signed in 1856, gave the Europeans the right to establish nine concessionary bases on the mainland, from which they could conduct trade and sell opium.

These separate concessions, along the banks of the Hai River, were self-contained European fantasy worlds: the French built elegant chateaux and towers, while the Germans constructed red-tiled Bavarian villas. The Chinese were discouraged from intruding, except for servants, who were given pass cards. Tensions between the indigenous population and the foreigners exploded in the Tianjin Incident of 1870, when a Chinese mob attacked a French-run orphanage and killed the nuns and priests in the belief that the Chinese orphans had been kidnapped and were merely awaiting the pot. Twenty Chinese were beheaded as a result, and the prefect of the city was banished. A centre for secretive anti-foreign movements, the city had its genteel peace interrupted again by the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, after which the foreigners leveled the walls around the old Chinese city to enable them to see in and keep an eye on its residents.

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