Tianjin / fakin’ all over

While it has a long and interesting history and is fast becoming an vibrant and attractive city, Tianjin is a little short on places for sightseeing.  It has always been quite a practical place – located between Beijing and the China Sea, a point of interchange between China and the world outside. 

One of the main visitor attractions (according to Wikitravel at least) is Gǔwénhuà Jiē, literally Ancient Culture Street.  I could take issue with all elements of the name – it is less a street than a precinct; the activity is shopping (which I admit, is a culture of sorts); and it is far from ancient.  In no real surprise, Ancient Culture Street is a mostly faithful reproduction of a traditional market place.

Beyond the flagrant fakery, it’s not too bad.  It’s loaded full of little shops selling clothes and fabric, ceramics and wood carvings, jade and jade-like jewellery, kids toys and postcards.  I’m sure I was the only lao wei there, so I attracted my fair share of attention, from prolonged stares of passers-by to the relentless sales pitching of the shopkeepers.

But, of course, Tianjin is used to lao wei like me.  While informal exchange of goods and people has existed here for centuries, it was not until the mid 19th century that the city officially opened itself to international trade.  Tianjin was particularly well placed, with a large seaport and rail lines connecting it to many parts of China.


As the foriegn population of the city grew, so did inter-racial tensions and as a response, the city government ceded parts of the city to its trading partners.  These “concessions” (like those found in many of China’s big cities) became semi-self-contained parts of Tianjin, where foreign communities built schools, hospitals and community facilities as well as businesses. First the French and the British (the experts of colonisation at the time), followed by the Japanese, Germans, Russians, Austrians, Belgians and Italians.  For once, the Americans didn’t try to take over something, politely joining the British within their concession.  All up, the concessions covered a large part of the city and controlled much of the waterfront. 


Perhaps through homesickness or cultural insensitivity or pure habit (or a mixture of all three), foreign corporations and governments set about creating buildings and spaces in the image of their home countries.  Many have been demolished over time, as the city renews itself, as buildings fall into disrepair, or as public policy seeks to eradicate uncomfortable phases of a city’s historic development. 

But now, in a slightly confusing act of self-reference, the European history of Tianjin has become the preferred source of historic meaning in new developments.  The riverside is crowded with new buildings, styled with heavy masonry walls and fluted columns, dormer windows, mansard rooves and cupolas.  It’s like the architectural equivalent of a Furbie: cute and unsettling at the same time.


Even in a country that shuns religion, new churches are popping up.  I’m not sure what these are used for, if anything. 


The main shopping street is also Euro-style – the street lamps are a giveaway.  On close inspection though, the trick is revealed … one side of the street is almost just a facade, with tiny shops fronting a very large construction site (likely to be huge towers sitting in landscape, a bit like European urban fantasies of the early 20th century).

There is an area of the central city entitled Italian Style Town.  I don’t take issue with this name: it is a pretty honest appraisal of the development.   The Italian Concession interestingly was the last foreign concession in Tianjin, closing (or rather, opening) its gates in 1947, which may explain why this quarter still retains some presence.


It has all the ingredients of the traditional European town, but apart from a few holidaymakers and wedding parties, it was pretty empty.  A bit like Shanghai’s Thames Town or New Holland Village.


And then, just across the road, I spy some structures that could well be the real deal: buildings that were actually built during the official European occupation of the city.  To be honest, after seeing so many good fakes, it is getting increasingly hard for me to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Besides, a knowledge of architectural history has never been my strong point.  Nonetheless, these buildings are as good as abandoned, falling apart while the new stuff next door struggles to take off.

And more of the same is on its way up.


2 Responses to Tianjin / fakin’ all over

  1. Pingback: Tianjin / many ways to cross a river | That Look Crayzy!

  2. Pingback: Figuring out the last year … « That Look Crayzy!

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