Tianjin

The Charm of Old Tianjin

Recently, I went on a very impromptu trip to Tianjin, a major metropolitan area rather close to Beijing. Feeling a need to just get out of the house and do something, I left home at 4 in the morning and took the first train out. Located on the Bohai and straddling major waterways, Tianjin is known as the front gate of Beijing, owning to its immense strategic importance.

 (New Tianjin rises above the old, a new highrise is built in the backyard of building in the old French Concession)
New Tianjin rises above the old, a new highrise is built in the backyard of building in the former French Concession

That reality was well known even a hundred years ago,when foreign powers took a significant interest in the city. Much of the city was once ceded away as foreign concessions, leaving a mark on the city that still can be seen even as Tianjin becomes more and more of a cookie-cutter, standardized metropolis.

The city once hosted concessions to Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

Many buildings that were part of the old concessions are still extant, converted to communal apartments after the Communist Revolution of 1949. Although the last 60 odd years have been especially hard on these relics of the past, they are still inhabited and contribute to a charm rarely found in China.

(A neighborhood in the former Japanese concession, having changed little in 60 years.)
A neighborhood in the former Japanese concession, having changed little in 60 years.

Although appearing decripit at first sight, the vibrancy of life in a city of 10 million is stunningly overwhelming. Walking in the old town, one can feel a relaxing rhythm of life: early Saturday morning, while most people are in bed, hundreds have already congregated in St. Joseph’s Church, receiving Mass through one of the most popular institutions of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church.

Catching breakfast early Saturday morning
Catching breakfast early Saturday morning

Meanwhile, further down the street, people are lining up at a mom&pop breakfast shop, located in a beautiful brick building in the former Japanese concession full of architectural nods to the Taisho/Showa period.

Although the authority of the foreign powers have since subsided, their architectural influence is still very much alive along the streets of Old Tianjin. Even as skyscapers and super-tall apartment blocks continue sprouting up in what is now mainland China’s wealthiest city by GDP per capita, the architectural legacy left by foreign nations remains. Protected by City of Tianjin as markers of history, the streets of Old Tianjin contribute to a sense of tranquilty and charm that Tianjiners can enjoy for generations to come.

2014 July 26

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