Tianjin has moved on a lot since my first visit and although the bleak journey and our collective lack of research made me fear for an uninspiring day it was in fact lovely. Where Beijing has crushed most vestiges of its cultural history, Tianjin has proudly conserved or restored its. A sad irony that the history and culture so preserved sprang from colonial occupation and concession while that razed to the ground was of Chinese origin.
I’m sure the weather helped but the area thronging with (mostly Chinese) tourists around the former European enclave now known as Five Avenues seemed intimate and homely and it wasn’t a complete stretch to imagine living there. The narrow streets and low detached houses were quite peaceful despite the taxis and threewheelers touting for business; the redevelopment of some of the back alleyways into tucked away restaurants, tea shops and even a boutique hotel is beautifully done.
Having spent a few hours ambling around the neighbourhood, including a lunch stop at an Italian restaurant run by a Japanese owner, we headed for the old Italian concession’s heart in Marco Polo Square. When I first visited with my father almost exactly twenty years ago the four wedding cake towers on each corner of the crossroads were dilapidated and the residences overcrowded with families. Despite the fact that these incongruous buildings were an interesting piece of the city’s history the area was empty but for us taking a few curiosity photos. It looked like only a matter of time before the houses collapsed from overload and indifference.
Things couldn’t be more different now. In the noughties the Tianjin government decided to restore the quarter and collaborated with Italy to do the job faithfully. Materials and craftsmen were brought in from Italy and Chinese workmen taught by the Italians how to restore rather than rebuild. There’s a very interesting article on the subject here if you care to know more http://www.globaltimes.cn/life/life/2010-07/550773.html. I found the process described quite unusual when you consider that Beijing’s original Dashilar district was demolished and rebuilt in exactly the same form but with new materials in order to smarten it up for the Olympics. I’ve been there, too, and it feels like a naff Chinese cultural theme district now the history has been ripped out of it.
The fact that Tianjin has grown organically out from the river and the streets are consequently more higgeldy piggeldy than the stern grids of Beijing also gives the whole city a bit more small scale charm. Unexpectedly it has a feel a bit like Boston, US, in the way that the old stone buildings hold their own against the new high rises and green open spaces unfold in front of colonnaded old bank buildings while the river winds alongside. One of my fellow students said it made her think of Gettysburg.
To be sure the place has its peculiarities like the faux castle and European themed waterfront which is trying to be an Italian piazza or Swiss Alpine riverside facade. That did have a bit of a Disney feel to it, but the river did seem of Alpine cleanliness compared with even our campus canal, which is filthy.
As we waited for our train back to Beijing the people sitting along the river’s edge and in the vast square in front of the modern station were enjoying the last rays of sun and the odd Euro-Chinese scene and I found myself quite enjoying it with them. Given the walkable, relaxing neighbourhoods and the opportunity to sit outside with a beer in a German style market complete with oompah loompah band and dirndl-sporting Chinese waitresses while watching the weddings go by I think I’ll be going back again soon. If nothing else I have to try lunch at Brasserie Flo.