To the east of Beijing lies another massive city that is also one of China’s four municipalities – Tianjin. Lying just 123 kilometers and just over half an hour by train away, Tianjin has a sort of a sibling rivalry with Beijing – the two share a fierce football rivalry that results in each city’s supporters being banned from attending matches in the other city. Tianjin may not have the history or political heft as the capital, but it has a proud heritage, substantial economy and some impressive Western architecture. This is due to it having been a treaty port during the 19th century where Western nations were allowed to trade and have a presence.
I made a daytrip to Tianjin the day before I started work in Beijing in September 2013, so that was the end of my Beijing tourist days. The weather was quite smoggy, something that I have gotten used to, so I should say Tianjin is much grander than how it appears in the photos below. Tianjin has a subway that only has three lines and was not crowded, so it was easy using it to get around.
I first got out near this bridge where several European-style buildings lined the banks of the Hai river.
I then went to the Ancient Cultural street or Guwenhua Jie. This street features many old shops and buildings with Qing Dynasty architecture, though the area dates back to the Yuan Dynasty. There is even a small Matsu temple there, which is interesting since Matsu is a goddess of the sea who is commonly worshipped much further south in Fujian province and Taiwan, as well as Zhejiang province and Hong Kong. Tianjin is a port city so its fishermen also worshipped Matsu in old times, and the temple is, according to Wikipedia, the northernmost Matsu temple.
Then I went to Wudadao or Five Grand Avenues, an entire district that is one of the best places to see Tianjin’s European heritage. The district has five parallel streets named after Southwest Chinese cities, filled with houses, mansions and buildings built in various European styles, as well as a few churches. Because Tianjin had a very diverse presence including the British, French, Germans, and Italians, the houses are in such different styles. In keeping with the 19th century European setting, there were even horse-drawn carriages carrying tourists on the streets.
The houses were mostly built in the 1920s and 1930s by wealthy Chinese, even a few warlords, such as one Sun Dianying who tried to rob the tomb of the Qianlong Emperor, according to one of the signs there. Many respected figures like national leaders, educators and businessmen also lived there.
Many of the houses have been converted to cafes and restaurants, and there are artsy places like an open complex with red-brick townhouses with cafes and art galleries, though it seemed very new and empty. There. I saw what seemed to be a stadium that was under construction, but it turns out it was a former football stadium that was being converted into a park and cultural center (it is now open to the public).
In keeping with the area’s unique vibe, the traffic lights were futuristic-looking rectangular forms that displayed the lights as blocks.
The district is quite pleasant and the houses are mostly attractive, though there isn’t any one grand building that stands out. All in all, the mansions, red-brick homes and well-laid-out sidewalks certainly make it stand out and with a little imagination, you can almost believe you’re in some European city and not in mainland China. The only concern is if the area gets too developed in terms of tourism and becomes a bit sterile.
After walking around Wudadao for a couple of hours, I went back to Beijing.
On my way to the subway station near Wudadao, I did have one amusing experience. I passed a girl handing out flyers for English lessons and as she gave me one, she started telling me about the class details. I tried to reply in Chinese that I wasn’t interested, and immediately she realized I probably wasn’t really Chinese – “Oh, you probably don’t need these lessons,” she said with a smile and she was right.
Tianjin has its fair share of tall and interesting buildings. This is by the subway station near Wudadao.
Yuhuang Pavilion, an “assembly center” built during the Ming Dynasty and rebuilt in 1427, just off the Ancient Cultural street
Some buildings like this one were government-owned.
The old stadium in Wadadaou being converted into a park and art center, which is now open
A house decorated with pieces of ceramic and surrounded by sculptures. This is not the famous Porcelain China House which is filled with pottery and jade works, though it has signs with China House on it. Perhaps this building is associated with it.