Tsingtao (known as “Qingdao” today) is a rarity in the history of colonialism – in that it was a German colony. The Germans came late in the colonial game (in the 1890s); and they established a scattering of colonies in far-flung corners of the world – German East Africa; German New Guinea (Kaiser Wilhelmsland) – which they lost within decades in the aftermath of World War I.
Qingdao is the most representative, and best preserved of all the German colonies; the German legacy in the rest hasn’t survived well. The city wasn’t a Treaty Port, but a Concession – a full-fledged colony – in the same way Hong Kong was. And it was Imperial Germany’s most-prized colony in the East.
The Kiautschou 膠州Peninsula in northern China was ceded to Imperial Germany in 1898 on similar terms as Hong Kong – which is to say, in perpetuity. Tsingtao was the administrative capital of the concession – a port occupying a perfect harbour in Kiautschou Bay.
Unfortunately, due to World War I, the Germans would only hold it for a mere 16 years. In 1914, when WWI broke out, the Japanese Allied Forces over-ran the colony and took it for themselves, holding it till 1922.
Despite the very short time the Germans held Tsingtao, they invested heavily, extensively and swiftly in their colony. Even today, much of the old town and its oldest suburbs (like the Badaguan villa district) still boasts extensive tracts of German-era architecture, as well as quaint little beaches, complete with beach huts, reminiscent of North Sea beach resorts.
And there’s almost no need to mention the city’s most iconic export – Tsingtao Beer – which owes its existence to the Germans. In fact, the Tsingtao Brewery still stands where it was established by the Germans, a hundred years ago.
The city was actually held longer by the Japanese, who occupied the city twice – 1914 – 1922, and again from 1938 – 1949, when Mao’s Communist forces wrested the city from the Japanese.
The Japanese built a “New City” adjacent and further inland from the German Old Town. They kept much of the German architecture in the Old Town, adapting many of the buildings for their own use.
The “New City” they would build in the mixed Japanese-European style that characterized Showa Japan and much of Japan’s other colonies. Today, much of that “New City” has been restored by city authorities and rather misleadingly marketed as a “Traditional German Town.”
This month’s installment of the Grand Tour pays homage to this sliver of Imperial Germany in East, still impossibly clinging on to its existence.