Of all the cities on this Grand Tour of the Far East, Tientsin (spelled Tianjin in pinyin) is my favourite by far, for three reasons.
First – unlike any other treaty port in China, Korea or Japan, Tientsin consists of 8 separate foreign concessions, each with their own unique aspects. Second – most of the architecture in all of these foreign concessions has miraculously remained intact and is immaculately restored, making for a magical and nostalgic experience. Third – Tientsin itself remains off the beaten path, whether it be for foreigners or Chinese – and it is thus a remarkably pleasant (and remarkably clean) city to take in.
The treaty port of Tientsin was not one of the original five treaty ports, but part of a second wave of 11 treaty ports that were forced open by the 1858-60 Treaties of Tientsin, which ended the Second Opium War, and called, over and above the treaty ports, for the opening of the Foreign Legation quarter in Peking.
The earliest of the Imperial powers to set up shop in the city were the British and the French in 1860. The rest soon followed suit. Of all of these concessions, the British, French and Japanese concessions were the largest and the most dense. The German, Austro-Hungarian and Italian concessions were small, but their respective imperial powers invested heavily into architecture and infrastructure. The Belgian and Russian concessions, in contrast, were not really invested in and today, remain the least architecturally interesting.
The list of concessions and how long they lasted, is as follows:
The British Concession (1860 – 1943)
The French Concession (1860 – 1946) – see above image.
The Japanese Concession (1898 – 1945)
The German Concession (1899 – 1917)
The Austro-Hungarian Concession (1901 – 1917)
The Italian Concession (1901 – 1947)
The Belgian Concession (1902 – 1931)
The Russian Concession (1903 – 1920)
Today’s Tianjin is an enormous city that, like the capital Beijing, also has province status. Alongside the old town, a new city of skyscrapers has been erected that is as modern and architecturally interesting (also) as Tokyo, Yokohama or Seoul.
Unfortunately, the city authorities have also decided to erect a faux-European city in and over the old town itself, expertly recreating the architecture of time past such that in many instances, one is unclear where heritage ends, and mimicry begins.
I’m not sure that that is the right way to go, from a purist’s standpoint. But I have to say that the new architecture has more or less been tastefully done, and doesn’t offend, well… not really, anyway.
The next few posts takes the grand tourist through a walking tour of the major concession areas in the city.