Buffing up on History: New Attractions of Old Tianjin

Buffing up on History: New Attractions of Old Tianjin
By Paul Bacon , eChinacities.com

In recent years a number of new attractions have opened in Tianjin seeking to give a flavor of old town life. Places like the Ancient Culture Street and the Tianjin Museum may be relatively newly built, but they nevertheless offer fascinating insights into the city’s history. And by regenerating forgotten corners of Tianjin, these same attractions can bring to light some lesser-known, but much more genuine historical monuments, such as the Da Bei Temple.

Ancient Culture Street 古文化街
This is a rather oddly named attraction as it is neither ancient nor particularly cultured. The street, which is barely five years old, is built in modern gray bricks and is adorned with traditional Chinese roofing and paintwork, giving it a modern base with a traditional garnish. This seems somewhat fitting as the whole place is built with modern financial goals in mind and is merely topped with flashes of local culture – anything at all ancient or remotely cultured is very much for sale. The majority of the 'culture' in question comes in the form of countless small stores selling calligraphy, silks, pottery and artwork.


Ancient Culture Street, Tianjin

The rather cynical raison d'etre behind Ancient Culture Street does not, though, prevent it from offering a very pleasant afternoon out. The quality of the shopping on offer is good. It offers a little more authenticity than some of Beijing's tourist hot-spots with many of the stores operated by artists and craftsmen themselves. Because of this, it is possible to see plenty of traditional crafts actually being practiced. These include calligraphy, carvings and sugar making - an old man crafts fantastically shaped candies from a sugar based liquid he mixes up right there on the spot. The crafts on show are impressive and definitely entertaining to see. However, sadly, the manager of the street has clearly taken inspiration from markets such as Xiushui or Yashow in Beijing, meaning that interspersed amongst hand-made pottery or painstakingly created calligraphy sit hundreds of fake Gucci handbags and watches, and piles of pirate DVDs.

The Ancient Culture Street situated on the banks of the Haihe River around 2km from the city's main shopping area. It is also less than 2km from the main train station.

More information about Ancient Culture Street  

Da Bei Temple 大悲院
Until recently, Da Bei Temple, which is located on the banks of the Haihe River in the northern reaches of Tianjin, was somewhat off the beaten path. However, with the construction of the Tianjin Eye and the redevelopment of the Italian Concession area, it is now in one of the most exciting areas of the city. And, considering some of the other attractions that are within walking distance, it is certainly worth the visit. Though this Qing-era temple cannot match the style and scale of attractions such as the Summer Palace or Temple of Heaven, it certainly has its own unique charms.


Da Bei Temple, Tianjin

The first of these charms is its slightly scruffy appearance. With most of the major attractions in Beijing having undergone a major face-lift before last year's Olympics, China's past has never looked newer, sleeker and shinier. Da Bei, though, has missed the beautician's touch, and looks all the better for it. The paintwork inside is faded and crumbling, and weeds are beginning to poke through the eaves of the roof. This, though, works to give the whole place an authentic and more genuinely historic feel. The second factor is the surrounding area. Slightly north of the main entrance sits a small covered market selling incense, prayer sheets and other Buddhist trinkets. It is made up of simple one-storey buildings built to the same architectural plan as the temple itself. These are covered with a roof made of thin different colored Perspex, which allows a wonderfully relaxing soft light to permeate the shopping area.

Da Bei is situated on the banks of the Hai He River, on Tianwei Lu. It is just 100m from the Holiday Inn and less than 2km from the main train station. It is on the opposite bank to Ancient Culture Street, about 1km away. The two are easily linked by taxi or motor rickshaw (10 RMB).

More information about Da Bei Temple

Tianjin Museum 天津博物馆
The city museum is certainly not an old attraction. Like Ancient Culture Street, it is barely five years old. However, over the last few years, it has consistently attracted a large number of visitors. The structure itself is actually quite impressive. It is built in the shape of a giant crescent moon and is constructed from glass and steel giving it a fantastically light and airy feel on the inside, and a decidedly sci-fi look when looked at from afar. Inside, the contents of the museum are split over two floors. On the second floor, there are displays of ancient art, local artifacts and traveling exhibitions. And, on the third floor, there is the local history section.


Tianjin Museum

The collections on the second floor are particularly impressive. The art section is housed in near darkness, and it is only as the viewer approaches the cases that lights are triggered to illuminate scrolls and small paintings dating back almost 2000 years. This helps to preserve their fading ink and to add a certain element of suspense. The porcelain section lacks the drama, but boasts a full and varied collection of ceramics. The only downside to these two areas is that they have very limited descriptions in English.

The exhibitions on the first floor are also interesting, albeit very sober and traditional. For 'excitement', it is best to climb to the third floor to indulge in some local history. The exhibitions focus mainly on the Opium War's, the Boxer Rebellion and the Second World War. However, western visitors should take many of the displays with a pinch of salt as the commentaries are feature much inflammatory rhetoric. Indeed, the introduction to the exhibition is so vitriolic that it is scarcely possible to understand what it actually means.

Admission to the museum itself is free, but there is an extra charge for any additional exhibitions on display. During most weeks, there will be something on show. However, they are not always in English, so it is best to ask in advance. The museum is situated at the junction of Youyi Lu and Binshui Dao.

More information about Tianjin Museum

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