History, Revisited: Attractions new and old in Tianjin

History, Revisited: Attractions new and old in Tianjin
By Paul Bacon , eChinacities.com

One of the most common refrains from my friends in Beijing is that they have, “always meant” to make the journey to Tianjin, but have somehow, “never got around to it”. In northern China, Tianjin is something of the forgotten sibling, overshadowed by its bigger brother up the road. Obviously, competing with the likes of the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven is no easy task. So, even though Tianjin is a city of 11 million people, it seems to get rather unfairly overlooked. This is a crying shame as the city boasts some absolutely stunning architecture and some fantastic modern attractions. This is especially true now as Tianjin has undergone a dramatic facelift in the past couple of years, including the development and redevelopment of a number of places of interest.


Tianjin Italian Concession

ITALIAN CONCESSION 意大利风情区View In Map
The local government may have daubed it with the rather unimaginative moniker, 'Italian Style Town', which makes it sound like some cheap plastic reconstruction, but the newly restored area on the east bank of the Haihe River is actually steeped in colonial history and culture. Sadly, it has only been in the past few months that this area has become worth the visit. Prior to this, it had been left to crumble as the majority of the old colonial villas were home not to scholars or aristocrats, as they once were, but to migrant workers looking for a cheap roof under which to sleep.

Back in my early days in Tianjin in 2006, whenever I wended my way home in a rickety cab past the Italian area, I would wince at the waste of such history and such beauty. Trips to Shanghai, particularly in and around the French Concession, only served to heighten this frustration. Therefore, when, renovation began in earnest in late 2006, I do not think I could have been more excited. Unfortunately, I had to be patient. It was not until early this year that things began to come together and 'Italian Style Town' actually became a tourist attraction. Even then, things were slow to get moving. It opened in the spring to a backdrop of biting winds, grey skies and a lack of interest. It was only when the warm weather began to kick-in that things started to heat up.

The renovators have tried to keep things traditional. The majority of the roads feature cobbles that would not be out of place in a Tuscan market town. The main focus of the area is a small cobbled circle crowned by a stunning Roman pillar topped by a mythic winged creature. This looks impressive enough in itself. However, to top things off, it is surrounded by some wonderful examples of colour and contrast. Dotted around the circular area are several fantastic examples of Italian architecture. These include two fantastic villas and a stunning piece of powerful, almost gothic, design which was once a church, but now houses a (rather less than traditional) KTV. And this is all bizarrely off-set by the sight of a giant 50 storey glass faced skyscraper looming over the scene.

Add: Near Marco Polo Square, Ziyou Dao, Minzu Lu, Hebei District, Tianjin
天津河北区民族路自由道马可波罗广场附近


Five Roads, Tianjin

FIVE ROADS 五大道
Blending French and German influences, the Five Roads area is similar to the Italian Concession, in that it is home to plenty of newly redeveloped colonial buildings that had previously lain unloved and in disrepair. As the roads are lined with trees there is ample shade, making it the perfect locale for an afternoon stroll away from the beating sun. The only drawback to the area is that unlike Italian Style Town, which is made up of open avenues, many of Five Roads most beautiful buildings used to be private residences and are surrounded by large brick walls. In many cases, unless the current owners are generous enough to leave their garden gates open; it is difficult to get a clear view inside. 

There are several fantastic villas that boast not just wonderful architecture, but also fascinating history. For example, the former residence of Sun Zhenfang - a 1930's entrepreneur - on Dali Road is built in a rural Spanish architectural style. It was also, temporarily at least, home to both Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong after the liberation of China. The former residence of Chen Guangyuan is a three-storey building that blends Chinese and European architectural styles. Chen was a military governor in Jiangxi during the early days of the Republic of China. Older than both of them is the former residence of Zhang Zuoxiang (deputy commander of the border defenses in northeast China before the war with Japan) which was built as early as 1913.


Eye of Tianjin, Photo: enorth.com.cn

EYE OF TIANJIN 天津之眼摩天轮
Our theme of underwhelming and rather unimaginative names continues with Tianjin’s giant Ferris wheel, the ‘Eye of Tianjin’ - a title flagrantly ‘borrowed’ from the slightly bigger version on show in London. Yet, just as with Italian Style Town, the name is easily overshadowed by the attraction itself. The Eye is dramatic first because of its impressive scale. It is over 120m high, or the equivalent of a 35 storey skyscraper, with one rotation taking just over 30 minutes. It is also impressive because of its unique architectural style – it is the only wheel in the world built as part of a bridge. Tickets cost a reasonable 50 RMB. Or, if things are getting busy, you can shell out an extra 50 to jump straight to the head of the queue. This may sound somewhat extortionate, but on a 35 degree afternoon, this can be a godsend, particularly as the air-conditioning in the waiting area is less than frosty.

I must admit that I was excited to take my first trip on the Eye. However, after deciding against shelling out the extra 50 - and regretting it - I was a little disappointed. In fairness to the Eye, this was nothing to do with the attraction itself. It was more the fault of Tianjin's less than pristine atmospheric conditions. On ground level, the view across the city skyline had been grey and uninviting. Despite this, I had hoped that as we got higher and higher the panorama would improve. Sadly, I was mistaken. All the increased altitude served to do was give a better view of the smog. I was not, though, going to be beaten. So, I returned a few days later after 8pm when the darkened Tianjin skyline was illuminated by a sprawl of neon. This time it really hit the spot with the lights puncturing the gloom to give a fantastic view across the city.

Tianjin is hardly short on history, but for too long it has been hidden from view. Thanks to these new renovations, and the addition of new attractions like the Eye, perhaps it won’t be so hard persuading friends in Beijing to make the trip in future.

Add: on Yongle Bridge over the Haihe River, Hebei District, Tianjin

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