To understand what I saw Thursday afternoon I had to learn at least a bit of Chinese history. It seems that in the early 1800’s the British sought to fix their balance of trade issues with China by exporting Southeast Asian opium to China. When the Chinese objected for obvious reasons war broke out between the British aided by the French and the Chinese. The Opium Wars between 1839 and 1860 resulted in the eventual establishment of foreign colonies in several of the port cities of China. Tianjin became the site of 9 such colonies including a US colony. These colonies were sovereign territories of the foreign powers. Each of these foreign nations built small cities inside of what is now Tianjin with their on military and police. Chinese citizens were required to have the permission of the foreign government to travel into these enclaves.
Modern Chinese seem to have very mixed feelings about these former colonies. These events are perceived as no more than a foot note in history by westerners but are still important to the Chinese and very much color their attitudes about the west. While being upset and angered by the way the foreigners treated their ancestors they are also quite proud of the buildings left behind.
It is against that backdrop of history then that my companions and I visited several historical sites around the city. We drove through the English colony which was somewhat unimpressive, being mostly a collection of sad old English style houses. The exceptions were a couple of Greek revival structures of some note. We did not stop to take pictures.
We moved on to Tianjin Old Town which is the center of the city founded in about 600 AD. At the center of Old Town is a bell tower/fort that sits on the site of the original tower built when the city was founded. The tower which has been rebuilt several times is similar in appearance to the original. It turns out that Mr. Zhou is a photography fanatic and when not taking still shots with an extremely nice Sony SLR was either shooting video or directing his assistant Miss Du to shoot video or still shots of the rest of the group. Miss Du having started the day being a bit shy about being photographed soon warmed to the role and Mr. Zhou would pose her in different spots around the city, showing her exactly where and how he wanted her to stand.
From there we went to the south entrance to the Ancient culture street which I had visited earlier in the week. We went along to the center of this area and visited a temple that had numerous shrines to a large number of Deities. The more important of which had individual buildings for their worshipers to visit while the less important shared a spot with others. Many worshipers were present burning incense, making offerings and praying at the shrines. I took the lead of Mr. Zhou who although did not seem to be among the devote did not photograph any of the shrines. He shot a few outside shots of our group but never of the inside of the shrines or of the statues. Alfred seemed to have a very complete understanding of each of the gods, including their origins, history and significance. Whether that made him a believer was not at all clear. Like so many things much is lost in translation even with someone who speaks English as well as Alfred.
The streets were filled with tourists but I never saw another westerner. I was told on weekends there would be more foreigners and that Chinese tourists from other parts of the country took advantage of travel bargains offered mid-week by hotels etc. The weather was nice, warm and clear. People shopped for trinkets, posed for pictures, laughed and enjoyed the day much like people everywhere do on holiday.
At the South entrance to Ancient Culture street we stopped to look at a center pivot draw bridge built by the Germans in the 19th century. Across the river serving as a backdrop is Austrian town, another of the foreign colonies. The featured photo at the top of this page is the view of the bridge with Austrian Town in the background.
As for the colonies they had saved the best for last. Italian Town is an area of several blocks squared filled with completely restored 19th century Italian buildings. Within the last 10 years the local government decided that these old buildings, which at the time were in use as tenements, were an untapped tourist attraction gold mine . The government bought out the tenets and restored the buildings, streets etc. to their former glory. The buildings now house restaurants bars etc. I was surprised to say the least to see this little bit of old Italy in the middle of this modern Chinese city.
When my companions dropped me off at the hotel I was sad to say ziajian.