Next to XiaoBaiLou station, the ‘1902’ Western style street has a Spanish food shop, a New Zealand cosmetics shop (organic), and a string of posh bars and cafes.

But behind the polished ‘European’ facade is a traditional-style Chinese hutong, with cheap food stalls, clothes on hangers, and electric cables – perfectly visible from the posh street.

I was a bit surprised at how visible the hutong is – and how much of a contrast it makes with the main street. But it’s quite common in Tianjin.

The street display is like a theatre stage. Just a few details are enough for the  imagination to make up a world of wealth and luxury. Maybe that’s why the city really comes alive at night, when the fairy lights create a theatrical atmosphere, and shade swallows the backstage.

Why make the effort of actually cleaning the city? Why make it really pristine and beautiful, when you can just imagine it this way. Why not set it up so people can believe it’s an elegant, clean, posh European city, for a while. But actually keep the mess which is more convenient to live in – because if everything had to be constantly clean and perfect, it would be way too tiring, and there wouldn’t be time to chat and play cards.

Maybe people here have more imagination, and they don’t need everything perfect to be satisfied? Or maybe the contrast between clean and dirty, polished and rough, is crucial to their enjoyment of city life? These could be more relevant ways to understand Chinese urban aesthetics than simply to say – it’s actually dirty there – but then it’s not really developed either.



Sometimes you try hard, analysing, rationalising, finding causes for things. Sometimes, you give up, and things are just weird.

Like scary zodiac idols in togas.

Like a publicity for pet ferrets.

Like teddy ‘Luigi’ keyrings in a shop, with no matching Marios.

Like a stuffed deer with a long scar on its face.

Like naming a roast chicken shop ‘golden phoenix’.

Like turning on purple neonlights in daytime.

Like cheese cocoa, tea, and coffee

Fairy lights

Chinese cities are particularly beautiful at night. Like a film-set, they depend on controlled, artificial lighting for their magic to work.

The dirt on the footpath, the open construction sites, the smoggy air, all of these disappear into the dark. A simple street scene becomes a mysterious epiphany.

A bar singer, a Hong-Kong movie star.

Sometimes, it is the sheer quantity of light – the general shininess of things, that creates wonder.

It’s also the contrast of colour, silver/gold, blue/yellow.

The set is ready; the lights are on. The fairies can come, and play their fairy tunes.

Beijing immensity

Everyone raves about the disappearing HuTongs, the traditional alleys of Lao Beijing and their oh-so-typical charm.

For me, Beijing urban aesthetics is much more about the massive urban highways bordered by tall, modern building

These huge avenues have a practical function: traffic. They also serve a symbolic function. They lead into the wide horizon, structuring space, signifying control over a huge continental empire, extending in all four cardinal directions.

The southern cities of China – Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, etc – are the heartland of Han country. Beijing, the northern capital, has always been a border city. You can see the Great Wall running on the mountain from Tian An Men Square on a clear day; sand flies in from the Gobi desert in the Spring. Beijing is an imperial interface between the wild nomadic people of central Asia, and the delicate, sedentary Han Chinese. Beijing’s open aesthetics of wide avenues could be read as a tribute to the open steppe, reminding the country of its mixed origins, in the orderly patterns of South-Eastern rice fields; in the open immensity of the North-Western steppe.

These straight avenues might also be seen as a pure expression of control: the natural curviness of the world is straightened by the abstract geometry of power. These huge urban freeways contain and limit the body. Jaywalking is a serious hasard on a double five lane highway. People are channeled to the safe overhead bridges; getting trained to follow the given path.

Chinese history repeats over and over: the wild people of the open steppe take over the rich, settled empire by violence – or fear. But in order to stay, they have to adopt the structures of the Han. These unruly riders have to submit eventually to the restricting laws of the orderly world, as embodied in its northern capital city. Han culture assimilates them – its delicacy, its control. They become domesticated.


It’s not going to be PC. Stop here if you think you might get offended.

I know you should have a position on the place as a foreigner; and I know you’re supposed to not talk about it with Chinese people, because it’s contentious, and you don’t have the full picture. It’s probably true – and wise. But also, the government doesn’t like you to talk about it at all – this blog might even be blocked if I start using the name; which is more problematic.

I’m only going to report on what I saw in Beijing and Tianjin.

In tourist areas, you can hear a weird kind of chanting coming from certain shops, something like ‘om mani mani om om’. I heard it in HouHai. I heard it in Magnetic City. I heard it on Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street.

These are Tib… shops, selling Tib… artifacts. Their customers are Chinese as much as Western. It’s an interesting mix of the local and exotic, after all. Something different, but not completely foreign.

Many Chinese friends have told they would love to visit – the air, the nature, the dream.

And I’m thinking of the smart censors. Is it a deliberate strategy? As more and more foreigners come to China, what will they think about the question? “Oh, yes, that place. I saw the shops. I’m not into it that much. It’s a bit kitsch, isn’t it?’

Line Dancing

People who spend time in China generally see that: people dancing on the streets or in parks, in small or large groups.

Most of it is little more than open-air soft aerobics – hardly sensual or sexy.

But one night, on the banks of the river, where the Austrian concession used to be, I spotted a scene strangely reminiscent of the Paris riverbank, where people dance to Latin and Celtic rhythms in the summer.

Collective dancing is popular. Passing by JinWan plaza one morning, I saw the staff of a restaurant lifting up their hands in rhythm, getting in the mood for their day of work. Connecting with colleagues.

The best of them might be selected on the official parading team that I saw rehearsing, iconically, opposite the Tianjin station.

Maybe we should learn from that, and be better at using our public space? Well, for a start, K-pop flash mobs are a good first step.


Each language carries its own worldview. You learn that in your first week of linguistics. Categories do not overlap. Understanding  a foreign culture is not about memorising new sounds to name the same things we already know. It is about mapping the world afresh.

As a visitor to China, you regularly need to interrogate your own implicit categories.

This, for instance, is how the big Beijing library classifies its copies of the Bible. What does it tell us about religion in China?

Aaron took me to the temple of the Queen of Heaven, next to the old culture street in Tianjin. I asked him why people went to the temple, what they did there – ‘sightseeing’, he replied. I had a similar experience earlier, in the Beijing Temple of Heaven. I was with a Chinese friend and pointed at some tables with characters on them, asking what they were. ‘These are the Gods that do not exist – only the names’, she said.

Many people have the little household Gods in their living rooms – but they seem to hover somewhere between decoration, folklore, and lucky charms. So, well, maybe religion comes into the wide range of ‘lifestyle’ pursuits here, somewhere between massages and gardening.

I’ve got another interpretation of the Beijing categorising. Have you ever seen such books as The Tao of Pooh and A treaty on Zen and motorcycles. Have you seen how, in our libraries, books on the Tao hover somewhere between philosophy and self-help. Why wouldn’t a Chinese bookshop do the same to Christianism?

But then, judging from the list of interdictions in that Tianjin church – Christianism had to make radical concessions to be accepted.

Or is it just a problem with the translation, maybe?