I had been to the ‘Wu Da Dao’ area – the five great avenues – on my first trip to Tianjin, and had very good memories of it. I went for a walk there one day, trying to capture something of Tianjin’s European past, and how it still informs its contemporary shape.
I saw the passages with bicycles leaning on the walls, and I saw the laneways with clothes hanging. I saw the buildings and houses, with their continental architecture.
Then I found a word for it. The place has a certain Milanese charm – the beauty of a rich, efficient, and slightly dull bourgeois city. Something North Italian, a discrete, opulent elegance, bordering on the Bavarian. With a touch of grey colour, and a touch of fat.
Reading more about Wu Da Dao, I learnt it had always been a place for rich people. That part of Tianjin was the place to get a house in China for Conservative politicians in the last 20 years of the Qing Empire, and in the early years of the Republic.
I found a place which I think summarizes Wu Da Dao Coffee Office – a coffee place inside a converted mansion, with a relatively small public area on the ground floor, and private meeting rooms on the upper floors, including one room for men, one for women, and a little booth for couples to watch a DVD together, on a corner sofa. The enthusiastic waitress who took me on a tour said ‘I don’t know if there is another place like this in Tianjin – I don’t know if there is another place like this in China!’ There might not be. The coffee was delicious, and the music subtle and quiet – in line with the customers. Qualities I have grown to strongly appreciate after some time in China.
Juliette told me of another Wu Da Dao project – a friend of hers wants to convert a house there into a museum of furniture. Fitting. This is a dream place for antique lovers – or for those conservative spirits who like everything soft and slightly dusty, like old books, European ghosts, and haunted houses, overgrown by grass.