For seven weeks, I have lived in the heart of the Tianjin French concession. Somehow, it is a fitting spot – coming here as a French man from Australia, to work at Alliance Francaise. I also consider it a bit of a luxury.
Is it the powdery – polluted – air? Is it the morning light? Is it just a common effect of exoticism? The fact is, when you’re travelling abroad, you somehow see more. A laneway, the inside of a house, an old man walking away from you, all take on a mysterious, fleeting beauty.
Names have their own magic, and because it’s in ‘the French concession’, a simple street scene will take on an ‘old Paris-village’ charm; like a memory of Belleville, recovered in North China.
Surprisingly, whereas the Shanghai French concession is the hypest thing on the planet, the Tianjin one is rather underrated – people don’t mention it as an exceptional spot. My colleagues at Alliance Francaise even seem to think of it as rather off centre, far, and a slightly dull place to live.
But I really love the French concession. Not only the simple daily life, and people sitting on steets. It has more grandiose elements, like old-new buildings in French style – probably re-furbished for Municipal government services.
More glamorous still, the French concession has Jin Jie, ‘Gold Street’, the Champs-Elysees of Tianjin – a beautiful, pedestrian commercial street, just fifteen minutes walk from where I lived. Luxurious and sophisticated – embodying everything glamour about France.
I’m sure one day, Tianjin will emerge as a global glamour destination. Then, I will look back with awe at these two months I spent in the middle of the French concession, thinking – how was I ever so lucky to be there, when it was still in the making!
And I will pass by my old Xiao Qu (or the place it was, if it is converted into something shinier), and think back at summer 2011, nostalgically. By then, I will not remember the pollution, the humidity, the heat, and how difficult everything was. I will sigh, thinking of a time when things were still nice, and quiet, and nothing ‘tebie, just harmonious and pleasant.