Walls and doors

The main function of most official buildings is to symbolically structure space. Distinguish an inside from an outside, or establish a cosmic centre point.

The main point of focus for tourists in Beijing is a door – Tian An Men, the door of Heavenly Peace – which leads into the – walled in – Forbidden city, under the auspices of late President Mao.

The structure of the Chinese capital is clearly centered on the Forbidden city, the real and symbolic centre of imperial power. Yet, in imperial times, the religious centre of the country was slightly further South, at the Temple of Heaven. Also the forbidden city itself does not have a clear centre point – godly statue, tomb, or the emptiness of an inner shrine. Visiting it is more like a pilgrimage inside a maze, walking by a succession of temples and houses, along courtyards and through doorways, without ever reaching a clear destination, or feeling ‘that’s where it is’.

The Chinese word for China means ‘the Middle Country’. Accordingly (?) the main symbol of the country is not a centre point, but a great wall, marking the limit of that ‘middle ground. That wall, itself, may have served a symbolic function, as much as one of defence: it runs along mountain tops, underlining the natural landscape surrounding China.

The Great Wall is not one continuous piece of masonry, but a scattering of constructions, built at different periods in different places, which make sense as a defence mechanism, but only roughly connect. Even in the core sections, in the Northern section of Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, the wall is not continuous. Sometimes a moutain was high enough to be deemed inpassable, and the wall stops half-way down its slopes.

Walls and doors may the ultimate symbolic monuments of continental cities. Along the coast, in seaports, people are more likely to build up – a lighthouse or a Colossus, to serve as a beacon indicating the safe harbour for incoming ships. The Pearl of the Orient, in Shanghai, may have that symbolic function. And we may monitor the shift of China from a continental to a sea power – if it happens – by following the dominant imagery: walls and temples on a mountain top, or beacons and skyscrapers along waterways.

Or, maybe, the maze like quality of the Forbidden city and the Great Wall will combine with the intricacies of the Chinese natural and artificial river system, and give rise to a specific Chinese space symbolism, adapted to the information age and in line with a a certain national tradition, with no central point of focus – but a network at the core.


One thing I understood in Tianjin: life as an expat can be lonely. Beijing and Shanghai have growing populations of foreigners now, and there is a grain of good among the numbers. But – Koreans excepted – they still think of Tianjin as a frontier town; and as such, it appeals to a weird mob.

Roughly speaking, there’s four types of expats in Tianjin. The first are the mechanics. Aerospace technicians flown over from Toulouse to train local staff in the new Airbus factory. Or similar profiles, I suppose, from other countries. In France, they’re normal people – a good job, but no particular status attached. In China, they think they’re on top of the world. And so come out with a string of pseudo-wise judgements about the country: ‘they just haven’t evolved’, ‘it’s hard to get them to work’ or even ‘it’s a new country, that’s what I like about it’. Painful.

The second are the Gold Diggers. They read about the Tianjin boom – 15% of GDP growth per year in the middle of the GFC. They heard it will be the main Financial centre in East Asia – some time in the future. So they came early, to get their shares in the local market at early bird’s price. I met one of those in a bar, receding hair and Lenin-style glasses, a waitress hanging on his neck. He thought he was inventing cool. His bar-snack was opening soon. There would be kebabs.

The come the spouses, a more interesting and varied mix. They come in two kinds: European partner, or Chinese partner. The first are handbag housewives, who spend their husband’s expat package on maids and manicure. Most are not working, and spend their days complaining about the life of luxury they live in China, pining after a proper baguette or a nice cup of coffee with milk.

The second are more colourful – and come in both genders. They came first as a student, or on a visit; they met a Chinese partner, and they decided to stay. Most of those work as language teachers, or in some sort of mediating role. As time passes, they become more and more Chinese, and talk of how everything is changing. They have a touch of sadness to them – life in China can be tough – but they’re settled here, have respect for people around, and make an effort to understand. The one problem with them is – newcomers endanger their exceptional status; and though they are a worthy lot, they tend to know better than you.

Finally come the students. They’re in China to learn Chinese, for a year, or just a few months. Either Tianjin was not their first choice, or they come from a remote place. But they’re enjoying it, or try to. They write blogs, go to cafes, and have a try at market food with adventurous internationals. On week-ends, they train to Beijing and hang out around the cool bars.


Beijing and Tianjin are very different cities, in their ethos, functions, and shape. Beijing is clearly centralised around the forbidden city, the empty centre of political power, now ultimate cultural symbol of China’s old and magnificent tradition.

A map of Beijing shows a series of embedded squares, surrounded by concentric ring roads – up to number 6 now – the first one circling the Forbidden city.

Superficially, Tianjin’s map is also made of concentric circles. But the symbolic centre is harder to pinpoint. Is it that bump North of the river, where the Italian concession is? That other bump to the Eastm on the South bank, where financial institutions line up Jiefang Bei Lu? Or is it where commercial Binjiang Jie crosses commercial Jin Jie?

Historically, the centre should be at the old Chinese city, in the North Western corner of the central rectangle.

According to Aaron, who is a Tianjin native and real estate analyst, the centre is at the opposite end of that rectangle, at the XiaoBaiLou crossroads, at the border of the former French, British and German concessions, marked by the European dome of the Music Hall.

But not everyone agrees to that location, again. My house on Jiefang Bei Lu was only ten minutes north of XiaoBaiLou. Yet one of my colleagues disagreed when I said I lived ‘in the centre’. Although she couldn’t identify it clearly, for her, the city centre was more to the south, somewhere between the BaLiTai University district, TV tower, and Olympic city.

Who’s right? It doesn’t really matter, because a new centre is in construction, still further to the South. In the new district of BinHai, 40 km down on the river mouth an entirely new city is developing, which is planned to rival PuDong in Shanghai, and become China’s main financial centre.

A fast train will connect Beijing to the new BinHai district in 45 minutes, via Tianjin, creating a polycentric North Chinese megalopolis – at least, according to plans.

What will be the centre of the new Binhai district? An empty square, like Beijing, to enclose political and symbolic power? A crossroads, like Tianjin, where goods and people can be shifted around? Or something different still – some giant information hub? a field of public touch screens? – or just a grid of office buildings, radical acentrality, taking on the new shape of power in the age of constant networking.


There is a place in China fully devoted to creation. The 798 art zone in Beijing.

798 (pronounce ‘qi jiu ba‘) is a Melburnian (North) fantasy come true, with:


red public art (a lego Venus de Milo)

playful political posters on animal rights

red public art (caged dinosaurs)

Italian food

pointless cute shops

and expensive cafes (with graffiti view)

798 is an expression of Beijing’s secondary function. Apart from being China’s political and administrative capital, it is also the country’s cultural capital. Only Chinese city (Hong Kong excepted) where services clearly dominate industry, Beijing is the place to be for film-makers, designers and IT start ups.

Here’s a Beijing creative story: a friend went to Paris to study fashion, then moved back to Beijing. She found a job as a stylist in one of these new Chinese brands who try to replace the old ‘made in China’ label with posher ‘created in China’. She works in the team of a French stylist (ex- from Chanel), drawing fabric patterns for clothes. Once in a while, she flies to inner Mongolia, where the fabric factories are), to bring in new patterns and check the quality. Then, she rushes to SanLiTun or 798 for a bitch about backward Inner Mongolia with her fashion buddies, around a foccaccia and smoothie.

Sure sign that 798 is the creative place to be, a friend said about it: ‘it used to be really cool, but it’s too commercial now’. The radicals are gone, or they stay quiet. The creative class has taken over.

Museum space – the space

As a result of the massive economic boom – and to assert its new super-central position on the world stage – China has built a number of museums in its big cities, showcasing the high achievements of Chinese culture to national and international visitors.

These museums are heavy with symbolic value. They are the nodal point of ideology turned aesthtics – power talking directly to the heart of people. They are deliberate symbols of the new China. As such, they could not be just a square shape with a few paintings and calligraphies hanging on the walls.

Designing a museum must be one of the most exciting assignments for an architect: shaping a building for pure display. The new Tianjin museum is built in the shape of a giant swan, winds open, taking off.

The front part is a futuristic atrium – flooded with light from the windows; at the back are the display rooms, with artificial light exclusively; a controlled environment for better preserving the fragile artifacts.

Even in a playful environment, architects have to think of everyone. In a corner of the Tianjin atrium, they had to carve in a little side room for the curators and Museum workers.

The new Capital Museum in Beijing is not such an obvious feast of architectural playfulness. From the outside, it is a large quadrangle with overhead roof and a bronze tube sticking out on the left.

But inside, the space is interestingly arranged around a large, building high atrium in two distinct areas: a wooden cube on the right has history, a metal cylinder, aslant on the left, has art.

These new Chinese museums are free, but you’re supposed to book a ticket on the internet. As a foreigner (read, ‘white person’), you can easily get away with a ‘Bu Dong, Bu dong’, and simply get in. But there are remarkably few white people in these Museums. In Tianjin, I was one of eleven; in Tianjin, I was alone. But then, the Tianjin Museum is part of a new ‘cultural precinct’, still under construction.

The swan museum has a certain appeal – but you wouldn’t stumble upon it by accident – or spend some time in the area, after your visit, for the pleasure of discovering a Chinese neighbourhood.

Tai Gui Le

It’s one of the first sentences Chinese people will teach you – ‘It’s too expensive’ – a vital expression in a bargaining culture. I’ve heard of another, cuter version ‘Jiejie, Pianyi yidian’r’ – ‘big sister, cheaper a bit’.

I went to a market with Kenyen last Sunday, and thought I would bargain some porcelain cups. I picked up a cute one – slightly tall – ‘Duibuqi, duoshao qian?’ – ’50 kuai’, the seller says. ‘Ooh, tai gui le.’ I smile. Apathy from the seller. ’15 kuai’, I try. Head shaking. It’s a cute cup, but nothing exceptional. ’18 kuai?’ He’s closed his eyes, he’s not looking at me. I leave, annoyed.

Later, in another part of the market, I see a boy sitting on the floor with the same cup  in front of him. I try again ‘Duoshao qian?’ ‘Wu ..ai,’ he answers. Five kuai?  reasonable! ‘Wu kuai?’, I repeat, confirming the price before handing out a bill. The boy smiles, shaking his head slightly ‘Wu ..ai.’ ‘Wu kuai?’ I try again, sensing communication failure. The boy, pragmatically, takes out his calculator, and types ‘500’. ‘Wu bai‘, five hundred! I smile, and leave.

I thought they would be good sellers at that market – they were even selling stones at certain stalls! But apparently, the people were prey to some weird laziness. Bargaining was too much effort for them. Better just rip off one tourist, than try selling cups to the tough ones. They can go somewhere else if they really want a cup, or pay the price we say.

I read about Beijingers that they’ve got a certain relaxed attitude to life, whereby they’d rather take the time to laugh and enjoy their than run after money, like southerners do. Superficially, that sounds for a pleasant ethos. In practice, for the visitor it’s annoying as. But then, if tourists are going to buy for five hundred, why bother? Basic rule of luxury sales: the higher the price, the more desirable the goods.

I felt I was back in Paris.

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.