Images of a time to come

Tianjin, like many Chinese cities, is in the middle of a massive urban renewal. Cranes in the skyline and construction sites on the streets are lifting up not only more office, retail and residential space, but new landmark buildings, right in the centre of the city.

There is a joke about Tianjin that goes like this. It’s the Second World War, and the Japanese want to bomb down a Chinese city. So they go out on a mission to find a target. First they go to Shanghai, but eventaully decide against bombing it – it’s too beautiful. Then they go to Beijing, but decide against bombing it again – it’s too beautiful. Finally, they go to Tianjin, but they also decide against bombing it – someone else has already bombed it.

Tianjiners like to play modest, and repeat the joke to visitors. But maybe not for long. The central government has announced that Tianjin would be ‘the new Shanghai’, imitating the success of the southern seaport. In line with that slogan, the city is reinventing itself through architecture, as the main metropolis on the Bohai rim, and a place of beauty, class and opulence.

Most of the development is happening in the harbour district of TangGu, but the historic centre is following pace. Riverfront, French concession, Museum district, Magnetic city: construction is happening all around central Tianjin.

I was actually proud to learn that many Melbourne architects are involved – urban planning is one of the biggest areas for cooperation between the two sister cities. While I was in Tianjin, my Melbourne friend Kenyen learnt he had won an international competition to landscape-design the entrance to the new Tianjin marina in Tanggu. Other Melburnians, I heard, were involved in the middle river-front development, which was inspired by South Bank – with its many bridges, and a contrast of neo-classic and modern architecture.

Interestingly, urban planners are putting up signs on the walls of the construction site, to reveal not only what a building under construction will look like, but show the new shape of a whole neighbourhood.

And – appropriately for such a theatrical city – the views also come in a night-time version, showing the new buildings lit up, and the pattern of light and shade on the streets.

So when you walk along the dirty footpath, amid the noises of construction machines, your imagination can wander into a brilliant future of neo-classical architecture and sparkling towers.

I can understand why architects – or the municipality – would want to display the shape of their future project – instruct, impress. But something, the pictures displayed have a less clear purpose, when they imitate what the place will be like, at street level.

This comes in a context where trompe l’oeil is very present. In the ‘Italian style street’, you can see photos of a Milan gallery, decorating the side wall of a little plaza. Are they plans for Tianjin’s future developments? Pure decoration? Or something in between, a vision of exoticism, somehow connected to the local – ‘Italian’ – architecture, conjuring up in the mind of the passer-by a future of quiet opulence, and immediate access, through the power imagination, to eurotic places of wealth and glamour?

Sometimes, the existential status of this trompe l’oeil is even more ambiguous, and you seriously wonder what these images are. Plans for future construction? Sheer decoration on a blank wall? Or a reassuring illusion that, indeed, that part of Tianjin is already part of Europe, sharing in its prosperity, peace, and international glamour.

Lao Wais

Everyone agrees, Tianjin is harder for a foreigner than Beijing and Shanghai, because you’re always the only lao wai (foreigner) around. Beijing has expat enclaves in San Li Tun and HouHai; Shanghai has the French concession – they won’t even answer in Chinese at the Gloria Jeans Coffee there. In Tianjin, staff at Starbucks often struggle to understand ‘expresso’. But I discovered a different form of multilingualism here, when I saw the restaurant menu was written in both Chinese and Japanese.

I actually had one of my most important Asian ‘haha’ moments at a Tianjin supermarket, around a similar discovery. I saw an ‘imported food section’, and went there looking for pesto, vine leaves and nutella. Instead of that, I found a bag of dry tuna flakes, wasabi and sake. It took me just that little moment to realise – that was imported food as well.

So, as a game, I started spotting traces of Japan and Korea. And I tried to experience them as multiculturally exotic (as much as Italians are in Australia). With my little eye, I spotted platters of sushi in a supermarket.

‘Japanese dinnering’ in Magnetic City

Some Korean beauty place inside a shopping mall.

And on NanLuoGuXiang, in Beijing, a Japanese everything cool shop.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon: many places with Japanese or Korean writing were not in traditional East Asian style, but superficially Euro-international, following a kind of cute-eurotic aesthetics, like that ‘Cafe Alice’.

The best example would be the ‘Austrian style’ shopping steet of Magnetic City, around the E-Mart Centre – a Korean development in faux Austrian style, with a bubble tea shop, a Lotte supermarket, and fake flowers hanging from hooks, along the faux-lattice wood facade.

Am I really the only lao wai around, I started wondering? Or are these “Asians” around me just as displaced as myself?

The place started bringing back me this quintessential Australian experience, on my first trip, at Box Hill central, when I saw two red-hair girls passing in school uniforms, sipping bubble tea from a plastic cup, smiling at an Asian family sitting there. Maybe, local Tianjiners who saw me queuing behind a Korean teenager at the bubble tea counter in the Austrian style city would experience a similar sense of eur-asianism and global citizenship?

Wu Da Dao

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.

The place does have a certain European charm, which I have tried to define better – because European charm does not mean much, except that the place was weirdly familiar.

I walked around, and wandered into the side lanes from the main roads and avenues.

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.


In general, it works both ways. China’s exotic for Europeans. Europe’s exotic for Chinese people – often in a somewhat undiscriminate way, same as we pack together Vietnam, Thailand and Japan under the label ‘Asian.

Still sometimes, the results of that Euro-drive can be surprising – like that weird affection for all things German in Tianjin: German products and German bars on 1902 street, German beer stalls outside JinWan plaza or, even stranger, the ‘Golden Hans’ bar in the Tesco centre.

One particularly interesting manifestation of this exoticism is linguistic. Not so much the famous ‘Asian-English’ on signs, t-shirts and stationery (my favourite was a girl wearing ‘panda, panda, I love to cuddle the cute animals’). But rather, the relatively well written, yet weirdly kitsch sentences about happiness and freedom, like this one on the walls a PingAnJie concept cafe – fashion shop.

Sometimes, the foreign word is a commercial argument in itself – like ‘c’estbon’ water (literally, ‘it’s good’) – made in China, with added French glam.

Sometimes, a touch of euro-language can glamour up a whole room – like this Italian wisdom clock from a design shop in 798 district.

Or sometimes, it’s just a spray of Greek alphabet on a black wall which, somehow, will appeal to the customer – conjuring up a dream of classic elegance, romaticism and sophistication.


That place in XiaoBaiLou

Sometimes, you see a place which you find just – bizarre. It brings together various functions which you wouldn’t associate. Like an old Greek monster, with a lion’s head and eagle wings.

There is a place like that in the XiaoBaiLou underground gallery: a café – cinema – shop. Somewhere between the honey shop and the ‘MaLa XiangGuo’ corridor, the nameless place has seats where you can order various creamy drinks and dubious pizza, shelves with imported goods, and a big screen, projecting weird American films about vampires in the desert, ‘Dante’ talking to heretics in hell, or dance classes in a mental hospital.

I found myself there two days in a row – in a strange city, strange places have their own power of attraction, as if the too-much-ness of everything suddenly made sense, somehow.

The devil’s in the details, isn’t it? Well, the shop shelves of Nameless Café do not advertise products in English, but in German. ‘Aus Europa importiert’.