East Asia

China has a number of concession cities along the coast: Shanghai, Tianjin, Hong Kong, Macao, Qingdao, Dalian. In simplified Western historiography, these cities were ‘built by Europeans’. And indeed, they often have a significant number of buildings in European style. Yet rather than ‘European enclaves’, these cities should rather be thought of as cosmopolitan hubs where, in a European decor, East Asians were trading among themselves. In any case, this is a true descriptions of today’s Tianjin, where ‘foreigners’ come from Japan and Korea much more so than Europe or America.

According to Francois Gipouloux’ extraordinary book on ‘the Asian Mediterranean’, at their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century, Shanghai and Tianjin were cities where Chinese people exchanged goods with the rest of Asia. Europeans benefited from that inter-Asian trade, where they could act as middle-men. But mostly, the European presence and administration benefited Asian merchants (Chinese or Japanese), who settled in the concessions, and controlled their trade empire from there.

Throughout his book, Gipouloux explores the history of the China sea, which he paints as a complex interlacing of commercial trade routes, emporias and diasporas. From the middle of the 19th century, this maritime empire – or china sea system – started revolving around Shanghai. Beijing was the capital of China, Shanghai the capital of the China sea. Hong Kong and Singapore replaced it in this role during the second half of the 20th century, but Shanghai is coming back, and reasserting its position as the capital of that fluid commercial world. Before it, Malacca, Guangzhou or Nagasaki had similar functions. There is a long history of commercial cities cities developing along the coast of the China sea, at the periphery of the big empires, with multicultural Asian diasporas (and a few Europeans). Tianjin falls in that category today. I heard Aaron answering the phone saying ‘moshi moshi’. We often had sushi, Bimbimbap, or ramen.

Since I decided to move to Australia, and adapt to life on the Pacific rim, I’ve been particularly interested in these inter-Asian movements. One crucial ‘haha’ moment came as I watched a Chinese film where one of the character goes to Japan. Dumb as it retrospectively sounds, I remember how radical it was for me to think of a Chinese person moving, or even travelling to Japan. I had never before thought of such inter-Asian travel.

I started collecting a mental list of films set in that East Asian space – a group of Hong Kong men helping a Chinese man escape from Vietnam (A Better Tomorrow III), a couple of Chinese people getting fat in Japan (Love on a Diet), or a Hong Kong woman exploring the original Thai village of a girl she received a cornea graft from (the Eye). I also made a mental list of real life stories – my friend Ming going to Pu Khet with her parents, my host in Nanning talking about her trip to Malaysia, or the groups of Japanese tourists I saw in in Angkor Wat.

And I’m also wondering: is there a place for Australia, among that web of global East Pacific metropolises? Should we start making a mental list of films where Asian characters explore Australia – Main Aur Mrs Khanna, Permanent Residence, or Japanese Story? Should we, as writers, build fiction set in that East Asian sphere, and through the power of fiction, inscribe Australia as a full part of that imaginary space? Or at least, as cultural consumers, be alert to Asian productions where Australia features – and encourage them, as much as we can?

A film shoot on JieFang Bei Lu

I wrote in a post here that JieFang Bei Lu had a real cinematographic atmosphere. On my last evening in Tianjin, when I was coming back from a goodbye dinner in the Italian concession, I actually saw a movie shot there.

The street signs had been changed – not just to blur the space and preserve the privacy of local residents, but because the film was set in old Shanghai.

A policeman told us to stop – the street was blocked off, even to pedestrians – curious, I decided to stay and watch, rather than take the long way around. I was interested to see how many people were there. I wasn’t sure how many were locals enjoying the distraction, how many part of the actual crew. In any case, it was a lot of people to keep quiet, or manage.

After about ten minutes, the street was opened again, and we were pressed on to pass. I was a bit tired, and went back home. I didn’t see celebrities, or any actual acting. Just bicycles, cars and a taxi passing back and forth. They were probably shooting some B-roll, atmospheric footage to be used in-between studio scenes.

I was glad, on that last evening, that my earliest intuition was confirmed. Indeed, JieFang Bei Lu was like a film set. Indeed, it had a European charm that Shanghai had probably lost in its too quick development.

Or maybe, it was just more that Tianjin is still unimportant enough that a street can easily be cordonned off; and things are not better here – just cheaper?


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.

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.

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’.