Around the French concession

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.



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.


Jiefang Bei Lu – day and night

I live just off Jiefang Bei Lu – ‘JieFang Bei Lu he DaTong Dao de JiaoKou’, is what I tell the taxi drivers taking me home. In the heart of the old French concession. Known as ‘finance street’, it is home to many bank headquarters – and has beautiful classical architecture.

It is rich in historic buildings – like the first ever post and telegraph office in China, which I pass on the way to the market or the bus stop.

 It is also lovely by night, when I walk back from XiaoBai Lou – like an atmospheric film set in Paris.

Sometimes, it’s hard to live in China – but them, I go for a walk around the block, and I think, it’s not so bad.