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.

An artist of the floating world

Tianjin has a famous ‘water park’, just south of the TV tower. I was intrigued by the concept of a ‘water park’. What would it be like? I had a bit of a (warm) laugh when I first entered, seeing garish smurf-like plastic houses. Another one of these Chinese gimmicky parks, magical world of speaking mushrooms for kids and adults alike.

I didn’t follow that trail. On my left, I found a long red portico, in traditional architecture, which I walked under for a while. People were eating, dancing or singing traditional music together. It was pretty, but nothing exceptional – I had seenall that before in China. Plus how did water play a role there?

But then, getting further into the park, I started seeing the beauty of its understated, grey Japanese aesthetics. Some scenes reminded me of hokusai’s drawings: people sitting under a pergola, on a stone path, in the middle of a lotus pond.

Towers reflected in the water, on either side of a stone bridge.

Or a boat crossing the lake, with a temple and a stone bridge in the distance.

These images were very much like the ones I had seen at the Museum, the previous days. Empty spaces giving room for imagination. Little people, and the simple dailiness of their activity, punctuating a vast landscape, full of nooks and chambers for them to inhabit.

Water was crucial here. Water, connecting and separating peninsulas, islands and bridges. Water, reflecting the sky, towers and trees. Water, the mother of dream, the playground of images. Water, a pathway to the other world.