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.


It’s always intriguing to find out what turns on a nation.

When I was travelling in Japan, I kept hearing – and talking – about Japan’s weird kink culture: prostitutes dressing up as power rangers, a witch costume – with ‘boob holes’ – seen at a Shinjuku sex shop, or the famous school-girl underwear, for sale in a few notorious vending machines. China’s got no similar reputation for eery kink, but there are more and more Japanese people coming to Tianjin – and they might bring along some of their eery taste.

I did hear stories of prostitution. Aaron told me how a Japanese delegation of 100 (men) asked for 150 women to be brought over to their hotel. And an American (gay) man told me how he asked for a ‘foot massage’ at a spa place, was taken to a private room, and offered more expensive services – the woman left, laughing, when he decidedy pointed at his foot.

The Japanese club on Jiefang bei lu that I pass on the way back home often has girls sitting next to the door – waiting for clients? But they’re in the dark, discretely waiting if that is what they’re doing – conforming to the discretion I thought characterised sex in China.

But I found out – it’s out in the open. On a street of Tianjin, not far from the museum, I saw a sex shop with its door wide open to the street – it actually took me a little while to figure out what the place was about – I thought it was some sort of sports shop at first.

Later, inside the e-mart centre, I saw pieces of lingerie – openly on display – which would be fitting under the Marie-Antoinette garb of an Ichigaya girl.

Weirder still, I spotted an ad for some strange body contraption – some sort of grandma kink? Or just one of these torture things for women to look slim.