Concession kitsch

Tianjin, like Shanghai, is a ‘concession city’. In the mid 19th century, through diplomatic and military pressure, foreign countries had obtained full administrative control over enclaves of urban territory there. Tianjin had the most number of foreign concessions in China. Not only were the usual suspects present (France, England, the US and Japan), but also marginal powers, like Italy, Austria-Hungary, and even Belgium.

This varied foreign presence left architectural traces, making Tianjin into a ‘Museum of World architecture’ for the sake of tour guides – and for European visitors, an interesting experience of displaced familiarity.

The range of styles is somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne, with a mix of Corinthian, art deco, Victorian, and even neo-Venitian.

This concession history left a mixed heritage. Although the official story at the Museum of Tianjin is one of imperialism and abuse, the city takes a certain pride in its European heritage. Because of it, Tianjin – like Shanghai – is a ‘modern’ Chinese city, like New York or Melbourne can be. It is a 19th-20th century city, where trams, electric lights and steel architecture seem to have always been here. One architectural sign of this modernity is certainly the art-deco style of many Department stores and buildings, a reminder of Tianjin’s apex in the 20s, when it was still on a par with Shanghai.

But interestingly, whereas Shanghai has reclaimed its French concession as the core token of its sophisticated elegance and nightlife cosmopolitanism, Tianjin has chosen to focus on its Italo-German past. Touristically, the recent redevelopment of Tianjin has favoured the most innocuous concession: the Italian one. Its main street has been turned into the ‘Yidaly Feng Jie’, the ‘Italian style street’, a mini-shopping district with beer bars and murano glass shops.

The place is where you can find all things exotic and eurotic. You can find a range of international restaurants, from Thai to French, Bavarian beer bars, and even huggable Russian babouchka dolls.

Further up the river used to be the ‘Austrian-Hungarian concession’, which is now redeveloped as an extension of the Italian-style town. Large office buildings in continental style line up the riverfront – grandiose, but mostly empty.

Some buildings in that Austrian district are a full expression of concession kitsch – projecting passers-by into some Heidi wonderland.

As all things German, it comes with a certain vulgarity like naked women selling beer.

I had to wait untill my last day in Tiajin to see the height of kitsch in the Italian district: a live wedding. The central square, in front of ‘La Villa’, had been set up with a central podium and purple ribbons. Tourists around where taking photographs of the happy couple. Was there something particularly romantic – or was it a symbol of success – that anyone could join in the wedding reception? Were these people living the Sissy dream in that northern Italian decor? Like a Royal wedding, it was a public event, where everyone was invited.

But this concession is not all just kitsch. A few blocks behind the tourism district, the architecture is still Italian style. But no one really goes, except locals. People just enjoy living in an Italian style environment – it’s pretty, livable, human-sized. Tianjiners must have got used to the colonial shape of their buildings. And adapted their lifestyle. Scenes I saw in the Italian concession, or people sitting down, chatting on the street, driving scooters or hanging clothes outside, would not have been displaced in the suburb of an Italian town.

For a while now, I’ve been repeating how much China reminds me of Italy. People here aspire to the European dream of harmonious, comfortable and plump living – rather than the American vision of infinite possibilities. In that sense, livable Vienna could be the best urbam model for Tianjin – like Melbourne, its sister city. Tianjin is playing the card of livability, after all – and maybe, when the new metro operate, and the construction work in the city centre is finished, this will indeed be the most liveable city in China.


About three or four weeks into my stay there, I started identifying Tianjin’s charm as Milanese, North Italian, Alpine. In spite of it being a seaport, there is something continental about this city. Something Austrian, or Viennese. Tianjin was once the hype of modernity, but then it faded away. While China’s modernity moved on to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tianjin remained a city of conservative intellectuals, university teachers, and music enthusiasts. An industrial city, with a taste for good food and wine, and a certain Gemütlichkeit in daily life. It could be a real counterpoint to the more imperial ambitions of Shanghai and Beijing. A non-contender, where people simply want an industrious happy life.



It’s not going to be PC. Stop here if you think you might get offended.

I know you should have a position on the place as a foreigner; and I know you’re supposed to not talk about it with Chinese people, because it’s contentious, and you don’t have the full picture. It’s probably true – and wise. But also, the government doesn’t like you to talk about it at all – this blog might even be blocked if I start using the name; which is more problematic.

I’m only going to report on what I saw in Beijing and Tianjin.

In tourist areas, you can hear a weird kind of chanting coming from certain shops, something like ‘om mani mani om om’. I heard it in HouHai. I heard it in Magnetic City. I heard it on Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street.

These are Tib… shops, selling Tib… artifacts. Their customers are Chinese as much as Western. It’s an interesting mix of the local and exotic, after all. Something different, but not completely foreign.

Many Chinese friends have told they would love to visit – the air, the nature, the dream.

And I’m thinking of the smart censors. Is it a deliberate strategy? As more and more foreigners come to China, what will they think about the question? “Oh, yes, that place. I saw the shops. I’m not into it that much. It’s a bit kitsch, isn’t it?’


Each language carries its own worldview. You learn that in your first week of linguistics. Categories do not overlap. Understanding  a foreign culture is not about memorising new sounds to name the same things we already know. It is about mapping the world afresh.

As a visitor to China, you regularly need to interrogate your own implicit categories.

This, for instance, is how the big Beijing library classifies its copies of the Bible. What does it tell us about religion in China?

Aaron took me to the temple of the Queen of Heaven, next to the old culture street in Tianjin. I asked him why people went to the temple, what they did there – ‘sightseeing’, he replied. I had a similar experience earlier, in the Beijing Temple of Heaven. I was with a Chinese friend and pointed at some tables with characters on them, asking what they were. ‘These are the Gods that do not exist – only the names’, she said.

Many people have the little household Gods in their living rooms – but they seem to hover somewhere between decoration, folklore, and lucky charms. So, well, maybe religion comes into the wide range of ‘lifestyle’ pursuits here, somewhere between massages and gardening.

I’ve got another interpretation of the Beijing categorising. Have you ever seen such books as The Tao of Pooh and A treaty on Zen and motorcycles. Have you seen how, in our libraries, books on the Tao hover somewhere between philosophy and self-help. Why wouldn’t a Chinese bookshop do the same to Christianism?

But then, judging from the list of interdictions in that Tianjin church – Christianism had to make radical concessions to be accepted.

Or is it just a problem with the translation, maybe?


Tianjin has recently re-developed its old Italian concession into the ‘Italian Style street’, an ‘entertainment precinct’ with a range of shops, cafes and restaurants – most of them in Western style.

In the ‘Italian style town’ of Tianjin, coffee comes at about 20 to 30 yuan a cup; food is 60 to 200 per person – and the gastronomic menu at Flo, recently opened French restaurant, goes up to 488 yuan.

A few streets from there, I find traditional hutong-style streets alleys, with the silhouette of high-rise buildings old and new on the horizon.

In one of these hutongs, I find a very nice little market, in the shade, with fruit stands and various ‘snacks’ available. I stop next to a stand where a woman is cutting big white crepe-like things into straps, puts them in a plastic bag, then adds slices of cucumber, tofu, and a spoon of peanut sauce. I ask for a bag of the same – 4 kuai. I walk to the riverside and I have a quiet lunch, in the shade, sitting on a bench, next to a church.

Weirdly, I’m one of the only people here, although the spot is beautiful. I have the old-new Chinese town is in front of me; I can see another church on my right, and, in the river, people are having a bath.

But it is really hot, and humid, and I feel that I need something familiar, so I return to the Italian style town, and I sit inside the ‘Rhine’ Switzerland Cafe

There, I order a macchiato for 28 kuai, and receive a tall glass of something cold and sweet, covered with whipped cream. At another table, an expat is looking at his laptop, writing emais probably. We exchange a few glances, but never start a conversation. Out of his open bag, I can see a pair of ‘Calvin Kleins’. He leaves, soon after, with a slight nod. I stay in the air-con a bit longer, with my book.