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.


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.

Brides and grooms

I’ve been exploring the idea of Tianjin as a gigantic film set – or photographer’s studio. Married couples, or their photographers, are obviously sharing the idea: on week-ends, and even week days, you can always find some in iconic locations, such as the front of the Concert Hall.

Or the Italian concession.

These iconic spots are like Medieval cathedrals, as described by Hegel – there is room for a whole people there. The bride poses, while tourists and children pass by, indifferent. Another example of sharing public space – it is like a busy film set, where different shows are shot simultaneously. There is something slightly comic about it – that immortal moment of bliss, captured on the wedding photograph, that image of supreme beauty and accomplishment – has to be captured quickly, before the little girl comes into frame. Using public space in this fashion is not exclusively Chinese, of course – but the lack of privacy – and complete indifference to it – could be.

These brides and groom come in packs, accompanied by photographic teams (I saw a woman carry a reflector one day, but wasn’t in time to snap her). There can be something coming about these packs – this one, spotted in the Italian concession, reminded me of Zola’s wedding party, wandering aimlessly through the Louvre.

Is there a reason why people would rather have their photos taken in front of European style monument than in, say, the ancient culture street or the drum tower? The style of clothes is western itself, and it seems that ‘Western’ brings an air of  romanticism to life. Or is it just to give themselves the illusion of a trip overseas, that couples immortalise that moment in their life in front of Greek columns?