One thing I understood in Tianjin: life as an expat can be lonely. Beijing and Shanghai have growing populations of foreigners now, and there is a grain of good among the numbers. But – Koreans excepted – they still think of Tianjin as a frontier town; and as such, it appeals to a weird mob.

Roughly speaking, there’s four types of expats in Tianjin. The first are the mechanics. Aerospace technicians flown over from Toulouse to train local staff in the new Airbus factory. Or similar profiles, I suppose, from other countries. In France, they’re normal people – a good job, but no particular status attached. In China, they think they’re on top of the world. And so come out with a string of pseudo-wise judgements about the country: ‘they just haven’t evolved’, ‘it’s hard to get them to work’ or even ‘it’s a new country, that’s what I like about it’. Painful.

The second are the Gold Diggers. They read about the Tianjin boom – 15% of GDP growth per year in the middle of the GFC. They heard it will be the main Financial centre in East Asia – some time in the future. So they came early, to get their shares in the local market at early bird’s price. I met one of those in a bar, receding hair and Lenin-style glasses, a waitress hanging on his neck. He thought he was inventing cool. His bar-snack was opening soon. There would be kebabs.

The come the spouses, a more interesting and varied mix. They come in two kinds: European partner, or Chinese partner. The first are handbag housewives, who spend their husband’s expat package on maids and manicure. Most are not working, and spend their days complaining about the life of luxury they live in China, pining after a proper baguette or a nice cup of coffee with milk.

The second are more colourful – and come in both genders. They came first as a student, or on a visit; they met a Chinese partner, and they decided to stay. Most of those work as language teachers, or in some sort of mediating role. As time passes, they become more and more Chinese, and talk of how everything is changing. They have a touch of sadness to them – life in China can be tough – but they’re settled here, have respect for people around, and make an effort to understand. The one problem with them is – newcomers endanger their exceptional status; and though they are a worthy lot, they tend to know better than you.

Finally come the students. They’re in China to learn Chinese, for a year, or just a few months. Either Tianjin was not their first choice, or they come from a remote place. But they’re enjoying it, or try to. They write blogs, go to cafes, and have a try at market food with adventurous internationals. On week-ends, they train to Beijing and hang out around the cool bars.


Beijing and Tianjin are very different cities, in their ethos, functions, and shape. Beijing is clearly centralised around the forbidden city, the empty centre of political power, now ultimate cultural symbol of China’s old and magnificent tradition.

A map of Beijing shows a series of embedded squares, surrounded by concentric ring roads – up to number 6 now – the first one circling the Forbidden city.

Superficially, Tianjin’s map is also made of concentric circles. But the symbolic centre is harder to pinpoint. Is it that bump North of the river, where the Italian concession is? That other bump to the Eastm on the South bank, where financial institutions line up Jiefang Bei Lu? Or is it where commercial Binjiang Jie crosses commercial Jin Jie?

Historically, the centre should be at the old Chinese city, in the North Western corner of the central rectangle.

According to Aaron, who is a Tianjin native and real estate analyst, the centre is at the opposite end of that rectangle, at the XiaoBaiLou crossroads, at the border of the former French, British and German concessions, marked by the European dome of the Music Hall.

But not everyone agrees to that location, again. My house on Jiefang Bei Lu was only ten minutes north of XiaoBaiLou. Yet one of my colleagues disagreed when I said I lived ‘in the centre’. Although she couldn’t identify it clearly, for her, the city centre was more to the south, somewhere between the BaLiTai University district, TV tower, and Olympic city.

Who’s right? It doesn’t really matter, because a new centre is in construction, still further to the South. In the new district of BinHai, 40 km down on the river mouth an entirely new city is developing, which is planned to rival PuDong in Shanghai, and become China’s main financial centre.

A fast train will connect Beijing to the new BinHai district in 45 minutes, via Tianjin, creating a polycentric North Chinese megalopolis – at least, according to plans.

What will be the centre of the new Binhai district? An empty square, like Beijing, to enclose political and symbolic power? A crossroads, like Tianjin, where goods and people can be shifted around? Or something different still – some giant information hub? a field of public touch screens? – or just a grid of office buildings, radical acentrality, taking on the new shape of power in the age of constant networking.

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 Gem├╝tlichkeit 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.

My own backyard

During my last Beginners’ class at Alliance Francaise, I asked my students why they were studying French. After six weeks, their level was high enough for them to talk about it in French. Out of fourteen students, eleven were planning their migration to Quebec, and learning French for that reason. So I asked them, why Quebec? Similar answers from all: a better life for their children; a simpler life for them; and a symbol of these two: a house with a garden.

My Chinese friends who recently migrated to Australia share this fantasy. The ‘house with a garden’, somehow embodies their aspirations of independance, status, and material contentment. It is true that, having lived in a Chinese city for a while, I can understand the pressures of piled up dwellings and perpetual crowds on the streets.

I have seen a few smaller buildings, even houses with gardens in Tianjin’s historic centre – but they were mansions from colonial times, which had already been turned into luxury restaurants, clubs, or government buildings; or were still in slum conditions, waiting for somehow to convert them – chasing out the current residents. Same as the Beijing traditional Si He Yuans – now going for a few million dollars a piece.

A week-end trip to Aaron’s parents’ house in the hills of JiXian county – with breakfast on the terrace, and cucumbers fresh from the veggie patch – did feel like two days in a spa. But it did take three hours to drive there – and complex ongoing negotiations to maintain ownership of the place while holding a ‘city resident’ HuKou.

Not only the garden, but ownnership of a house, is a regular concern among my Chinese friends in Australia. Two of them started madly looking for property to buy just a few months after they landed here, minutes after their probation period ended. They said ‘in China, the prices went up so quickly, we missed out. We don’t want that happening here’.

In the centre of Tianjin, real estate prices per square metre are comparable with those of the Melbourne CBD – though average income is about a third. Inner suburban tower apartment have remarkably high prices – and having incroporated some Australian idea of a good place to live, I was often surprised when Aaron told me – rich people live here.

But the population keeps growing, and so construction is booming. These people have to go somewhere, those who cannot migrate to Quebec, or Australia. Even if families still live together – grandmothers and aunts, sharing a bed, even, in their brother’s or son’s apartments. So municipalities build towers, and if something has to go, that’s OK.

It was interesting to read of the Melbourne controversy about a new tower on St Kilda Road. People are resisting here, and – rarely – some pockets of historic significance are preserved. But overall, up is the way. China builds in bulk.

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?


We don’t really think of China as a disability-friendly country. Yet there is one wonderful thing in Tianjin: pedestrians pathways for blind people.

Along the main roads, all footpaths have a central line of marked tiles which work as street-braille, for feet to read. Straight lines mean go ahead; oblique lines mean, shift left or right. Dots mean: crossroads, search around.

Of course it’s not perfect. Crossing the road remains difficult. And I have to admit, I haven’t seen a blind person use these in all the time I was in Tianjin. Still, maybe we could try it out in Melbourne? But then – is it wheelchair friendly?

Images of a time to come

Tianjin, like many Chinese cities, is in the middle of a massive urban renewal. Cranes in the skyline and construction sites on the streets are lifting up not only more office, retail and residential space, but new landmark buildings, right in the centre of the city.

There is a joke about Tianjin that goes like this. It’s the Second World War, and the Japanese want to bomb down a Chinese city. So they go out on a mission to find a target. First they go to Shanghai, but eventaully decide against bombing it – it’s too beautiful. Then they go to Beijing, but decide against bombing it again – it’s too beautiful. Finally, they go to Tianjin, but they also decide against bombing it – someone else has already bombed it.

Tianjiners like to play modest, and repeat the joke to visitors. But maybe not for long. The central government has announced that Tianjin would be ‘the new Shanghai’, imitating the success of the southern seaport. In line with that slogan, the city is reinventing itself through architecture, as the main metropolis on the Bohai rim, and a place of beauty, class and opulence.

Most of the development is happening in the harbour district of TangGu, but the historic centre is following pace. Riverfront, French concession, Museum district, Magnetic city: construction is happening all around central Tianjin.

I was actually proud to learn that many Melbourne architects are involved – urban planning is one of the biggest areas for cooperation between the two sister cities. While I was in Tianjin, my Melbourne friend Kenyen learnt he had won an international competition to landscape-design the entrance to the new Tianjin marina in Tanggu. Other Melburnians, I heard, were involved in the middle river-front development, which was inspired by South Bank – with its many bridges, and a contrast of neo-classic and modern architecture.

Interestingly, urban planners are putting up signs on the walls of the construction site, to reveal not only what a building under construction will look like, but show the new shape of a whole neighbourhood.

And – appropriately for such a theatrical city – the views also come in a night-time version, showing the new buildings lit up, and the pattern of light and shade on the streets.

So when you walk along the dirty footpath, amid the noises of construction machines, your imagination can wander into a brilliant future of neo-classical architecture and sparkling towers.

I can understand why architects – or the municipality – would want to display the shape of their future project – instruct, impress. But something, the pictures displayed have a less clear purpose, when they imitate what the place will be like, at street level.

This comes in a context where trompe l’oeil is very present. In the ‘Italian style street’, you can see photos of a Milan gallery, decorating the side wall of a little plaza. Are they plans for Tianjin’s future developments? Pure decoration? Or something in between, a vision of exoticism, somehow connected to the local – ‘Italian’ – architecture, conjuring up in the mind of the passer-by a future of quiet opulence, and immediate access, through the power imagination, to eurotic places of wealth and glamour?

Sometimes, the existential status of this trompe l’oeil is even more ambiguous, and you seriously wonder what these images are. Plans for future construction? Sheer decoration on a blank wall? Or a reassuring illusion that, indeed, that part of Tianjin is already part of Europe, sharing in its prosperity, peace, and international glamour.