With a population of about five million, Tianjin is China’s third largest city after Shanghai and Peking, although it matches neither Shanghai’s vitality nor Peking’s history .Tianjin began life about 800 years ago as a market town, and has remained a centre of commerce ever since. Its development received a big boost after it was made a Treaty Port in 1858 and was opened to the ‘foreign devils’ , who established ‘concessions’ along the river to the south of the Chinese city. It became a major industrial city , partly thanks to its port facilities, and partly to the large coal deposits nearby.
The former British and French concessions are still the centre of town, now called the HEPING DISTRICT .The streets are lined with large, sturdy buildings, built in the early twentieth century as banks, post offices and trading houses. Walking round this area is one of the most interesting things to do in Tianjin. Tianjin suffered badly in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, although not as badly as Tangshan which was completely flattened (see p. 131). The former foreign banks and trading houses appear to have weathered the tremors better than many of the structures that followed them. For several years after the quake, the streets of the city were covered in shacks hastily built by the many thousands of people who had been made homeless. Work on rehousing them went very slowly, but was finally completed, more or less, in late 1981 after some heavy prodding by the central government.
The Chinese city is also worth walking around, although every- thing seems to be hidden behind large, high, grey walls in the manner traditional for cities in north China. The old city consists of a maze of alley-ways and old-style Chinese houses, most of which seem to have miraculously escaped destruction in the earthquake. There used to be a city wall, but it was knocked down by foreign troops in 1901 as part of their retaliation for the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion.
Tianjin has little else to interest the visitor. There are few historical or cultural sites, and no spectacular views. The highlight of most guided tours is the Tianjin NO.1 Carpet Factory , which says it all.
There are three Tianjin institutions, however, worth visiting: the first of which is a large, sprawling restaurant named Gou Bu Li (Shandong Lu, Heping District) which, roughly translated, means ‘God, Take No Notice’ .The story behind the name goes like this: the restaurant, famed throughout China for its steamed buns, was established over 200 years ago by a gentleman whose nickname was Gou Bu Li. According to one waiter, people in the old days often took such nicknames in the hope that the gods, when looking for someone to take off to the other world, would pass over them as being unworthy of attention, thereby ensuring a long life. The buns are delicious, but if you want to eat with the ordinary Chinese be sure to arrive early. There is also a foreigners’ room at the back.
Then there is Keissling’s (Zhejiang Lu, Heping District) which is one of the best restaurants in China serving Western food to the Chinese. It was originally run by two Austrians, Keissling and Bader, and inside it has the look of a rundown 193OS nightclub. You can sit by the long kidney-shaped balcony on the second floor and watch the passing scene below as you devour such un-Chinese delicacies as beef stew and fish and chips. Again, there is a room where the staff like to quarantine foreigners, but it is much better to sit outside, even though the service is atrocious, and the standards of hygiene leave something to be desired. The restaurant is also famous for its coffee flavoured toffees, on sale on the ground floor. There are two kinds, wrapped in either red or white paper: buy the white ones.
The last place of interest is the former British Club, now called the Tianjin Club. For many years, it was the playground of senior communist officials, but it is now somewhat less exclusive. There is a restaurant on the ground floor which is open to both foreigners and Chinese. After lunch, you might care to go upstairs and have a game of snooker on the excellent tables which the British were forced to leave behind when they were kicked out by the Communists in 1949.
How to get there and where to stay Tianjin is connected to most important cities by air, and there are also direct flights from Hong Kong. The train ride from Peking takes about two hours. The city makes a good day-trip from Peking, but if you want to stay, there is the Friendship Hotel on Shengli Lu (Victory Road), or the Tianjin Hotel Uiefang Bei Lu), which was built in the French concession in 1927. It’s a gloomy place, but the fittings, from the door-handles to the toilet fixtures, are all veritable antiques.