Journey to the Heart of Chinese Culture—Tianjin

(Jan-Feb, 2006)


Here I am, sitting in front of my laptop with my fond memories of the past five days in Tianjin. I was apprehensive of this city which I selected in the last minute. I don’t know since when traveling has become like a scrabble to me—I have to play it by ear. Somehow my liking for Tianjin grew day by day. Although I couldn’t see snow which was my original intention on this trip to North China, I saw frozen rivers and streams, bare trees and withered plants, people were having fun ice fishing; I could feel the frigid wind and cool air brushing my hair and face ruthlessly. Moreover, I heard the fire crackers and rumbles of fireworks in the sky; I saw the windows of the local residence were all decorated with pepper-red paper cuttings and couplets. I was completely enveloped in an atmosphere of joy upon my arrival in Tianjin. Tianjin is definitely a fantastic place for you to experience the rich Chinese culture, especially during Spring Festival.


Before I set out for Tianjin, I asked myself—will I feel regret for this trip? Now I can say firmly—NO REGRET! I was fortunate that almost wherever I went, I encountered a wonderful local driver. This trip was not an exception. The driver from Tianjin drove me to places I wanted to visit and he was hospitable and gabby on the way. I learned a lot about Tianjin from him. In fact, he sometimes talked to me in a tone as parent to his child. He said that young people should grab every minute we have to learn and work hard so as to move up in the world. The world now belongs to us—the young generation. His words were indeed very inspiring.


Located in the center of Bohai Bay, Tianjin, one of the four municipalities under direct jurisdiction of the Central Chinese Government, is the largest coastal city open to the outside world in northern China. Tianjin has a population of over 10 million, which more than twofold to that in the 1960s, according to the driver. Tianjin City was built as a fortification of Beijing, the capital, in 1404 and became a treaty port in 1860. It had developed into the largest industrial and commercial city and the financial center in northern China as early as the 1930s. It’s no kidding that China is undergoing historically great changes at the present. Taking Tianjin as an example, almost everywhere is under construction or will be reconstructed. Old residences are torn down; debris and half-torn walls can be seen easily. It gives me a feeling like the city is in its aftermath of an earthquake. Well, the metaphor is probably a bit exaggerated.


Believe it or not, Tianjin did undergo a severe quake whose seismic focus was in a nearby city—Tangshan in 1976. The catastrophe not only took away hundreds of thousands of innocent lives but also destroyed many buildings in Tianjin area. Fortunately, the European buildings in the concessions have preserved till today. I was captured by the European architectures in Tianjin. The driver took me to the area which used to be the concessions of “the Eight-Power Allied Forces.” Yes, the phrase that the local drivers mentioned a lot when introducing Tianjin’s history was “the Eight-Power Allied Forces.” (The Chinese entered the 20th century with the national humiliation of seeing their capital city Beijing occupied by the Eight-Power Allied Forces sent by Britain, the United States, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, Italy and Austria.) Stepping into the concessions area which is composed of five avenues, I felt like I was transported to the 1920’s Europe. It’s a complete neighborhood of foreign architecture, mainly villas and detached houses. There were fountains or statues of angels or western classic painting figures between some of these buildings. If not because of the minus Celsius weather, here absolutely would be my day-dreaming "wander land." According to the driver, Tianjin’s western houses are as highly preserved as the Peking Hutongs, aka alleys. Indeed, Tianjin‘s western residences outweigh Shanghai‘s bund and Guangzhou‘s Shamian Island based on my impression. Another city I wanna mention about is Qingdao, which also has amazing European residences, mainly German style though. I am gratified that I have been to all these cities to savor the European architecture style. I wonder if I was an architect of some kind who was a European architecture fetishist in my prelife.


Although Tianjin is not much of a tourist city, compared to the capital Beijing, which is about 137km away, Tianjin has its unique cultural features that I admire the most. Perhaps it’s not uncommon to see brand new mansions and skyscrapers in China; or perhaps it’s a sign of being old psychologically, I enjoyed discovering ancient streets, ancient folk cultures, ancient buildings and ancient philosophy of life on my journey. And I pretty much found them all in Tianjin—the heart of Chinese culture. Tianjin’s mandarin is authentically most standard in my opinion. Tianjin people are polite and honest that I felt so approachable to them. I remember my Canadian friend once wrote, China is in a red festival atmosphere during Chinese New Year—Red lanterns, red packets for lucky money, red paper cuttings, red fire crackers, red wrapping papers of the presents and happy children’s rosy cheeks hidden inside their heavy outfits. The “red” scenes left me an auspicious impression. Tianjin presents the very Chinese characteristic cultural features indeed. I don’t think I can experience Chinese New Year more adequately in Tianjin than any other city in China. I have made a right choice to visit Tianjin during Chinese New Year.


When in Tianjin, don’t miss its famous snacks. There are three unique snacks of Tianjin which are Goubuli (Even dogs will ignore) Steamed Buns, the 18th Street Fried Dough Twists and Erduoyan (the Ear-hold Lane) Fried Glutinous Cakes. Most of the snacks of Tianjin are named after people or places. And they have one thing in common, that is, they are delicious. The special features of 18th Street Fried Dough Twists are crisp, crunchy, fragrant and sweet. I tried them the first thing on my first day in Tianjin. In Tianjin’s Food Street, you can find all these local food. I remembered my nutty ordering on that day when I was there. I ordered SEVEN dishes for my friend and me. Originally I thought the dish was small like the Cantonese dish, but I was terribly wrong. Even a small bowl of noodle which was written exactly like that in the menu, it turned out to be a HUGE bowl of noodle which was enough for at least four people. Oh my goodness! I guessed people next to our table would be astonished when seeing the banquet on our table. No wonder people from North China, especially men, are robust and big. That’s the amount of food that they call “small bowl.”


The Goubuli steam buns were so good that I even made a return visit to the Goubuli steam buns restaurant before I left Tianjin. This restaurant was founded in Qing Dynasty. During my stay in Tianjin, I went to the Ancient Cultural Street which showed all sorts of Tianjin old culture—from Tianjin local opera to Zhang’s clay men (Ni Ren Zhang), from Yang Niuqing’s unique paintings to the festive paper cuttings and to the old toy—"air bamboo" as the local people called it, which looks like a yo-yo but it needs two hands to balance it. When it rolls on the string, you can hear great noise. It was really fun to watch people to play it. My vision was kaleidoscopic when walking on this particular street. I also went to the Taoist temple which used to be the headquarters of Boxers, the organizer of Boxing Uprising in Qing Dynasty; the porcelain street on which most of the stores were closed due to Spring Festival; the Dagu cannon site which used to be the fortress of ancient Tianjin City in Qing Dynasty and Shi Family which was a huge compound of one of the richest government officials in Tianjin. Every place told me a period of Chinese history. I was grateful that I had such a close touch with Chinese culture. It was really worthwhile. On the way to the Dagu cannon site, I passed by a huge area of land which used to be salt marshes. According to the driver, there will be houses, buildings, factories, warehouses etc. built in this land in the near future. I was so amazed at the rapid growth of China through the changes in Tianjin. Besides, I saw cargos, giant cargo ships, railways, cargo trucks…everything that a modern port should have. It was really marvelous!!!


In the meantime, I took a train to Beijing from Tianjin, just having one-day excursion in China’s capital. Compared to what I could remember from my first trip to Beijing six years ago, great changes have taken places in Beijing. Well, I guess that has a lot to do with the city image project because of the coming 2008 Olympic Games. Instead of the skyline of the obsolete buildings like those in Tianjin, skyscrapers can be seen on both sides of the main streets; roads are wider and newer; even taxi cabs have put on new outfits with sharp stripes and color. I can tell Beijing people’s minds have become opener through the trend of fashion that Beijing women have kept up with. Somehow I felt Beijing was so big that I hadn’t recognized on my first visit. My major destination in Beijing was Temple of Heaven because I hadn’t been there before. However, part of Temple of Heaven is still under maintenance. So I wasn’t able to see all the architectures. Never mind! I know I will visit there again someday. A brief visit at a modern mall which is part of a huge complex of top-notch office buildings and hotel gave me an idea of local Beijing people’s current life style. Since I could take some snapshots of my favorite Beetle convertible at the mall, I guess Beijing’s living standard can be no farther from other major cities in China like Shanghai and Guangzhou. In fact, I do think the Beijing cab fare is a bit expensive. I got a chance to try the renowned Peking Duck at a famous restaurant “Quanjude” for lunch. Umm…so fattening but scrumptious!!!


Last but not least, I had a wonderful birthday celebration at an old German restaurant—Kiessling Western Restaurant in Tianjin. The restaurant was run by a German couple and founded in 1901. It was a memorable evening that I could see fireworks on that day. So here I am, sharing my amazing travel experience with you. I hope you can absorb some Chinese traditional culture just as what I have via my visit to Tianjin—the heart of Chinese culture.

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