I may be writing right now from an internet cafe in the small city of Shangzhi, two hours northeast of Harbin in Heilongjiang Province, but the story of what I’m doing here will come at a later date. For now, I wanted to post some photos from the trip I took down to Tianjin last Saturday.
I wanted to head someplace out of the city for a day, so it had to be close by, and I had heard that the old treaty port south of Beijing offered a lighter taste of Chinese urban life, flavored with the leftover architecture of Victorian-era international banking and government institutions. The crumbling, faded European-style buildings were a departure from the hulking, monumental behemoths of the capital, for sure, but they weren’t anything particularly special, and a walk down the main street downtown proved a poor way to start the day. It left me wondering why I had spent a whole 30 kuai ($4 or so) to take an almost-two-hour train ride down there. The unexciting lunch that followed, over which I lingered drinking a second diet coke and nearing the conclusion of the book I had brought down with me, didn’t help much either.
However, after my long and late lunch I was inspired to check out a completely different part of the city, the “ancient culture street” area in Tianjin’s old “Chinatown.” It’s funny to think of a city in China having a Chinatown, but back in the days when various global powers each had their concessions in this trading hub, Chinese people were only allowed to live in one small section of the city.
I have been to other reconstructed streets that attempt to mimic the ambiance of daily life in the Qing Dynasty, but Tianjin’s version is even more successful than the one in Hangzhou, and by far more realistic and interesting than anything Beijing has to offer along these lines. Artisans demonstrated their crafts on the street, vendors sold sweets like spun sugar and candied fruit, and accolytes stepped over a high wooden door jamb to enter the Tianhou Temple, which otherwise seemed barely distinct from the commerce around it.
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