PERHAPS you’ve heard of Tianjin, due to its rise in the industrial market, with around 300 Fortune 500 companies setting up bases in the city.
Or maybe through an international headline last year, highlighting a devastating chemical explosion that badly damaged its port area, killing hundreds and injuring hundreds more.
This once walled city that served as a seaport and gateway to Beijing in the 1800s, now shares the spotlight with Shanghai and Beijing as China’s industrial gems.
Northern China’s largest coastal city
Located beside Beijing, Tianjin is the largest coastal city in Northern China, and is a hub for international logistics, shipping, manufacturing, and research and development. Eight years ago, I explored some of Tianjin’s dustiest and undeveloped areas, just to get to know this city that had given me a new career.
There were old people on their bicycles pedalling as if they were the kings of the road, children with their grandparents walking home from school, and a group of women dancing the famous “square dance”, a traditional Chinese group dance usually done in parks and school areas. The same activities happen to this day, but perhaps the difference is that now, the old man on his bicycle cannot help but give way to the countless cars on busy roads; children with their grandparents stop to have after-school snacks at McDonald’s or KFC, and women doing their square dances find themselves in huge cultural centers with skyscrapers as a background.
Long gone are the dusty, undeveloped areas. These days, Tianjin is wealthy enough to have a number of Ferraris and Jaguars cruising its roads, countless European-style buildings, innumerable international restaurants, bars and luxury hotels, a constantly-expanding subway system, wider thoroughfares, new bridges, bigger commercial and residential areas, and not to mention, a growing population of 15 million people with more foreigners calling the city their home.
In my eight years living in Tianjin - every few months, new skyscrapers arose and shopping malls continued expanding, with international brands and products making their way to the market. “Young people are becoming so materialistic here it begins to worry me,” said one university professor when we talked about the developments in our midst. It was no longer uncommon to ride a taxi with a driver flashing his latest Iphone. Teahouses lost their sparkle and Starbucks sprouted about like wild mushrooms.
I spent my last weekends in Tianjin roaming the city, lingering in places that made it worth visiting, or in my case, worth residing. To me, that was a proper goodbye. I owed it to Tianjin to see, once again, the glorious transformation that took shape through the years. Or perhaps, I owed it to myself to bid goodbye in the most graceful way possible. My last glimpses of Tianjin felt like I was seeing it for the first time, as it glowed and smiled and waved goodbye. At that moment, I knew that no matter where I would be, a part of Tianjin would stay with me.
It is safe to say, that if you have limited time, tour Tianjin in the flow of its mother river, the Haihe, and you will never go wrong. You will notice how there is a good mix of Chinese and European architecture surrounding it.
Haihe River flows within the city, then connects to the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in China’s southern provinces. Surrounding Haihe are numerous establishments and tourist spots including the Tianjin Eye, a gigantic Ferris wheel built over a bridge that lifts visitors 120 meters above the ground; Ancient Culture Street, which is famous for its traditional Chinese architecture and locally-made souvenirs; Jinwan Plaza housing a shopping mall, a cinema, and lots of international restaurants and bars suitable for al fresco dining; and the Tianjin Century Clock towering beautifully over a roundabout just outside Tianjin Railway Station.
A stone’s throw away from Haihe River is the historical Italian Style Town which used to be the Italian concession officially controlled by Italy from 1901 to 1947. Today, while most of the buildings have been turned into commercial establishments, the whole area maintains the air of glorious Italy and its dolce vita – the sweet life. And just when you thought Tianjin’s affinity with Italy stopped there, wait until you get to the Wuqing District, where they made their own version of Florence and dubbed it “Florencia Village” showcasing, of course, a variety of Italian and European brands.
For shopping, nothing beats Binjiang Dao in Heping Street for buying just about anything you need, from expensive items to really cheap trinkets. On weekends, Binjiang Dao gets crazily crowded, that the Chinese call it “ren shan ren hai” literally translated to “people mountain people sea.”
For a taste of nightlife, countless bars and disco pubs have opened in the city within the last five years. You can take your pick depending on the vibe you’re feeling at any given moment – Mexican? German? Chinese? The list can go on and on.
Since 2008, luxury hotels have never stopped opening in Tianjin - Shangri-La, Sheraton, Radisson Blu, Holiday Inn, Hyatt Regency, Hotel Nikko, Yi Boutique Luxury Hotel, Westin Tianjin, Renaissance Tianjin Lakeview Hotel, Marriot Hotel, to name a few.
St. Regis Tianjin, claiming to be the most luxurious hotel in Tianjin, is centrally located at the booming financial district, just beside Tianjin World Financial Centre. Hotel Indigo offers villa-style accommodations while Tangla Hotel Tianjin named itself as the city’s penthouse hotel, as it towers in the middle of the city. The Astor Hotel Tianjin, a Luxury Collection Hotel, which first opened in 1868 and was refurbished in 2010, is a landmark hotel that narrates much of Tianjin’s history with its in-house “Astor Hotel Museum.” Cathy Perez