by Ernie Diaz
The more glass and steel superstructures bristling China’s big cities, the more relief in wandering through the more quaint neighborhoods. Beijing’s hutongs were nice, until the advent of the SUV. For an expat, though, glutted on cybertowers and grimy backstreets, a good-old fashioned European neighborhood is a balm for the soul, like finding cold beer in a second-tier city restaurant.
Just check out the foreigners strolling on Shanghai’s distinctly retro-Euro Wukang Road. They have the air of lions released on the savannah, after an extended tour with Ringling Bros. Can you blame them? The stately lines and textures of classic European architecture lend dignity and tranquility, not just to the neighborhood but he who sojourns there. Any dignity brought into a Chinese skyscraper is lost after the second failed attempt to squeeze onto an elevator.
So we don’t recommend Tianjin to China travelers trying to soak up the ever-fainter flavors of tradition, not as a priority stop, anyway. A city of ten million, Tianjin is all a-sweat with tower fever, using all of its port power to develop into something that Shanghai won’t laugh at in the locker room anymore. And you’re wise not to bring up Tianjin’s nine concessions, Austro-Hungarian to Russian, in mixed company. But by all means visit them, expats, for a bittersweet taste of the peace that could be yours in Europe, if only you weren’t addicted to the China Hustle.
Under the benevolent terms of the 1860 Peking Convention, a site on the banks of Tianjin’s Haihe was leased in perpetuity (Hear that, CCP? In perpetuity..,) to the British government. The concession doubled in size in 1900, as a “So there!” for the Boxer Rebellion. The Brits’ renowned resolve was sorely tested under the Japanese occupation of Tianjin; they even handed over four men accused of murdering a Chinese collaborator. Today, though, it’s about as soothing a corner of Tianjin as may be wished for.
From a historical perspective, having Imperialists set up in your backyard ain’t all bad, is it (coughHongKongcough) ? The Five Roads area of the British concession haughtily set the bar for modern Chinese development: streetlights, green belts, flawless drainage, even flush toilets. No wonder it was buildings like those below that the Japanese officers seized when they threw out John Bull in ’41.
The French got their concession at the same time as the British, and for lack of angry natives to quell took to arguing about whose was bigger. That all changed in 1870, when rumors about the number of Chinese foundlings dying in French concession orphanages reached a head. As the contemporaneous Pall Mall Gazette reports:
“A vast horde of China’s lowest scum surrounded the French Consulate, hurled stones at the gates, windows and doors. M. Fontanier was cut down, his head severed, his body mutilated. The mob forced their way into the gardens of the Consulate, and there massacred M. Simon and Mme. Thomassin. Fathers Chevrier and Ou, the latter a native priest, hastened to meet the rioters in the hope of being in time to administer the last rites of their Church to the French Consul and his friends. They were at once surrounded and murdered, their bodies ripped open their entire length and afterward thrown in the river.
The maddened mob made their way to the convent gate. Here Sister Monguet awaited them. A cut from a two-handed sabre severed her skull; her body was shamefully mutilated. Sister Adreoni was the next to fall by a blow with a hatchet; she was impaled, and her body carried high over the heads of the rioters. Sister Clavelin met her murderers at the southeast angle of the convent. She was dragged to the pharmacy, and while still alive her eyes and her heart were torn out; her shrieks rose high above the yells and execrations of her assassins…”
Blood on the streets, bones in the dirt, there is much that Tianjin wouldst obscure with a hundred-story skyline.
It took Germany until 1895 to get its concession in Tianjin, for its hard work in making the Treaty of Maguan happen. As if the Opium War aftermath weren’t bad enough: this time China had to give up the Liaodong Peninsula, recognize Korea as independent, and recognize Taiwan as Japan’s, with a 200-million tael “Sorry about that,” payment for dessert. The risk-averse Germans built their concession slowly, but with typical attention to detail, making its homes the most sought-after properties among rich Chinese, who were allowed to purchase there.
Italy didn’t get a piece of Tianjin until after the Boxer Rebellion. Italian ambassador Giovanni Gallini emphasized in the concession agreement that “The Italian Government will exercise full jurisdiction in the same way established for the concessions obtained by the other foreign powers’, a reflection of Italy’s ongoing complex about being treated like a front-stoop mamaluko, instead of a fully-fledged conquering power.
Nonetheless, Italian masonry impresses, whereas Italian military strategy amuses. The place soon earned its billing as “the aristocratic concession”, with both cosmopolitan foreigners and Chinese intelligentsia haunting the greatest Italian neighborhood east of South Philly. Playwright Cao Yu, journalist Liu Ranggong, and a Great People’s Hall worth of corrupt politicos elbowed into the Italian concession to savor dolce far niente at its finest.