Tianjin was among the first cities in modern China to come under Western influence. After the Second Opium War in 1860, the city was designated a treaty port. Many foreign business people, soldiers, and missionaries, mainly from Europe and America, flocked to be in the “closest port to the Forbidden City”. They left Tianjin with its unique architectural heritage.
At the end of the 30-minute high-speed train journey from Beijing, you will see Tianjin stretching along both banks of the Haihe River. Just as the romance of Paris is best savored from a boat trip along the Seine, the glamour of Tianjin starts from the Haihe River. A river cruise reveals the booming cityscape; old and new bridges decorated with brilliant lights in the evening; historic buildings and statues, incorporating both Chinese features and European styles; and the world’s only Ferris wheel built on bridge.
But a walk through the city’s historic avenues takes you back to another era. On the north bank of the Haihe River, you can see the Wanghailou Catholic Church, built almost 100 years ago; the North Jiefang Road Financial Street, known as the “Wall Street of the East”; and the Italian-style Area, which used to be that country’s concession, could be the best preserved Italian architectural complex in Asia.
Tianjin was originally a fishing village. It developed into a city as many dynasties chose nearby Beijing as their capital. It was known in China as the “Backyard of Politicians”. Relatives of the emperor and the high officials of the Qing Dynasty, presidents and premiers of the early Republic of China, revolutionary pioneers, as well as well-known foreigners came to live in the Five-Avenue Area, a collection of garden-style foreign buildings on the south bank. Each residence recorded a slice of modern Chinese history and left behind numerous stories.
The city is also a haven of Chinese culture and boasts its own traditional specialties. The locals are known in China for their humor, partly because it is the center for the art of xiangsheng, or cross talk, a hugely popular form of comic dialogue. Yangliuqing County, 15 kilometers west of Tianjin’s urban area, is the cradle of Chinese New Year-themed, traditional woodblock paintings. Its time-honored cuisine includes Goubili baozi (steamed stuffed buns), and guifaxiang mahua, or fried twisted dough. Both are worth sampling.
All of these can be enjoyed at the Ancient Culture Street, near the Zhangzizhong Road along the Haihe River. At 680 meters long, it features as its central landmark the Mazu Temple (Heavenly Empress Palace), one of the oldest temples in Tianjin.