The third-largest city in China after the capital and Shanghai, dynamic TIANJIN is largely ignored by Western travellers – even those who enter or exit China via the nearby port of Tanggu. One reason is that Beijing, an infinitely more interesting city, is so close – just 130km to the northwest, a mere thirty minutes away by high-speed train. However, such proximity brings it within easy day-trip range of the capital; though the city has few actual sights, with a little time on your hands there certainly is merit to a Tianjin visit. Partly as a result of the wealth pouring in from the sea, it’s actually richer than Beijing in terms of per capita GDP, and mushrooming flocks of brand-new skyscrapers bear testament to this fact. Thanks again to its maritime connections, Tianjin is also a place of substantial historical interest; its streetscapes – ageing nineteenth- and early twentieth-century foreign architecture, mostly European – are its most engrossing attractions.
Locals say, not altogether with pride, that the city has become a massive construction site, requiring a new map to be printed every three months. Though wide swaths of the city are being redeveloped, much of the colonial architecture has been placed under protection, though not from overzealous renovation – look for the distinctive plaques on the relevant buildings. Feng Jicai, one of China’s best-known writers and a Tianjin resident, led a campaign to preserve the old city, noting that, “if you regard a city as having a spirit, you will respect it, safeguard it, and cherish it. If you regard it as only matter, you will use it excessively, transform it at will, and damage it without regret.” Contemporary Tianjin is an illustration of the latter, an unwieldy fusion of Beijing’s bustle and Shanghai’s Bund, though delivered without the character of either.