Once China's second largest city, the home of China's first university and a thriving cultural melting pot, Tianjin is today an afterthought. One guide book describes it as "awkward." And one expat calls it "the New Jersey of China."
Though Tianjin has not taken modernization well, remnants of its proud history and 19th century European architecture, still peep through. It is a window into imperial China's last years, a history not yet swallowed by cheap white tile.
The Astor House Hotel, the grandsire of Tianjin's glorious past, is the place to begin one's tour. A mix of Baroque and Victorian elements, it was the location of China's first electric light, telephone and stock exchange. Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein passed through. It was even the residence of Puyi, the last emperor.
A short walk from the Astor, one finds the remnants of the foreign concessions that once covered the city: banks, buildings, parks and residences, all in turn-of-the-century colonial style. Wu Da Dao, a jumble of streets sporting Baroque and Rococo buildings lies to the south, the Italian concession to the north. At the outskirts, a reminder of imperial China survives in Shijia Dayuan, one of China's best preserved Qing residences.
Tianjin moves along crooked pathways. The air is as dirty as Beijing's, but a cool dampness from the ocean seems to soften everything. Accordingly Tianjiners are more laid back than their neighbors, though they are known to be particularly eloquent and sharp-tongued.
Tianjin has become a slower city, brimming with historical relevance, but left behind in many ways. It is, perhaps, the Philadelphia of China.(cityweekend.com.cn)