Thursday, December 15, 2011


23 days out of Vancouver, we landed at Tianjin to begin our personal exploration of China.  Except we didn't land in Tianjin, exactly, but rather at Xingang, "New Port," a community some 35 miles from downtown Tianjin.  Boats the size of ours can't get any closer than that, so our first order of business after disembarking was to get a taxi.  There were many to choose from, but none of them wanted to use the meter, they wanted to bargain over the price.  With some effort we agreed on one and set out on the toll road to town. 

 Halfway there, our driver had a flat.  He had a spare, but worried about driving that far with no other spare, so he pulled out his cellphone and arranged to swap taxis with a fellow driver.  Our new taxi looked like a police special, but it worked just as well and our driver found the hotel, albeit with several more cell phone calls to get directions.

And what a hotel it was!  The Astor House started in 1863, not long after the British had forced the Chinese to concede sovereignty over a portion of the city.  In time, Tianjin (known as 'Tientsin' in the Wade Giles system of writing Chinese) got carved up into numerous "foreign concessions," as these areas were called, eight in all!  You can click on the map below if you're curious -- the dark colors were the original areas, the pastel ones later additions.  Our hotel was on the east end of the red section on the map, the British Concession.  As the city grew in importance, the hotel rebuilt itself in 1886 in brick with large wooden verandas, overlooking a park across the street built at the request of the hotel.  Like almost every city park we saw in China, it appeared to be well used and well cared for. 

Our own hotel room was in a new section built in the late 1980s, when a new lobby was created with that mural of early Tianjin seen above. We joined up with some fellow passengers from the boat who were also staying there and received a personal tour by the hotel concierge of the historic 1886 part of the hotel, including two amazing rooms.

The first was the "Herbert Hoover Room," where the future president stayed while supervising the development of coal mines as an engineer for a British firm.  The second room was the "Sun Yatsen Room," named after another regular occupant after he stepped down from the post of first President of China, while he worked to unify and modernize China.  We'll say more about Sun as we encounter him later in our travels.  We ended our explorations in the museum downstairs.  We learned about the two peace treaties signed at the hotel (one of which was commemorated by this print hanging in the Herbert Hoover Room) and of the many visits by Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China (deposed, in fact, by Sun Yatsen) who came often to tea dances in the ballroom in the 1920s.  We also captured for you this reproduction of a well-furnished room of the late 1800s, curiously missing those plastic bottles of shampoo we get nowadays. 

We had chosen to spend two and a half days in Tianjin in part because it is not on the standard tour of China, and in part because of its history and architecture resulting from European colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Because it is not on that standard itinerary, we found very little in guidebooks or online about the architecture we were looking for, but architecture is such a large and public art form, it has a way of being found.  As we walked along one of the main streets in the old British Concession, we saw numerous business palaces that looked like they were from London or Paris of a century ago, such as this one.  Like so many others, it was built as a British (or French or German or Japanese) bank, and is now a Chinese one.  BTW, if you look on that ledge between the 2nd and 3rd floors, near the right, you can see a fellow working on his hands and knees.  Another fellow is up there but out of sight at the moment.  Both were walking around that ledge, 30' up, without any sort of safety device whatsoever, one of many instances of things we saw in China that would drive an OSHA investigator bonkers in the US.

The buildings in the French Concession, we discovered, have largely disappeared, but they've been replaced by an enormous development, part shopping mall, part movie complex, part apartment/condo project, all in a style between French Baroque and Second Empire.  It fronted the Hai He, or Hai River, and was as gorgeous up close as it was in these more distant shots, at least where it's complete -- the back sections were still half-built.  In the second and third views, you can also see some of the nearby modern architecture that is going up and creating a new identity for Tianjin in architecture.

Here are two more shots of some of the more striking modern buildings.  That's not distortion from a wide-angle lens, the tall building does indeed get fatter then skinnier as it rises.  And those are two different buildings with upside-down U shapes.

As we continued into the Italian Concession we came to a more residential area, one filled with restaurants and with homes that have been or are in the process of becoming home to China's new wealthy.  At times you had to question whether you were in China, the buildings were so un-Chinese!

Hordes of cyclists on bicycles, tricycles, and power-assisted 2- and 3-wheeled vehicles reminded us we were in China, however, along with the church we passed.  Oh, the church was western enough, but all the brides hanging around the outside give it away as being Chinese.

We visited a park nearby, and found statues of musical greats -- all of them European.  Although in many ways, they're universal, aren't they? 

The next day we visited a local park.  It was buzzing with activity on a weekday morning.  Look at all the bicycles parked outside the bike-proof gates (on the right is a second view of another set of these interesting gates).  Inside, one group was singing Chinese songs accompanied by a cellist and three fellows on Chinese instruments.  Nearby, four or five couples were dancing to big band dance tunes played on a boom box, while off in a corner of the park a solitary saxophonist practiced.  Quite a few grandparents were walking or playing with their grandkids, and some folks just sat reading their books or their newspaper.  It was fun to see a park so well-loved!

We had heard there was a food court worth visiting, so took a $3 taxi ride to get there (the subway system is closed at the moment as they expand from one line to two).  What we discovered were twenty different restaurants, all of middling quality and almost all lacking an English menu.  One had a more convincing hustler of an owner than the others as well as a menu with English translations, and we had an acceptable if middling lunch.  After lunch, however, we looked down to see Sugar Man.  A customer told him her sign, a dragon, and he made her a quite amazing dragon out of melted sugar!

We continued our exploration by going to a market a kilometer away where there was quite a collection of furs for sale.  Not knowing Chinese, we never did find out how one turned the hides into something a little less like an artifact from a natural history museum.   Another entrepreneur had set up a sort of carnival game on the street that attracted both players and kibbitzers.  With his girlfriend standing there next to him, our contestant of course kept playing 'til he won something.   

As we headed back toward the Hai He, we passed a fairly typical apartment building complex before coming to our next shopping area, Paper and Calligraphy Street.  It took some searching, but at the booth right behind Louise we found a children's book in both Chinese and English to bring back for our grandson Cedro.  His dad is on Broadway in the play Chinglish right now because he is one of that rare breed of actors who speaks both Chinese and English.  Never too early, right?  Never mind that Cedro's learning both Japanese and Tagalog as well as English from his mom and dad.  That's one busy 16-month old!

You'd think that was plenty of shopping streets, but the best was yet to come, a place they call Antique Street, not because you can find antiques there, but rather because it has been rebuilt to look like a shopping street in old China.  Granted, it may be as authentic as Disneyland's "Main Street USA," but what people think the past was like is sometimes as powerful and important to a nation's cultural identity as what the past truly was, yes?  Antique Street was filled with small shops where Louise indeed found a beautiful silk scarf, and it connected us with a truly ancient temple that gave us an interesting juxtaposition of old and new Tianjin.

We'll close with three night photos, the first of yet another shopping street with nothing antique about it whatsoever other than faux antique jeans in the trendy stores.  The last two shots were taken along the Hai He.  We never did see either end of this marvelous walkway that ran on both sides of the river, despite a few miles spent exploring it both by day and by night.  One of the nicest things about China is that we never felt concerned for personal safety even when walking on dimly-lit walkways at night along rivers like this, or down dark alleys through poor neighborhoods day or night as we did in many other places.

The building across the river is the train station, and the next day we left on a fast train to Beijing from there after one last 2-km walk along the river pulling our suitcases.  Thanks for enjoying Tianjin with us!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Qingdao and Dalian and a Short Family Reunion

We started our visit to China with three port calls on the Diamond Princess, to Qingdao, Dalian, and our final destination, Tianjin.  We'll tell you about the first two in this blog, and Tianjin in the next.

As many of you know, there have been two major systems of writing Chinese using the Roman alphabet since westerners started turning up in large numbers 170 years ago.  The one officially adopted by the Chinese government in the 1950s and internationally in the early 1980s is called pinyin, and it is relatively easy to use if you remember a few uses of letters that are not the same as in English, the two most prominent of which are probably Q and X, the former pronounced "ch" and the latter something between "s" and "sh."  So Qingdao is pronounced more or less like "ching-dow."  However, it is one of those place names, like Beijing's former spelling "Peking" as in "Peking Opera" and "Peking duck," whose transliteration in the nineteenth century Wade-Giles system refuses to die, thanks in this case to Tsingtao Beer.

And Tsingtao Beer came to be China's first and most famous beer, still made here in Qingdao, thanks to the colonial ambitions of Germany.  Germany only became a nation in 1871, long after Britain and France had created vast colonial empires, and even small European countries like Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands had colonies many times larger than the mother country itself.  As a suddenly large and powerful European nation with no shortage of feelings of superiority toward other races, Germany felt quite put out. It assuaged its inferiority complex by picking up a few African colonies in places other European countries had not bothered to conquer, probably for good reasons, and then in 1898 it coerced China into letting it run Qingdao.  China by this time had given up trying to stop European countries from gobbling up its best cities, having lost a few wars that tried to do just that, so in short order a quiet fishing village began to become a city with place names like Berliner Strasse and Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse, and of course a brewery. [Click on the map to enlarge it if you'd like to see the full set of Teutonic names].  Alas for the Germans they blew their first attempt at the domination of Europe in WW I, and part of the price of losing was the loss of Qingdao.

We spent about 6 hours of shore leave exploring Qingdao's Germanic heritage, but started the day with a hearty breakfast and a look out our dining room window on Deck 14.  By golly, we were looking straight across to a sleepy crane operator perched, like us, 125' above the dock.  Never could figure out why he was up there when his crane was clearly not going to be getting any business that day, but maybe that's one of those inefficiencies we saw so often in China that we no longer fear the supposed juggernaut of an all-conquering Chinese economy, an image that certain politicians pull out and polish up around election time each year.  More on this in future blogs, we're sure.

In any event, those buses waiting on the dock soon took us for a 3 or 4 km ride to a location in the heart of downtown Qingdao, where we took off to explore with another couple from the boat, Joe and Betsy.  Within blocks we had struck some architectural gold as we came upon the Catholic Church and some surrounding buildings that any German city would be proud to show off.

And then we discovered another one of those quirks of Chinese life that guidebooks never seem to mention.  They often tell you about churches in Chinese cities, as they're relatively rare and always display such distinctly un-Chinese design.  But the guidebook writers forget to tell you about the brides and grooms.  Yes, hang out near almost any church in China and spread some honey on the ground, and you'll see brides and grooms before you see ants or Winnie the Pooh.  And on a pleasant Saturday like this one . . . well, as you can see, the place was almost overrun with them!  It is the thing in China these days for the matrimonially-inclined to wear western-style wedding attire and to show up a few days or weeks before the Big Day for a photo shoot.

As we continued our Teutonic Tour, we passed many buildings that continued the theme, such as this apartment house in a side alley, or the Government Building put up by the Germans in 1903 and now given some Chinese touches with flowers and lanterns.

Our second major destination was the other church the Germans put up, of course a Lutheran one.  And sure enough, there were several sets of brides and grooms round and about, but something was a little different here -- by golly, they were actually getting married!  As we entered the church on the heels of a newly-blessed couple, we heard that another wedding would occur shortly.  Hmmm, why not stay and see what a wedding in China is like?  Soon enough the flower girl we had seen before entering was marching up the aisle with a flower boy, the bride and the bride's father, marching to something by Handel.  The service lasted 15-20 minutes, much of which was in the form of a homily by the minister and then the familiar words of attachment -- at least, we assumed they were -- and then the choir sang a hymn, the couple bowed deeply to the choir, and out walked China's newest married couple.  We looked at each other and said, this Chinese wedding was a more typical American wedding than our own

As soon as it was polite to leave after the bride and groom, we checked out the church tower, which we discovered we were just young enough to climb unaccompanied, and took one more shot of the German-Chinese-American wedding, then headed to our third and final Deutsches destination, the German Governor's Mansion, which our companions Joe and Betsy are posing before.  Maybe it was a bad sign for the couple we had just seen married, but on the way we passed a series of posters advertising family planning.  They made a fairly compelling case for it even if you can't read the words, yes?

If you're going to establish a colonial barony in a foreign land, you've got to put up a suitably baronial castle for the guy in charge, and this home met the bill.  Met it so well, in fact, that it became a favorite of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De and other top officials after the Communist takeover in 1949.  We took the tour and got to see, in fact, Mao's own bed and Mao's own phonograph player, made in China in the 1950s!

We also saw the "Golden Hall" where the German Governor formally met guests, and where the Politburo convenened in 1957 for one of its classier meetings.  Another room had some old photos, such as this turn-of-the-century ball, and a light sconce whose nose was battered in by radical students inspired by the May 4th Movement in 1919. Luckily for "big-noses," i.e. Westerners, the students attacked this big-nosed sconce instead of actual Big Noses as part of the students' reaction to the raw deal China got in the Versailles Treaty announced that day.  Thanks to the fondness the Communist bigwigs had for the mansion, there was no similar incident or worse during the far more chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

Having finished our German Tour of China, we headed down to check out the waterfront.  For a nation on the Pacific, China does not have all that many cities of note on the ocean itself, and this is one of the ones that gets special mention in many guidebooks.  With hazy weather limiting visibility, it was not having one of its better days.  There are a number of beaches along the full shore, but the ones we visited near downtown are not known for swimming, and we only saw one or two folks actually in the water, though good-sized crowds did mill about alongside the water or on the pier sticking a half-mile out into it.  As we walked along, we saw 4 or 5 stands selling slices of something that appeared to be full of grains, nuts, honey and dried fruit, but our worries about the sanitary standards, especially the old door the food sat on, held us back from trying a wedge.  Sadly, we never saw this delicacy in any of the other cities we visited, when our standards had slid somewhat.

As we walked back to the meeting place for our shuttle bus, we had to cross a busy road by means of an underpass.  Here was a new lesson, or rather an old lesson from our previous visit to China reawakened.  The lesson is this -- if someone, sometime, might pass a place with an appetite, some entrepreneur will soon be there with a food stand.  Here are just the first two of a dozen stands we passed before emerging on the other side of the street!

As we got closer to our final destination, we turned down an alley and entered a full-fledged food street, a common feature of many Chinese cities.  Octopus, squid, sea urchins, even star fish, all those and more were there for your eating pleasure.  Even the sculpture glorified food vendors.  Jeff played it safe and had a stick of sticky rice balls dipped in a soy-based sauce then rolled in sesame seeds.  His adventuresomeness does know some bounds.

By late afternoon we were back on the boat and wondering how much of the haze was natural and how much Made in China.  As we glided out to sea, we passed one more interesting sight, a Chinese submarine base.  According to the internet, there is another submarine facility nearby, out of public sight, where the nuclear sub fleet makes its port calls.

Our final port call before we disembark in Tianjin was the next day, in Dalian.  We visited here in May 2009, and you can revisit our photos and commentary from that visit by going to  Since that visit, Jeff's son Matt plus his wife Akiko and son Tyler have come here on a work assignment from Citibank.  The Diamond Princess did not give us a long time to visit, but it was precious all the same. 

Tyler was now exactly 3 1/2 years old, and of course quite a bit more verbal than when we last saw him over 2 years ago.  However, at that time he spoke with equal facility, or lack thereof, in both Japanese and English.  While he clearly understood everything his Dad said to him in English, he clearly wasn't buying the bilingual bit and conversations with him were particularly challenging.  However, he was all for playing ball games in his apartment, and for doing jigsaw puzzles.  He really knew the puzzle Akiko pulled out, and put each piece where it belonged without having to look at the nearby pieces.  Nope, didn't care to talk about it.  Just do it, like the ad says, just do it.

After our play date at the apartment, we headed off for, of course, some Chinese food. We were joined, as we were in the apartment, by Akiko's visiting Uncle Motoi. We didn't know it at the time, of course, but it proved to be one of the best meals we had in China.

It was a much-too-quick visit.  We had planned to remedy that known shortcoming by returning to Dalian as part of our Tour de China, but after the cruise had been locked in it turned out that Akiko and Tyler had to return to Japan for Tyler to take an entrance exam of some sort (yes, we know, he's 3 1/2 -- but we're talking Japan here, home of the perpetual school exam).  As Louise knows all too well from her own years in Japan, to play the system you've got to get kiddie into the right nursery school, which then makes it easy to get into the right elementary school, the ideal middle school, the best high school, the top college, the premier  . . . life???  Lucky for us, Tyler aced his first exam, and his future as a Japanese exam-taker looks bright.  As for us, we've arranged for Matt to meet us in Beijing for some sightseeing several days from now, which will be his first trip outside Dalian since arriving 6 months ago.

We'll hop off the boat tomorrow and tell you all about Tianjin, our first stop on the next phase of the trip (Jeff and Louise on their own, trying not to get hopelessly lost), in our next posting.