Monthly Archives: July 2015

Tianjin in the eyes of the foreigner

2015-06-20 Hai He Panorama (Custom)I took this panorama last month along the Hai He, the main river in Tianjin. The steps on the right lead up to the main train station in town. The opposite bank contains Jinwan plaza, a financial center. The cigar-shaped building towards the right used to be the tallest building in town. It’s also a financial center. And it’s only about five years old.

Since my first visit in 1998, the river banks have been cleaned and developed beyond any reasonable expectation at the time. In fact, I have no pictures of the riverbanks from back then, since there was nothing beautiful to remember.

The Competition

For three years now, my contact in the International Cooperation Office has submitted some of my photos to a city-wide contest among foreigners. And for the third year in a row, one of my photos actually won a prize – third prize in this case.

foreigners enjoying the sites, crowded by photographers
foreigners enjoying the sites, crowded by photographers

My prize winner was taken not far from this spot on the Hai He River, actually.  The occasion was the opening ceremony for the contest itself, which was rendered more attractive by the the promise of a tour on a bus and a guided visit to the city’s planning museum. The photo at left show a bunch of typical foreigners enjoying the view that day from the open-topped tour bus.

It had been four years since my previous such excursion. I had forgotten that these trips were mainly intended to harvest pictures of foreigners enjoying the splendor of Tianjin. Or actually, the foreigners could only try to enjoy it because all they could see were photographers and big lenses in all directions.  Here are three examples, in addition to the bus photo above:

The JVC manThe pansonic man




So, somewhat as a joke, I snapped the picture below at right.  Yes, it really is a lens bigger than your head.

And no, he never lowered his lens.
And no, he never lowered his lens.

And somewhat equally as a joke, I submitted it to the contest along with some others.

I never dreamed that they might actually single it out for a prize. I keep wondering – did they understand it in the spirit in which I took it, or did they imagine that the man behind the lens in the picture isn’t a Chinese photographer at all, but an enthralled foreign tourist in Tianjin drinking in its sumptuous vistas?

Well, whatever. A prize is a prize.

A Boatload of Dragons

The omnipresent fisherman.
The omnipresent fisherman.

Getting back to the Hai He — three of us had ventured out last month in search of dragon boat races.  They form part of a traditional observance held every June called Duanwu.   Duanwu is actually celebrated in many variations across eastern Asia, including Vietnam and Korea.

In China’s case, the boats commemorate the suicide of the diplomat and poet Qu Yuan in 288 B.C.  He had despaired of the fact that nobody – but nobody — would ever listen to his sage advice on governance and international relations.  At least, nobody who mattered would listen.  Anyway, upon his suicide, boaters searched, but failed to find his body, alive or dead.  They even scattered balls of rice throughout the river area to distract fish from eating him. Still, no trace of him was found. The dragon boats, then, commemorate the boats used in the search that day.

We weren’t sure exactly where Tianjin’s dragon boats would be, having gotten conflicting information from various sources. We started at the train station and walked south along the river, finding no crowds at all along the way. In fact, if not for fishermen, who, in China, can be found on any body of water larger than a bath tub, there would have been hardly anybody along the piers.

International bridge and cotton shipments
International bridge and cotton shipments

The photo above again shows Jinwan Square, but also notice the little bridge across the river. It’s the oldest bridge in Tianjin, built at a time when both banks of the river were occupied by foreign powers (Italy, France, Japan and England at this spot), so it was known as the International Bridge. I got the picture at left from a collection on the Internet. It was taken about 1940.

The French Concession
The French Concession

The picture at right, also taken about 1940, shows mainly the French concession, and you can spot the International Bridge in the upper left-hand corner.  It’s amazing, really, what huge swatches of land were ceded to foreign powers during the many wars against the Qing empire.

In the meantime, the territory has long since been reclaimed by China, and the bridge has been rechristened “Liberation Bridge.”

The Quest for Dragons continued

Nope. No dragons here.
Nope. No dragons here.

But where were the dragon boats? We continued our walk down the half-deserted riverfront.

I found it surprising that the dragon boat festival, which is such an old tradition in China, was proving so hard to find.  Yeah, I guess this is what happens after decades of repudiation of ancient customs. Now that people want to get them back, it’s proving hard to re-insert them into people’s senses of priority.  And yeah, most events in China tend to be catch-as-catch can, but still . . . . where were the dragons?

A local Zongzi Dealer
A local Zongzi Dealer

On the other hand, one part of Duanwu has returned with a vengeance, and that’s because it’s something you eat – Zongzi.  These little rice balls commemorate similar rice balls used to distract the fish during the search for Qu Yuan’s body, over 2000 years ago.

Zongzi constitute yet one more variation of the glob-of-rice-with-who-knows-what-in-the-middle that is so common throughout East Asia. In this case, it’s all wrapped in leaves and steamed.  And since you don’t actually eat the leaves, they can be almost anything you like.

Gathering leavesHere, for example, one can see two women, earlier in the season last year, gathering leaves from the newly-sprouting reeds at the edge of Aiwan Lake on campus.

Perhaps the young sprouts have leaves that at their tenderest stage, and thus they are easier to wrap around dollops of mystery-filled rice.

The fish planting

Anyway, continuing our journey south along the river that day, we encountered a small group of people standing around crates full of catfish.

Fish liberatorsThey were led in chants by what seemed to be a Buddhist priest. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand the message that they were giving. The main audience seemed to be the fish, and they didn’t seem to be poetry lovers, since they struggled mightily to exit the crowded crates.

CatfishI guess these people must have been the anti-zongzi environmentalists, who took the side of the fish who lost out on a human meal during the search for Qu Yuan back then.  Certainly, there was not a grain of rice to be seen.

Or, since the fish looked like little dragons, perhaps it was an endorsement of dragons themselves over dragon boats.

We didn’t stick around to witness the fish’s liberation into the river, though I did notice, later that day, that many of them had fatal run-ins with those ubiquitous fishermen.  However, they were too numerous for even such dedicated hooksters to harvest them all.

There be dragons

Well, we finally did find dragon boats, parked on the river outside the Astor Hotel.

opening cermony.In fact, we made it in time for the opening ceremony.  All the high mucky-mucks, dressed almost identically in white shirts, but no ties, since it was “casual Saturday,” gathered in formation to lend authenticity to the proceedings.  They stood in a line like defensive soldiers, in front of the almost-obligatory decorative-blue background.  With the sun in their eyes, not many were able to smile, but that’s okay, since it wasn’t really necessary to be welcoming — as always in such ceremonies, it was enough to just stand there.

The parasol bridgeAnd there turned out to be a small crowd of spectators!  Here are some of them lined up on a bridge next to the Astor Hotel. You’ll note the many umbrellas parasols. Chinese people don’t seem to like the bright sun, particularly the women, who don’t want their face darkened by a tan.

Dragon boats fly past the Astor Hotel
Dragon boats fly past the Astor Hotel

And then they were off!! But it wasn’t clear exactly when the start occurred, nor did all the boats even speed off. It was like the piglet races at the county fair, though. The start was confusing, but eventually they did all head up the river in more-or-less the same direction.

Light-hearted rowersWe decided that this must not be the actual race, but perhaps a pre-competition parade. Maybe the races themselves would take place later in the afternoon, or even the next day.

And certainly, many of the rowing teams seemed to be having far too light-hearted a time for a real race.

Lion DancersAnd we even saw lion dancers and real dragons!! In California, these creatures seem to sprout from every Asian neighborhood, as I’ve heard they do in southern China, as well. But they’re pretty rare in Tianjin.

The lion dancers extended their necks fully to salute the rowers as they passed by.

Not one, but two dragons graced the festivities.
Not one, but two dragons graced the festivities.

The dragons sailed along the side of the river like they usually do.

I swear, it was finally starting to feel like I was actually in China.

Well, this note is already longer than I had intended, so I’ll stop at this point.

However, twenty-five years ago, when elementary schools were mandated to teach ancient Asian history, but not given any materials to teach it with, I wrote a long book for my students about Chinese history. One of those chapters was about Qu Yuan and his famous poems. I found it, dusted it off, and fixed it a bit, and now attach it here for those wishing more information on they guy. Click on the link to access it: Qu Yuan

June Tunes

Greetings, not from Tianjin, but with Tianjin!

Yeah, I haven’t much felt like writing anything lately. It’s a combination of too much going on in my life, and too much of the same old craziness wearing down on me.  Still, some events have been interesting.   I’m not actually in China at the moment. For that matter, I also let June slip away from me. But I can write as if I were and I hadn’t. Hence the title of this note.

The Big Move

Mechanical Engineering Lab
A metal press in the lab

This picture appeared in my previous note. But it turns out to have even more relevance than ever to Tianjin University’s big move exile to the distant lands of old warehouses and weeds.

Almost no one I know has actually been out to see the new site, mainly because it’s not easy to travel out there. And yet, we’re already headlong in the process of moving. Yeah, moving like lemmings, in joyous ignorance of what we’ll find. But that’s okay. The move’s planners don’t know much more, either.

One of my colleague’s students toured the new site. He told her later that “the place has no soul.”  Another colleague’s student visited there and exclaimed happily that, unlike most pieces of property in China, the campus had no enclosing wall.  I guess she hadn’t  noticed the moat?

A lazy weekend afternoon at the Tianjin University Village 6 square.
A lazy weekend afternoon at the Tianjin University Village 6 square.

Yeah, thousands of people will occupy the new site come fall. 99% of them don’t want to move. But there’s nothing to be done about stopping it. The old site’s real estate is too valuable to waste on students. The land along the main street has already been sold, and the buyers can’t wait to tear down the old dorms and build their new business park. And, to be fair to their evident impatience, I did once see a flyer about the new campus that set a date of 2013 for the opening. So it’s two years behind schedule.

Local coffee and pizza shops, some owned by students.
Local coffee and pizza shops, some owned by students.

As for me for next year, I will most likely  teach one day a week in the new campus, and one day a week in the old campus, for the students who remain.  Of course, nobody can say for sure, as we’re all lemmings in this process. Hey, there’s still two months to go. Plenty of time to sort things out.

How is it, though, that some students will remain in the old campus, despite its value as real estate? Couldn’t a business make more money from the site than a simple school? Well, this point brings me to my new understandings of business’s position in Chinese universities.

Academic departments engage in a friendly competition.
Academic departments engage in a friendly competition.

I’ve mentioned before that an architecture business is attached to our University. Its CEO sits at the same meeting table as all the heads of academic departments. The architecture business, as well as the associated academic architecture department, are not moving to the new campus. After all, clients seeking a design consultation like to meet the staff in town, not in some far-flung gulag. And the staff includes the students in the academic department.  One of my former students, in fact, recently designed a railroad station for the business. So the academic department can’t move out there, either.

As for my own department, Culture and Law, it’s moving. This was a bit of a surprise to me, since our department includes the hallowed school of Marxism. But maybe it just goes to show the real position of Marxism in modern society.

Tai Chi enthusiasts practice on campus
Tai Chi enthusiasts practice on campus

Recently one of my English students had missed quite a few classes.  He had never contacted me (as students generally would) about the reasons for his absences. So I asked his buddy in the class to talk to him. If he wasn’t going to return to class, he should inform me so that I could sign him up for English the following semester. Well, after that he came to class.

He also came to office hours to get caught up on what he had missed. And while he was there, I asked him where he’d been.

Every kid's favorite fountain on a hot day.
Every kid’s favorite fountain on a hot day.

He was spending most of the week, every week, in Tanggu, the port town located about an hour’s journey southeast of here by light rail.   That explained his difficulties in attending class. And while there, he was operating what he called a “distillation column,” which turns crude oil into petroleum, which can later be further refined into various petrochemical products.

The view from my classroom on a fabulous day.
The view from my classroom on a fabulous day.

I tried to imagine what sort of study he could be doing of such an established technology. But no, he assured me that he was doing no study there at all. So why was he out there? Because it was part of a business, loosely associated with Tianjin University through his academic adviser. And was he paid to do this work? Of course not. He’s a student. He simply does what’s asked of him.  Actually he seemed to relish the idea of telling his adviser that some maniac English teacher (me) was so insistent that he attend class that who knows what might happen otherwise. And after that, the student regularly attended class. And he arrived on time.

So, yeah, business is a much more integral part of the university in China than it is here. And if part of the old campus will be developed into a business park, well, that’s simply a small extension to what’s going on there anyway.

The Move Begins

One of my favorite birds, a hoopoe, feasting on worms.
One of my favorite birds, a hoopoe, feasting on worms.

The big move formally began on May 18th.  With great pomp and ceremony, various officials ushered a phalanx, not of staff, but of machines, out to the new campus. Maybe they figured that machines can’t complain or cry, so nothing would spoil the bright dawn of the new campus’s development.

These were not ordinary machines of course, but huge museum pieces that had occupied part of the mechanical engineering lab for at least sixty years.  And I realized that I must have seen some of these machines during my recent tour of that building, a few weeks earlier.  And I wondered if one of them might even have been the machine in the picture at the beginning of this note.  It’s certainly big enough, grand enough.

Traditional musicians entertain the crown in the student activities center.
Traditional musicians entertain the crowd in the student activities center.

Well, the machines didn’t cry or complain. However, when they reached their ultimate dispensation, it was discovered that neither the floor nor the foundation of the building was strong enough to support them!  I don’t know exactly how this failure was discovered, nor how anybody could have let it happen, since no one has exactly been open about the situation. I only know that a mad scramble to install a new foundation and floor ensued.

And I suspect that the Move’s beginning will prove emblematic of the entire process.  It’s not likely to go smoothly, nor are the new facilities likely to be fully ready.  But until it happens, we’re standing between the bear of business and its cub of profit.  It could be a stressful, though highly exciting, position. I wonder sometimes, though, if maybe I’m getting a little old for such excitement. We’ll see about that in September.

The Bridge Park

Well, this whole idea of businesses as part of a university goes against my cultural grain, but that’s just an example of how cultures differ, and not something for me to sit in judgment of.  And when you think about it, besides chopsticks and lion dancers, there’s not much more basic to Chinese culture than entrepreneurship, and the dream of forming one’s own business.  So it only seems fair to provide a concrete example of where this system has functioned well.

Bridge Park nestles in a cloverleaf
Bridge Park nestles in a cloverleaf

And that spectacular example is a public park that opens some breathing room in the midst of densely-populated Tianjin. It appears in the center of this photo taken from space by Google Earth.

The land had long stood idle.  Other than some brief employment as an army shooting range, nobody had ever done anything with it. And that’s because of the high water table. All of Tianjin is sopping wet from rivers flowing in from every direction. That’s why so many canals are needed just to keep the rest of it solid. Indeed there’s yet another canal in the above satellite photo running from top to bottom right along the freeway.

water lilies and a bridge are what Bridge Park is all about.
Water lilies and a bridge are what Bridge Park is all about.

No one had ever built on this plot of land because it flooded all the time. Warding off this water flow would be difficult and expensive. But as a park, it held promise. The assignment was given to a landscape architect business associated with Peking University in Beijing.

The professor and students planned a park that was both beautiful and practical — it could deal with the water through a series of catch basins and a large L-shaped lake, all held in place by dense plantings, some of native plant species, and some of imported ones.  It could guard the neighborhood from floods while providing a peaceful public space.

The local reed species grow between the cement blocks.
The local reed species grow between the cement blocks.

China has a long history of working in harmony with nature, particularly with water, going all the way back to Yu the Great, over 3000 years ago. It’s thrilling to see this sensibility reasserting itself in the modern world.

And it’s wonderful to see Chinese architects doing it, when so often, even today, foreign architects are hired for the most important buildings.

Elevated pathways host joggers, like great bridges.
Elevated pathways host joggers, like great bridges.

The two photos here show the same set of reeds — seen from overhead and seen from across the lake. From across the lake they look like a common reed thicket, such as grows around the edges of most ponds. But the overhead view reveals cement blocks that allow the visitor to freely navigate through them, perhaps on the lookout for frogs and small waterfowl.

Each “hill” is planted with a different kind of flower, and the red elevated pathways form more bridges between them.  They remind me of Mayan temples.

a jogger enjoys the view from the "bridge."
a jogger enjoys the view from the “bridge.”

Actually, red lines are a key motif in everything this architectural group designs. Red lines crop up throughout the park, as well as in their other parks elsewhere.

Well, I think a few more pictures will speak more eloquently than anything I write. So at this point, I’ll simply paste a few in.


Red benches for socializing
Red benches for socializing
Yes, the Chinese do cosplay, too. And what a peaceful place to record it all!
Yes, the Chinese do cosplay, too. And what a peaceful place to record a new costume!
I don't know how they managed to get fall foliage in the spring.
I don’t know how they managed to get fall foliage in the spring.
Exercise machines are available to the public
Exercise machines in the background here are available to the public
The happy soldiers also sport red lines.
The happy soldiers also sport red lines.
Real flesh-and-blood kite fliers also appeared.
Real flesh-and-blood kite fliers also appeared on the day of our visit.
More bridges, more lilies
Entrepreneurs cluster around the main entrance to the park (which is at a street corner).
Sometimes the red lines are the path itself.
Sometimes the red lines are the path itself.
Jeanette and Han Tao pause outside the museum.
Jeanette and Han Tao pause outside the bridge museum, which was closed that day.
The area just inside the main entrance is a traditional hanging-out venue.
The sign announces the pond jumping
A sign announces the pond jumping


Yeah, they didn't even bother to finish translating the final sentence.
Yeah, they didn’t even bother to finish translating the final sentence.

And, yeah, the presence of questionable English is the final mark of Chinese authenticity on this park. I’ll include one typical sign for your reading pleasure.

When I first saw scrambled English like this in China, I was annoyed. But now. . . . Okay, I’m still annoyed. I’m an English teacher, after all!  But I’m also filled with warmth that this beautiful site is an  authentically Chinese development, reflecting both the modern and traditional worlds.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the trip. If you get a chance, drop me a line.

I’ve actually been in town for exactly a week now, and today was the first day that I made it through the entire day without a single nap. And my word count here has passed 2000 so I’m now officially ready to venture out and do things.  I’ll conclude with one final Bridge Park shot – a panorama taken from near the main entrance.

The lake spreads out in a 90 degree angle from the entrance.
The lake spreads out in a 90 degree angle from the entrance on either side of the museum.