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.
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.
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:
So, somewhat as a joke, I snapped the picture below at right. Yes, it really is a lens bigger than your head.
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
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.
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 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
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?
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.
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.
They 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.
I 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.
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.
And 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.
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.
And certainly, many of the rowing teams seemed to be having far too light-hearted a time for a real race.
And 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.
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