Yes, I went back to Tianjin for a second time. Despite everyone saying “there’s not much to see in Tianjin” and “one day is enough for Tianjin”, I can’t help but disagree. It’s actually quite a nice place, much more walkable than Beijing, and has a slower pace of life. And after having seen pictures in the new of its famous library when it opened last year, it’s been on my bucket list. Unfortunately, that idea was a bit unappealing to my more practical travelers last time, so I decided to go back with John, a classmate who is also interested in photography and architecture. My mindset for travel is always try, instead of regretting not trying, so I decided it was worth it to go back.
The library was surprising on many different levels, and not just architecturally. Firstly, it was located about an hour’s subway ride outside of city center, in a sparsely populated area that seemed to be undergoing economic development. As we walked through the Binhai New Area (滨海新区), we saw bright propaganda banners that hadn’t yet been faded by the sun, workers planting colorful flowers by the side of the road, and the occasional freshly built apartment complex. Then, when we arrived at the location, we were also surprised to see that it was located in a “cultural center” that was basically a shopping mall. According to the architecture firm’s website:
MVRDV in collaboration with local architects TUPDI has completed the Tianjin Binhai Library, a 33,700m2 cultural centre featuring a luminous spherical auditorium around which floor-to-ceiling bookcases cascade. The undulating bookshelf is the building’s main spatial device and is used both to frame the space and to create stairs, seating, the layered ceiling and even louvres on the façade.
The photos turned out AMAZING, but what you may not know it that they don’t allow cameras inside, and the space is actually quite a lot smaller than it seems in the beautiful photographs on news websites and Instagram. Also, what appears to be rows and rows of books are actually just wallpaper printed with books on it; the real books and reading areas are located in much more average-looking rooms behind the undulating walls.
But you know that feeling when you’re at Disneyland or some equally fake display? Where it’s shiny and colorful on the outside, but really it’s an empty façade—a sweet candy-like shell surrounding empty nothingness. In contrast, the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Public Library is equally impressive in architectural terms, but also serves as a fully-fledged, functional library that welcomes both visitors and library patrons. The former is the kind of the vibe I got from the Tianjin library, and also from many of the tourist spots in China. As a new visitor to China, it was easy to be captivated by the many temples, ancient streets, pretty lakes, and other “exotic” sites, but over the years, it’s all started to seem all the same, especially the ones where you realize they were literally built to be meaningless tourist sites. Nevertheless, travel is such a good opportunity to learn more about another place, and its people, culture, and values, and certainly this is still a reflection of modernizing China.
For lunch: biangbiang noodles (the Chinese word is so complicated and has so many strokes you can’t even type it!) and Coco bubble tea at the largest Coco I’ve ever seen in China, both of which were located at the basement level of the cultural center.
After heading back into the city, we went to the pedestrian street, the antique market, the pearl market, and the Porcelain House, which I went to last time. Half of the antique market was closed, but the shops that were still open were quite interesting to explore. There was a lot of memorabilia from the Communist era, for example, framed portraits of Chairman Mao and other leaders, busts of Chairman Mao, little red books, and propaganda artwork. It was also interesting to see that there was a variety of Chinese-produced cheap film cameras from that same era.
We decided to take advantage of Tianjin’s walkability and walked along the river, all the way to the ancient cultural street, which again is very touristy. I tried some of the famous Tianjin Earhole Cake (耳朵眼炸糕), a type of pastry snack that consists of chunk of sweetened, deep-fried glutinous rice flour, and also explored some of the other local specialties.
There was also a temple dedicated to Mazu, a medieval Fujianese girl who was later deified and considered to be a sea goddess. Built in 1326, it’s one of the few temples in Mainland China dedicated to this deity, who is traditionally revered by seafaring people. I’d never seen a temple dedicated to Mazu in Mainland China, but apparently, it’s the same thing as a Tin Hau temple in Hong Kong, which sometimes seem almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks. If you’ve ever visited Hong Kong, you’ll know what I’m talking about—I’ve probably been to a dozen of them already. Here’s a comprehensive list if you’re interested.
With many of the shops closed for the weekend of Tomb-Sweeping Festival, we caught a few more night shots of Tianjin, haggled with a taxi driver to get back to the train station (Tianjin accents are even harder to understand than Beijing accents for some reason), and called it a day. So what does everyone think—where else should I go for my next weekend trip?