American Culture

Ancient culture and the modern makeover

Part five in a series from China

It may be the cleanest alley in the world. Walls of ash-gray brick rise three stories on either side, running straight and tight and true.

The alley is otherwise nondescript except for the gold-colored manhole covers, ornamented with intricate patterns. No papers litter the ground, no gum wrappers, no cans. Not even any dirt, really. The alley is crisp, clean, almost antiseptic.

Behind us, across the bus-filled parking lot, the Tianjin Eye, a Ferris wheel 35-stories tall, stands over the Haihe River. Seven meters taller than the Eye that stands over the Thames in London, the Tianjin Eye rises from between the lanes of traffic in the middle of bridge that crosses the Haihe. It is a symbol for all that is new and modern here in Tianjin, the fifth-largest city in China and one of the country’s most important seaports.

Much of Tianjin—at least what we see on the city’s north side—is dirty and dilapidated. It’s a city of peeled paint and rust and crumbling concrete, with grass growing up through the cracks. There are piles of rubble everywhere. Tianjin is in dire need of a makeover.

As it happens, a makeover is on the way. As part of China’s next five-year plan, Tianjin is the next city that the government plans to pump money into.

In fact, although I don’t know it at the moment, I’m about to pump a little money into the city, too.

Right now, though, I can’t see the future of Tianjin. All I can see is the clean, narrow view afforded by the alley. At the far end, I catch glimpses of color beyond the gray. We’re told the alley leads to a place called the Ancient Culture Street. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds mysterious and historic and maybe even a little exotic.

“This is not the beaten path,” says my colleague, Carl Case.

We reach the end of the alley, and the gray gives way to a cacophony of color and sound. Banners and strings of Chinese lanterns hang from second-story balconies. Large decorations shaped to look like red-thread Chinese knots, and others shaped to look like yellow-and-purple butterflies, also hang above the walkway.

Men play a game of Chinese chess along the sidewalk, and a cluster of spectators gather around, bantering like they’re at a baseball game. Nearby, a flatbed rickshaw pulls up, filled with picture frames that the driver begins to unload into a store. Salespeople stand in the doorways of their shops and call out to passersby, trying to lure them over to browse and to purchase.

Designed to simulate old-neighborhood life in Qing Dynasty China between 1644 and 1912, the Ancient Culture Street was restored to its old-time roots as part of a massive 2003 overhaul. The street runs 800 meters, with 130 shops crammed along both sides—shops that specialize in stationary and calligraphy, musical instruments, jade, art prints, jewelry, bags, and of course the usual trinkets and souvenirs and almost anything else you can imagine.

In one shop, cloisonné vases and teapots line glass-shelved walls. The glass jeweler’s cabinets in the middle of the room are jammed full of rows and rows and rows of cloisonné bracelets, the vibrant enamel colors clashing with each other, vying for attention.

Another shop seems to specialize in feather dusters—a pretty niche market, it seems—with feather dusters sweeping out from the shop’s open doors. Impossibly big feather dusters, each as big as a person, flank the doorway.

One vendor has the colorful masks from the Beijing Opera hanging outside. Another has coconut shells decorated to look like cow heads and turtles; other nuts have notches carved into them so they look like rabbits. I see a line of army-green satchels with Chairman Mao’s face screenprinted on it.

My students bargain for fans and chopsticks. At the other markets, we’ve been able to cajole prices down to 10-15% of the initial asking price. Here, the best anyone can get is 40% because the prices already start low. “You don’t see many Western tourists here,” Carl points out. “So the prices are really set for the Chinese tourists.”

One of our students discovers a vendor who paints names in rainbow ink and then decorates each letter to look like a Chinese animal. A group of Chinese shoppers gathers around the students as the students gather around the man who paints their names. “Steph” comes out looking like a dragon, a flower, a phoenix, a fish, and a pair of parallel bamboo shoots.

As the painter turns names into animals, I wander into a shop across the street, where I find a jade tiger as big as the real thing and probably twenty times heavier. I see jade seas turtles hanging on the wall and only after a minute of staring at them do I realize they’re actually real turtles, stuffed and shellacked and mounted for display.

A pair of talking Myna birds, called liaoge by the Chinese, hang in cages from the shop’s ceiling. They’re black, with orange bills and a smear of orange around their faces. They’re popular pets throughout China, but here in this store, they hold vigil over the jade while customers browse, emitting not a chirp or caw.

All along the street, I’ve heard birdsong—along with clanging symbols, kids yelling in Chinese to their parents, and the honking of horns from an occasional car that has mysteriously materialized on the pedestrian street.

We pass a bronze statue of a Chinese scholar, Yan Fu, who sits in a nook. Fu lived from 1854 until 1921. During his career, he gained renown for being the first person to translate Darwin’s ideas about “natural selection” into Chinese. He also translated Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, among others.

That communist China would cast a bronze statue in honor of the man who spread the word about capitalism and liberty—not to mention the fact that he was an ardent monarchist after the republican revolution—surprises me a bit. I can’t find any information as to why the statue is here in Tianjin since Yan Fu was born in Fujion, studied in Fuzhou, traveled to Greenwich, England, and worked as a top scholar in Beijing. Maybe he’s here to supervise as the wealth of nations pours from the pocketbooks of tourists into the cash boxes of the locals.

Despite that fluke of luck, Yan Fu wears a somber expression. He’s either thinking big thoughts or he’s miffed that a Coke vendor has set up a cart just a few feet to his left.

We go through a small tunnel that has, hanging on one wall, a painting of a chubby baby holding a carp. It’s an example of a yangliuqing, a painting to commemorate the Spring Festival in March. Westerners know it as Chinese New Year. So, apparently, the carp-baby is really a Chinese Baby New Year. His picture hangs here because, it turns out, the tunnel wall abuts a shop that specializes in painting pictures of Yangliuqing. In fact, Tianjin is famous throughout China for its yangliuqing paintings.

And folks here apparently know how to throw a New Year’s party, too. Every March, around the 23rd of the month, people gather in the large square in front of the Mazu Palace, just beyond the tunnel, to usher in the Chinese New Year with an imperial festival.

“Palace” in kind of a misnomer, though, because the palace is really a temple. Built sometime around 1326 A.D., the Mazu Palace served as a shrine to the Goddess of the Sea. People would pray to her for the safe return of the seafarers who lived in Tianjin and worked or traveled on the ocean.

Women who wanted to get pregnant could also go to the Goddess to pray for fertility. At the temple, they could pick up a small clay figure to take home—the Ancient Culture Street still has a merchant who makes and sells them—as a way to help the process along. If a woman became pregnant and gave birth, she could bring the clay figure back to the temple and trade it in for a larger clay figure as her own child grew. The woman would tell people she had two children, the clay one being the older of the two.

The temple now serves as a museum, although pilgrim still flock there to burn incense even as tourists flock there to take pictures. There’s a large bell just inside the doorway, then a courtyard and several small buildings before the goddess’s actual shrine. Her silk-garbed statue looks much more content than Yan Fu’s bronze statue up the street, perhaps because she has minions standing around her with large fans to wave at her when the tourists aren’t looking.

Out in the courtyard, a pair of large bronze qilin, also known as kyrin, flank the entrance to the templs. Qilin were mythical beasts with the head of a dragon, the body and legs of a horse, and the antlers of a deer. Ancient Chinese thought qilin brought serenity and prosperity; modern Chinese hope that luck rubs off—many temple visitors rub the qilin as they pass, so parts of the bronze statues look shiny and new.

Although it’s intended to simulate ancient culture, the entire street looks shiny and new, too. It’s just the kind of makeover the rest of the city of Tianjin could use. Even now, there are signs to suggest it’s coming. Visible at the far end of the Ancient Culture Street, a skyscraper still under construction rises against the hazy sky.

Tianjin may look gray now, but as the government begins to invest in the city’s makeover, there’ll be color just ahead.