A personal relationship with Tianjin that continues to grow


    Spring Festival lanterns at Shangri-La Hotel and Jianfu Temple Tianjin 2019. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    During the recent Spring Festival holiday, I took the 30-minute, southbound train from Beijing to Tianjin. The city is not only a significant landmark in my personal relationship with China, but increasingly like a second home. I didn\'t to be caught in traffic and the Spring Festival rush, so the "Ford of Heaven", as Tianjin is known, was a natural choice, a place where I thought I could unwind and indulge my passion for photography.

    In January this year BBC 2 Scotland program Scots in China showcased the lives of people from my Scottish homeland. Some, like me, had spent years living, working and contributing to the changes we continue to see across China. For my contribution to the show, I talked about China\'s railways

    It\'s been a 32-year personal passion, during which I experienced firsthand the introduction of high-speed rail. The filming in June 2018 began in Beijing South Railway Station before continuing to the newly introduced Fuxing train bound for Tianjin – now just 30 minutes down the line. Shooting continued around several Tianjin locations before culminating at a event organized by a local AmCham (American Chamber).


    \'Tianjin Memories\' at Shangri-La Hotel. Filming \'Scots in China\' accompanied by Zhang Lijuan of \'Vivian Speaking\' in 2018. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    In September last year fifty of my city and people images, \'Tianjin Memories\', were displayed at the prestigious Shangri-La Hotel. This fortuitously coincided with the opening of the \'Annual Meeting of the New Champions\', the 12th Summer Davos Forum in Tianjin. With many visitors consequently staying at the hotel, it was an opportunity to present such often personal impressions taken over fourteen years. Ultimately the works were donated to raise funds for a very worthwhile children\'s charity, \'Healing Young Hearts\'. Later, at the adjacent Riverview Place mall, other images were utilised for an exhibition curated by local television host Zhang Lijuan of \'Vivian Speaking\'. Vivian had interviewed me on her programme last spring where we talked passionately regarding documenting the city.


    Jianfu Guanyin Temple Tianjin 2019. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    Jianfu Guanyin Temple was a short metro ride from my hotel. On a beautiful day as the Spring Festival commenced I went there to both spend time in its quiet tranquility while discovering one more attribute to Tianjin\'s many local attractions. Sitting outside its central Yuantong Hall containing a 4 faced, 1000-hand Guanyin statue I looked towards a 600 year old pagoda tree rising in the courtyard that was adorned with red lanterns. Several local people and monks approached offering me traditional festive greetings. A very happy and peaceful start to the holiday.

    Tianjin\'s Confucius Temple, dating back to the Ming Dynasty similarly provided tranquil moments in an area busy with throngs of seasonal visitors. It sits close to the Ancient Cultural Street centered around Tianhou Temple and the city\'s Folklore Museum. Its buildings, recreated in Old Tianjin style, bustled with visitors buying local craft goods, calligraphy and famed snacks. To the west, also recalling the historic city, lies an area radiating out from the Drum Tower. Again popular with visitors, folk artists offered figurines created from sugar or dough. Meanwhile brightly decorated kites, fans, calligraphy and carved seals were there in profusion. It was for me, as always, a great time to simply wander through such older areas particularly as they formed core elements within the former walled city. Historically Tianjin serviced the link between China\'s Grand Canal and Bohai Gulf downriver at Tanggu.


    Contemporary landscape of Haihe River in central Tianjin. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    An attraction of the Shangri-La, where my photo work was exhibited, is that it rises 32 floors above the Haihe River. Night and day, regardless of season, this proved advantageous. It formed an excellent location point for extensively photographing the city whilst looking down across the nearby former British and French Legation Quarters.

    A short walk across Baoding Bridge leads to Jiefang North Road. It runs north towards Jiefang Bridge. Dating from 1927, this steel structured movable bridge has become one of the city\'s historic icons. Particularly in the evening it can be a sheer delight to walk through this unique area. With a history going back to the 1860\'s, it became known as the \'Oriental Wall Street\' for it was the major location in China of many international banks occupying grand, often classical style buildings. Most structures remain, having been carefully restored and splendidly illuminated. After summer evening rains it can be particularly beautiful to walk there with architecture and colours reflecting on its wet road surface.


    Dagu Bridge summer 2018. Jiefang North Road contrasts with Jinwan Plaza 2019. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    Bridges are an integral part of Tianjin\'s scene for it is both a \'city of bridges\' and increasingly a \'city of lights\'! Colourfully lit up nightly the many crossings present a particular charm to the riverside surrounds. In warmer months with the Haihe ice-free, cruise boats carry sightseers for several kilometres between piers near the Railway Station and Dabeiyuan Temple.

    The Haihe, or \'Sea River\', is a key element in Tianjin\'s attractiveness, for it bisects both historic areas and the modern CBD. While no longer a major waterway there are many early photographs, for example in the extensive Tianjin Museum, that illustrate its once bustling commercial trade. Having been landscaped in recent years the riverbanks offers traffic-free strolling while watching activities that may differ between the seasons.


    Winter fishing Haihe River near the \'Tianjin Eye\' January 2018. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    Fascinating to watch in winter are the fishermen sitting patiently alongside circular holes in the river\'s ice cover! This is particularly scenic with a backdrop of the 120 metre high \'Tianjin Eye\' ferris wheel. In the evenings, regardless of season, residents come out for dancing and musical performances along by the river shores where once international 19th and early 20th commerce boomed.

    To appreciate more of the city and its physical layout it is also worth visiting Tianjin Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. It sits between the river and the \'Italian Style Town\'. Formerly the Italian concession the latter has retained many original buildings. Summer or winter, a popular place to dine or stroll in an almost surreal environment.


    Haihe River towards Dagu Bridge 2018. Ligonglou Bridge 2019. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    Water is very much part of both Tianjin\'s geography and history. Most of the city is flat, occupying vast tracts of formerly water-borne alluvium deposited over many hundreds, indeed thousands of years. Water adds beauty to the city, not least along the banks of the Haihe River, but also with some of its long-standing popular parks. Close to Nankai University is Shuishang, the vast water park created in 1951 and covering 126.71 hectares. It emerged from an area long known for its lush vegetation and natural ecosystems. I first visited it in 2004, on a hot summer day when thousands of people gathered there to cool off. Its three large lakes are dotted with 11 islands. Then many visitors were boating however when I last returned it was on a cold, blue sky day during the recent holiday. Despite the freezing conditions local residents had gathered to exercise while others played musical instruments within its pavilions and traditional long corridors. It retained the friendliness I have found not just in its parks but through much of the city, one which is still very welcoming to foreigners.


    Shuishang Water Park. February 2019. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    Rising beyond the \'Water Park\' and its now almost iconic ferris wheel is the 415.2 metres Tianjin Radio and Television Tower (Tianta). Dating from 1991 it quickly became a prominent landmark in the days of the city\'s rise as a major industrial centre for northern China. That period has passed but the tower remains a symbol reaching to a sky today increasingly blue. The city has moved increasingly beyond its earlier heavy industrial period, something I have personally witnessed particularly over the last 15 years.


    Morning coffee looking over Haihe River. A \'touch of Ireland\' at Wudadao. Photo taken in 2019. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    Wudadao, the \'Five Great Avenues\' is an extensive area I particularly appreciate walking through. Once part of the former British concession its narrow streets centered around the now rebuilt Minyuan Stadium represent much of early 20th century residential dwellings. Mostly low-rise housing, often enclosed within personal gardens, it felt for me like going back to an earlier life in the UK! However, often careful development has seen the opening of sophisticated bars and restaurants within some former residences and compounds enhancing, indeed creating a quite positive feel to the area. Personally, after a day walking around Wudadao I like to relax there in a convivial atmosphere reminding me at times of great Irish or Scottish hospitality! Yes, Tianjin has it all for many of us who appreciate its appealing diversity. It is also a city retaining an outdoor street culture of fast foods cooked up at portable stalls again reminding me of years travelling across China.


    Jiefang Bridge and Railway Station clock tower. Jintang Bridge. Photo taken in 2018. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]

    Tianjin is in many ways a unique city that combines many facets, physical, historic and contemporary. It has increasingly become a passion for me to document both its people and the urban development alongside often positive attempts at preserving an important historic legacy. It has also been personally fascinating to follow the interest shown in my approach to Tianjin. Not only from westerners who had previously or continue to regard the city as home, but also from Chinese who have moved overseas. Some recall to me their fondness of earlier days growing up and studying there, sometimes many years ago.

    I can appreciate why the film team working for the recent BBC programme asked to go with them to Tianjin. However, as always there was not enough time to fully recount my many passions and experiences with the city! For me, Tianjin is only a short journey from Beijing. There still remains much to document about this, China\'s historic \'Ford of Heaven\'.


    Food street at Xiaobailou. Heping Road Shopping Street. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]


    \'Great China Theatre\' with Tianjin World Financial Centre 2018. Evening view of the World Financial Centre 2019. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]


    Jiefang North Road after summer rains 2018. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]


    Tianjin\'s \'Ancient Cultural Street\' summer 2017 and January 2018. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/chinadaily.com.cn]