AN AMERICAN IN CHINA: 1936-39 A Memoir


Tianjin ~ 天津

Tientsin (Tianjin)

Gordon Hall Tienstin


ientsin was declared an open trading port in 1860. The British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon (yes, the one who would later die in Khartoum) laid out the plans for the British concession. The above is the seat of British Administration, or Gordon Hall, which is named after him, and a view of Victoria Park. Part of the Astor House Hotel is visible at right.

All together there were eventually eight foreign concessions in the city, those of France, Britain, Japan, Russia, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Belgium. Except for a short time during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and the period when Tientsin was occupied by the Japanese, from 1938 to 1945, it was under Western control for over eighty years. The concessions presented a remarkable collection of architectural styles from those decades, many examples of which still exist today, if in somewhat altered form. A vibrant commecial street that traversed the various concessions was named according to the nationality of the concession, thus Victoria Street became the Rue de France, Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse or Woodrow Wilson Road, depending on which concession it was in.

Herbert Hoover, president of the U.S., and a onetime Tientsin resident during the Boxer Rebellion, wrote in his memoirs: "Tienstin is a universal city, like a world in miniature with all nationalities, all architectural styles, all kitchens."

Famous Westerners born in Tienstin include Eric Liddel, the runner and missionary, and John Hersey, the novelist, whose parents were missionaries there.

Gordon Hall and Victoria Park with
World War I Cenotaph


The Chinese took the city back in 1949 and it is now spelled Tianjin. Greater Tientsin has a population of 10 million,


G.H. Thomas writes on March 23, 1939:

I arrived in Tienstin Tuesday afternoon and stayed overnight at the Astor House, and then caught the train for Peking. The train was packed with Japanese officers, and the two-and-a-half hour trip wasn't much fun. Each officer carries swords, pistols, big dispatch cases, field glasses, canteens and other odds and ends in such number that he should have an entire compartment to himself.

The country is so flat and ordinary between Tienstin and Peking that one could almost imagine to be riding across our Midwest plains. The sudden appearance of the great walls of Peking comes as a startling experience, even when they are expected.


The Astor House Hotel, at left, and the Tientsin Club in the British Concession.

Old Tientsin Slide Show

Japanese Concession Tienstin

The Japanese Concession

The Russo-Chinese Bank, above, built in 1914-17, was not in the Russian section, but in the British, as were all the main banks. The building has survived but not the one in the background.


The Astor HouseHotel in winter

Above, an early image of the Winged Victory in the Piazza Regina Elena in the Italian Concession
(under Italian control from 1901-1947)


Old view of the Italian Concession, la concessione italiana

An early view of the Astor House Hotel and Victoria Park. Gordon Hall is just visible in upper left.

It is not just the concession buildings that are being restored in a movement that started in the mid-90's. A surprising conciliatory gesture, and a symbol, perhaps, of Tianjin's efforts to attract Western investment and tourists is the reinstatement of the Winged Victory that once stood in the center of the Piazza Regina Elena, see left, in the former Italian Concession. It had not been seen since its dismantlement decades ago.

Italian Village- Tianjin

As a modern counterpart to the former Italian Concession, Italy is cooperating with China in building what is being called an Italian Village. This development, to be carried out by an Italian architectural firm, will lie between the old concession area and the river and will contain exhibition areas, offices, cultural and educational centers and hotels.

Nascera a Tianjin, nel cuore industriale della Cina, il Tianjin Italian Village, innovativo complesso architettonico - urbanistico che porta la firma tutta italiana della Caputo Partnership.



The picturesque German Concession in the early 1900's. The effect is that of an international exhibition around the turn of the century, or perhaps even a bit of Disneyland, so foreign this might have seemed to a Tientsin native. However alien it may be, nowadays it might seem idyllic in comparison to the rapidly proliferating high-rises.

Above, an early view of the elegant Russo-Chinese Bank, which is still standing today.

No, this is not the Russo-Chinese Bank as it looks today,
but the Eastern Bank, probably built in the 1920's. A distinctive
feature in both, however, is a triangle shape to fit the city's large avenues.

This beauty, above, in the former Austrian Concession
was built at the turn of the last century for the Chinese military commander
Yuan Shi-Kai, provisional president of the new Republic
of China from 1912 to 1916. It has been stunningly restored.

The Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in the English Concession, Victoria Street. It still stands today. Many of the old buildings are being renovated in an extensive conservation effort.

The Concordia, German Club

Built in the neo-Romanesque style in 1907, it is no longer in its original state, having been damaged by time and earthquakes. It is one of the oldest Western-style buildings in Tientsin still standing.

Ships on the Pei-Ho, now called Hai He (海河), in winter.

The Pei-Ho along the concessions. Sea-going vessels could reach Tientsin by ascending the river from the sea at Taku.


TThe International Bridge, a sensation when it was built at the turn of the 20th century, probably by French engineers. It was called the International Bridge because it joined two concessions. In 1949 the Communists changed its name to Liberation Bridge. Since that date, according to Tess Johnston in her book "Far From Home," it has "never again opened its span for river traffic."

Tientsin in 1937



Blood is thicker than water

In June, 1859, an American ship, the Toeywan, unexpectedly came to the aid of a British fleet engaged in an attack on the Chinese at the mouth of the Pei-ho River. The commander of the ship, Josiah Tattnall, was later asked to explain his actions. In a dispatch to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Tattnall tersely commented, "Blood is thicker than water." While Tattnall catapulted the statement into popular use,
it had appeared as early as 1670 in a book of Scottish proverbs compiled by one John Ray.

Piazza Regina Elena, Italian Concession

Another view of the Piazza Regina Elena in the 1930s.

Another view of the Concordia Club. Notice the sailing ships on the river in background.

Street in the French Concession, 1930s.

For pictures of the concession area in Tianjin today, visit Skyscraper City Web Site.
Visit the site of a 2004 exhibition on Tianjin at Cornell University
Search the "American in China" Web site







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