[top photo: Darren Cher, 33, city manager of Ascott's serviced-residence properties.]
By Deepika Shetty
SINGAPOREAN ABROAD IN TIANJIN WITH...
Occupation: City manager
Length of stay: 21/2 years
China's third largest city, Tianjin, stands out for its unusual Qing dynasty and colonial architecture Tianjin is a big city with a small town feel. "My friends and I often joke that Tianjin is the world's largest unknown city," says Darren Cher, 33, the city manager of Ascott's serviced-residence properties there.
It is China's third-largest city with a population of more than 10 million. It is also a major port but not too many people outside the country know about it, even though it is just 30 minutes from Beijing by the new bullet train.
The pace of life in Tianjin is slower than in the capital city, though, and a lot more comfortable. Architecturally, the city has the feel of Europe with many colonial European buildings.
It also boasts several firsts: China's first stock exchange opened there, the first telephone and sewing machine in China were made in Tianjin and the first highway roads and TV tower were also built there.
Often called the 'Shanghai of the North' for its rapid development, it is also home to the first Airbus final assembly plant outside Europe and the upcoming Sino-Singapore Eco-City project.
Mr Cher says: "The dynamism and rapid growth of Tianjin keep me here. Shanghai and Beijing are already very advanced cities. Tianjin is just starting to develop and it's enormously exciting to be here to witness the changes."
The best way to get around Tianjin is...
By cabs, which are easily available here and a lot more affordable than in Singapore. Compared to Beijing and Shanghai, road traffic in Tianjin hasn't become a nightmare.
The best way to explore the place is...
On foot, because Tianjin is often called a living architecture museum. Only by walking can you discover and appreciate the amazing architecture in the various colonial and concession areas. The Concessions in Tianjin were territories ceded by China's rulers to the European imperial powers in Tianjin from the 1860s to the 1940s. The foreign influence led to distinctive architecture, which is best explored on foot.
The best time to visit the city is...
April to May or September to October. During Tianjin's relatively short spring in the earlier part of the year and during autumn, the cool weather is just right for exploring the city. It is about 20 to 26 deg C.
What's the weather like?
Tianjin largely has two distinct seasons - a long cold winter and a long hot summer. Spring and autumn are relatively short. Unlike in Singapore, it is dry in Tianjin throughout the year. So even in summer, it is not humid, though temperatures can rise to above 35 deg C.
Which places really excite you?
The various concession areas in Tianjin. You almost feel like you are in Europe when you visit these places as the architecture is very European.
Must one know the language to get around?
Definitely. Most locals and cab drivers speak only Mandarin. However, English is spoken in hotels and some shops and restaurants that cater to tourists and expatriates. If you really need to, you can hire a Mandarin-speaking guide.
The entire city has so much to offer, where does one start?
You could start at the Hai River which snakes through the city. It is regarded as the 'mother river' of Tianjin. In the past two years, the government has spent a lot of money to clean it up. Today, visitors can enjoy a stroll along its clean pavements and take in the various sights and sounds.
Start from the Tianjin Railway Station, which is located by the river, and make your way to the Tianjin Eye, which is the city's version of the Singapore Flyer. Along the way, you will see fine examples of colonial architecture, new glitzy developments under construction, and bridges of different designs. You will also see old bridges that have been wonderfully restored, including a drawbridge. In winter, it is quite a sight to see people trying to fish on the almost frozen river.
Your favourite cultural stop is...
Ancient Culture Street. This is a replica of a 100-year-old Qing dynasty street. It is lined with shops on both sides selling local food and all kinds of traditional Chinese arts and crafts, including the famed clay figurines of Tianjin. While you are here, make time to visit the museum which offers insights into the city's rich past.
Tianjin's Ancient Culture Street.
One cannot leave without visiting...
The Five Avenues district, which is a former European concession area framed by five roads. Many former and current government officials live in houses there. Besides the historical European architecture, you will find many small shops, restaurants and traditional Chinese tea houses.
Any key festivals to work into one's travel plans?
Visit Tianjin during Chinese New Year when the entire city is lit up with firecrackers. If you are lucky, you may even experience snow.
The best bargains are at...
A flea market in Shu Guang Li. It is a big outdoor area with many stalls and shops selling everything from handbags and shoes to clothes. Prices are so low that you may not even need to bargain. They are significantly lower than those at similar flea markets in other parts of China, such as Beijing's Silk Street.
I bought a nice knapsack for just 5 yuan (S$1.10) at the market. My friends still do not believe the price I paid for it.
The richest variety of products can be found at...
Da Hu Tong, a mammoth wholesale centre, which is one of the biggest in north-east China. It is made up of several buildings, each specialising in different types of goods, including children's wear, household items, flowers, fashion, New Year and Christmas decorations... everything you can think of.
If you feel like splurging, head to the Friendship Store in Youyi Road and to Hisense Plaza in the Xiao Bai Lou area for some high-end shopping.
Do not leave the place without...
Trying xiao bao li zi, or chestnuts. This local delicacy comes in different grades - the better ones naturally cost more. They are available at many places, but I usually buy them at Xian Road. Be prepared to queue.
Also, try the Gou Bu Li bao zi, which are buns filled with pork and spices. They are available at Gou Bu Li restaurants throughout the city. However, for the most authentic ones, I recommend Gou Bu Li Restaurant (77 Shandong Road, Heping District, tel: +86-22-2730-2540).
The best breakfast is at...
Hank's Sports Bar And Grill (Level 1, Building B, Shang Gu, Tian Ta Dao or TV Tower Road, Nankai District, tel: +86-22-2341 7997). The restaurant serves a delightful American breakfast consisting of French toast, pancakes, bacon, sausages and omelette. On weekends, you can enjoy an eat-all-you-can breakfast from 9.30am to 1pm for just 50 yuan. It is run by an American.
The best dinner is at...
Kiessling Western Restaurant (33, Zhejiang Road, Xiao Bai Lou, Hexi District, tel: 86-22-2332-1603). The 100-year-old institution in Tianjin is the oldest Western restaurant in the city and gives you a taste of colonial Tianjin. For Chinese food, I highly recommend Bai Jiao Yuan (43 Pingshan Road, Hexi District, tel: 86-22-2352-6120), which has 100 varieties of dumplings.
What is the coolest place to chill out at?
The cafes at the newly restored Italian concession area offer great alfresco dining.
On a clear day, you can take in the grandeur of the colonial Italian architecture as you sip your coffee. Or you could simply watch couples taking wedding photos.
A Chinese opera singer, dressed in traditional finery, sings during the annual lantern festinal in Tianjin.
The one place you always take your friends to is...
Sitong Bar (126, Chengdu Road, Somerset Olympic Tower, Basement 1, Heping District, tel: +86-22-2337-7177), located in the basement of Ascott's Somerset Olympic Tower. It has become an institution in Tianjin despite having been around for only two years.
Many locals and foreigners hang out there because of the Filipino band, which drums up an electrifying atmosphere each night.
Is there a Clarke Quay equivalent?
At Shanggu Commercial Street are many restaurants, bars and shops, including some of the most popular and highly acclaimed French, Indian, Korean and American restaurants in the city.
What is there to explore?
The city's best-kept secret is the Tianjin section of the Great Wall - Huang Ya Guan. Compared with the Beijing section, there are fewer tourists at Huang Ya Guan, so it is one of my favourite weekend escapes.
Another attraction worth a visit is the majestic Pan Shan, the highest mountain to the east of Beijing. Also, visit the Tianjin TV Tower for spectacular views of the city.
Any other sites that would appeal to Singaporeans?
The Shi Family Mansion in the town of Yang Liu Qing. This is about a 40-minute drive from Tianjin.
It was the residence of a wealthy merchant in the 19th century. The mansion even has a school and a theatre.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.