Inside China...Tianjin

31 Oct 2012 by ahmarshah

When it began planning the launch of its first four-star Modena serviced residence in 2010, Singapore-based Frasers Hospitality knew exactly where the brand would take root: Tianjin. Choe Peng Sum, the company’s chief executive officer, said Tianjin’s efforts to become a high-tech manufacturing hub and gateway to northern China clearly symbolised the dynamic growth of secondary cities in the country, providing a signpost for future foreign investment in fields such as tourism and hospitality. The Tianjin product has served as a catalyst for more Modena projects in China, not only in Shanghai and Suzhou, but emerging hubs Wuxi and Wuhan as well.

Airbus' final assembly line in Tianjin 

Directly administered by the Beijing central government, this port municipality, facing onto the Bohai Gulf and Yellow Sea, has long figured in China’s illustrious history. It first attracted the world powers in the 1900s, who established a presence there and used it as a convenient base for their merchants. A century and more later, Tianjin’s profile has hardly dimmed, gaining even more cachet in these economically driven times, and impressing 76 Fortune 500 companies enough to set up operations in the Binhai New Area, representing pillar industries such as telecommunications, food and beverage, electronics, biochemicals and logistics, among others.

No wonder, therefore, that one of China’s earliest high-speed train services – in 2008 – linked Beijing and Tianjin in a mere 30 minutes, signifying the importance of this port city to the country’s national fortunes.


Tianjin Binhai International Airport (airport code TSN) is a 30-minute car ride from the city centre, and is home to Tianjin Airlines as well as low-cost carrier Okay Airways. The first phase of a terminal improvement project was unveiled in 2008; when completed within the next five years this will allow processing of 40 million passengers. In 2009, a second runway began operating, easing congestion.

Besides being served by all the major and minor Chinese airlines, linking Tianjin to a wide range of domestic destinations, foreign carriers AirAsia X of Malaysia, Scoot from Singapore, Dragonair, Asiana, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, Eva Air, Mongolian Airlines and Vladivostok Air all connect it to regional cities.


The pace of expansion in Tianjin is just like in other Chinese cities – relentless. But despite this boom mindset, the government and local residents remain very proud of their colonial past under nine foreign powers, as well as being determined that their hometown be counted as one of China’s super-metropolises, boasting a spanking new skyline of steel-and-glass towers, stylish shopping malls and a modern subway system.

Passengers queue for the Tianjin Eye ferris wheel

In the iconic Wudadao district, where five avenues run parallel to each other, vintage buildings have been lovingly preserved (or duplicated), reviving an important neighbourhood that is inextricably linked to Tianjin’s history. Meanwhile, along the Haihe River, columns of office and commercial space are rapidly springing up, creating the usual CBD profile, exemplified by the 80-storey Tianjin International Trade Centre.

Forty minutes away by car near the airport, the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), which catapulted Tianjin into the big investment league by attracting such high-flying tenants as Airbus, is a veritable satellite city that continues to grow. It intends to have its own CBD, dubbed the “Modern Service District”, featuring Grade-A offices and supporting infrastructure like high-end residences, exhibition venues and leisure developments.


The Astor Hotel

The Grand Dame of Tianjin hospitality, and a historic icon in its own right, reopened in August 2010 after an extensive 18-month makeover and as the first member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection in China. It unveiled a sensitive preservation of its delightful turn-of-the-century British architectural detailing, combined with modern operational systems, creating the perfect location for discerning business travellers in its 152 guestrooms and public areas. Five unique F&B venues and the ballroom help to recall the days when The Astor Hotel captivated celebrities such as Emperor Pu Yu, Dr Sun Yat-sen and US president Herbert Hoover.


Hotel Indigo Tianjin Haihe

Set in the grounds of the former German consulate in the old German concession, this boutique product features 11 villas (unusual for the city), 96 rooms and 10 suites themed with images from Tianjin’s past.


Modena Heping Tianjin

Those with appointments in the New Binhai Area business district and a craving for space will find this boutique 104-unit serviced residence ideal for their needs. One- or two-bedroom apartments boast modern furnishings and tech necessities such as high-speed wifi, iPod docks and home entertainment systems to ensure a cosy and productive stay. A 24-hour gym and Laundromat are also available.


Renaissance Tianjin Lakeview Hotel

Boasting a waterside location, this 368-room property is within walking distance of important addresses such as the Tianjin Municipal People’s Government, Tianjin Grand Hall and Tianjin International Exhibition Centre, and is also close to the Meijiang International Convention Centre, venue of the Asian version of the World Economic Forum. Facilities include three restaurants and two ballrooms. Its sister Renaissance in the TEDA (Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area) is linked to the TEDA Convention Centre.


St Regis Tianjin

Bespoke service and ever-attentive butlers arrived a year ago in Tianjin with this legendary brand. Ensconced in a distinctive cube-like glass-and-steel building along the Haihe River, it boasts 276 guestrooms, including what is reportedly the largest presidential suite in the city at 427 sqm; five F&B outlets, highlighted by the Decanter wine cellar and St Regis Bar; 2,700 sqm of meeting space, and an indoor swimming pool.



Banyan Tree Tianjin Riverside (opening fourth quarter 2012)

The leisure chain’s renowned spa service concept debuts in Tianjin later this year with 159 contemporary suites and offering its trademark healing therapies, including a special skin moisturising technique to combat the dry climate of northern China.


The Ritz-Carlton, Tianjin

(opening 2013)

Offering 278 rooms, including 55 suites and a presidential suite, the brand that conjures ultimate luxury will arrive in Tianjin with all its renowned bells and whistles, including five complimentary food and beverage servings in the club lounge throughout the day, branded feather beds, Rolls-Royce/Bentley transfers and the Technology Butler, among others.



One of the city’s most popular snacks traces its origins back to the late Qing Dynasty, when legend has it that a young fellow from Wuqing County nicknamed “Doggie” (Gou) arrived in Tianjin, working in a bun shop until he opened his own outlet. His version of the delicacy soon drew record crowds, and his name was modified to “Goubuli”, meaning the “dog who doesn’t talk” because he was often too busy to entertain customers; eventually Goubuli became synonymous with the buns.

The main establishment is at 77 Shandong Road, Heping District, but over 89 branches are scattered around Tianjin and there is a strong presence throughout China. There are more than 90 varieties of the stuffed bun and over 200 different selections on the menu.

Other Tianjin goodies to sample include the “ear-hole fried cake”, which was originally sold by vendor Liu Wanchun from a wheelbarrow until he earned enough to start up “Liu’s Fried Cake Shop” in the Beidaguan area; Guifaxiang fried dough twists which can be purchased at 568 Dagu Road South, Hexi district; guobacai pancake made of millet and mung bean flour, cooked in a sauce made of sesame oil, chopped ginger, soy sauce and green onions; and chatang soup consisting of baked millet and glutinous millet flour. Watch how the skilled chatang maker pours the concoction from a big copper pot whose spout resembles a dragon’s head, holding several bowls in one hand!

Luxury malls with upmarket boutiques such as Jingwang Plaza have sprung up in the elegant Wudadao precinct, but if you’re more interested in Chinese handicrafts than designer clothes, head for the colourful and admittedly quite touristy Gu Wenhua Jie (Ancient Culture Street), which despite its obvious commerce, does yield some great souvenirs like paper cuttings, kites, snuff bottles and jade trinkets. In the Binjiang Dao and Heping Lu “business streets”, you will find local department stores like Quanye, Chang and Jinhui carrying a wealth of casual, trendy apparel.


Tianjin’s after-dark scene may not be as vibrant as Beijing or Shanghai’s, but the options are certainly building up. Begin with Italian Style Town in the former Italian concession near Beian Bridge. From the aptly named Marco Polo Square, ringed with cobblestones, saunter down the street that’s dotted with restaurants, trattorias and pubs, some of which are German themed. Also in the area is the highly popular Brasserie Flo (www.flo.cn/brasserie), which evokes Paris in the 1920s and lays out a tantalising shellfish and oyster buffet. Power lunches from RMB118 (US$19) are available from Monday to Friday.

A cruise on the Haihe River is a lovely way to sail back into the city’s past, viewing the burgeoning collection of restored historic edifices that when lit up at night present a stunning tableau. For a different experience, you can hop into one of the 48 passenger capsules attached to the Tianjin Eye Ferris wheel on Yongle Bridge. The 120-metre-tall attraction takes about 40 minutes to complete a full rotation and offers a panoramic view of this fast-developing metropolis. If you fancy the sport of royalty – polo – motor out to the Metropolitan Polo Club, which has its own hotel and clubhouse, and catch thrilling matches held all year round whether on grass or in snow.

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