“I’m mad about Tianjin,” says former Sydney-native and long-term resident of Tianjin, Michael Bateman. “Even if this is an industrial town, there’s a lot to see and do here. We’ve got our own section of the Great Wall, and the Qing Tombs here are better than Beijing’s Ming Tombs. There are over 70,000 restaurants and the food is wonderful!

“What’s more, I’ve worked everywhere from Fiji to Thailand, but this is one of the safest cities I’ve ever been in ? I have to readjust my thinking whenever I travel anywhere else.”

Bateman, who settled in Tianjin 11 years ago and married a local girl, isn’t the first foreigner to have succumbed to its varied charms. Forced by British and French gunboats to open up to foreign commerce (including the opium trade) in the mid-1800s, this port city subsequently acquired more foreign concessions than other entrepots elsewhere in China ? it had nine while Shanghai had three ? covering vast areas in plum locations by the river Haihe. Each was like a self-contained town with its own waterfront warehouses, town halls, churches, schools and elegant houses and gardens, designed according to the unique architectural style of the residents, which included the British, French, German, Russian, Japanese, Austro-Hungarian, Belgian, Americans (who later merged with the British in 1902) and the Italians (this was their only political settlement in China).

Past accounts reveal that the British, French and Italians spared no efforts in beautifying their sections, parts of which can still be viewed today, having escaped developers’ hungry bulldozers. Wall plaques on some of the villas shed light on their former occupants, ranging from local warlords who felt they gained “face” by living in such genteel surroundings, to retired diplomats, intellectuals and political reformers.

Renowned Tianjin expatriates include Eric Liddell, winner of the 400m race at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games and source of inspiration for the award-winning film Chariots of Fire; US president Herbert Hoover, who worked in the local branch of Citibank before entering politics; and prominent World War II veterans, generals Joseph Stilwell and George Marshall, both of whom lived in the US army barracks.

With this year marking its 600th founding anniversary as a town in the time of Ming Dynasty ruler Emperor Yongle, Tianjin remains a vibrant magnet for economic and commercial activity, its ability to adapt to global influences and demands undimmed. True to its name ? meaning “heavenly ford” in Mandarin (a reminder of the emperor’s crossing the river Haihe) ? it continues to be the gateway to the whole of northern China, as well as a burgeoning regional hub for clothes and automobile manufacturing and the electronic, petrochemical and metallurgical industries. It is also an important distribution centre for raw materials, containers and fuel.

Unlike most places that might not have thrived in the formidable shadow of Beijing (about two hours away by car or train), Tianjin has always made good use of its excellent coastal location. As one of only four municipalities answering directly to Beijing, instead of to the provincial authorities, the hub enjoys considerable autonomy, running an attractive investor programme that has since lured some 60 Fortune 500 companies as well as all the Japanese and Korean giants to set up base there.

One of the pioneers was Motorola, which set up a base in the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA) 12 years ago, sinking $1.5 billion into a sprawling factory complex that churns out semiconductors, pagers and cellular phones. (Lately, developments have shifted the emphasis to mobile phone equipment.)The plant is China’s largest “Foreign Invested Enterprise”.

Innovation has always figured very prominently in Tianjin society. The first post office in China opened here in 1878 and other firsts include the telegraph, a commercial railway line, the mint, a tramline, a western-style medical institution and a modern university.

Today, Tianjin’s reputation as a crucible for new ideas burns as brightly as ever. Recently, new ground was broken when the UK-based Standard Life and TEDA Investment Holdings established a joint-venture life insurance programme in July 2003. Until then, the central government had strongly resisted efforts to open up the field to foreign players.

With the Beijing Olympics only four years away, Tianjin has inevitably caught the planning fever. Links between the two cities will strengthen even more in 2005 when Beijing’s sixth ring road and Tianjin’s fourth will bring them almost to a meeting point, creating a consumer market of a combined population of 27 million.

To cater to the growing affluence, local developers have embarked on ambitious real-estate ventures, like the huge commercial and residential project to be developed around the new football stadium, which is scheduled to open in time for the Games.

By far the largest urban scheme is the planned renovation of long stretches of derelict warehouses and moribund state-owned enterprise buildings along the river. The plans embrace visionary mixed developments integrating private housing, commercial centres and recreational areas that promise in due course to transform Tianjin into one of China’s most attractive modern working and living environments.

Unlike other Chinese destinations, Tianjin is not widely known for its tourist attractions, but officials are working on ways to attract over half a million tourists by next year, using the city’s heritage sites and former concession areas as major draws. Discussions are ongoing about the gentrification of these areas and the conversion of vintage buildings into boutique hotels and trendy shops and cafes.

When they are not sampling the delights of Tianjin’s wealth of restaurants and eateries, the city’s residents go shopping. And for the cash-flushed entrepreneurs, there’s an entire street lined with designer boutiques. Veteran Asian retailers, including Isetan, New World and Wing On, are now doing brisk business there, as is well-established French supermarket giant, Carrefour.

Despite the arrival of these slick newcomers, Tianjin’s colourful antique market, located in Shenyang Street, is renowned, attracting collectors from all over China. Sunday mornings are when you see it at its busiest.

For tasteful handicrafts, Culture Street offers the biggest selection, ranging from woodblock prints from Yanliuqun to small clay sculptures known as “mud men” and intricately designed kites. Around the Drum Tower, the pedestrianised streets also carry unusual items in contrast to the mass-produced trinkets.

Expect to hear much more about Tianjin soon, very soon.