Qingdao: China's European city

28 Dec 2018 by Michael Allen

In a visit during the 1980s, when China was first opening its doors to the outside world under its reform policy, travel writer Paul Theroux found the city of Qingdao had an “irrational, dreamlike quality”.

He felt uncomfortable in a non-European city filled with European architecture, a stately Lutheran church abutting a noodle stall. Today, many areas in the city still preserve architectural styles from the German colonial period: Baroque, Byzantine, Eclectic, Gothic, Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and Romanesque buildings abound.

Although Western colonialism in China more commonly brings to mind British Hong Kong, Portuguese Macau or Shanghai’s French Concession, Qingdao was actually the first European colony fully located on the Chinese mainland.

Theroux was sharply critical of the colonial powers – “imperialists”, he called them – that had come to Qingdao, criticising the “fat and monumental” buildings constructed “whether they fit the place or not”.

At one point in history, at least, the Chinese government seemed to share Theroux’s view. Red Guards, those members of the student paramilitary social movement mobilised by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, partially destroyed the city’s St Michael’s Cathedral, including its 2,400-pipe organ that was one of the two biggest in Asia, according to state-owned newspaper China Daily. In April 2008, the Qingdao Diocese ordered a new one from Germany with similar capacity.

Qingdao Harbour

Maritime hub

Qingdao is now an international port city and a maritime hub in northeast Asia, benefiting from its strategic geographic location. The city trades with over 450 ports in more than 130 countries or regions around the world, according to World Port Source.

“Shipping and international trade is huge there,” says David Yu, an adjunct professor of finance at New York University Shanghai, pointing to a World Shipping Council report stating that Qingdao is the world’s eighth largest container port by volume. “On the manufacturing side, there are major shipyards, both commercial and military, including one that built China’s first aircraft carrier. In terms of port activities, Qingdao is ranked one of the top in China and top ten globally in container volume.”

Besides shipping, major Chinese companies such as Haier, Hisense, Tsingtao Brewery and Qingjian Group are based there. “It’s a big second-tier city. There are some major enterprises,” Yu says.

Hosting the SCO summit

Qingdao is also becoming a bigger player in the MICE industry, having hosted a major regional summit last year. In 2018, Qingdao was chosen as the location for the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), comprised of China and seven other member states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan.

The SCO started life in 2001 as an obscure regional organisation, but by its 2006 gathering in Shanghai had received a “flush of interest” from nations eager to join, according to The New York Times.

Last year’s meeting resulted in the 2018 Qingdao Declaration, whose more than 5,000 words cover a wide range of topics as varied as the Afghanistan peace process, preventing cross-border epidemic outbreaks of animal diseases, and International Yoga Day.

While the Qingdao SCO meeting did not garner as much international media attention as other gatherings of world leaders like Davos or the G20 summit, it will certainly have helped put Qingdao on the map among the countries in the SCO group.

Laoshan Mountain, Qingdao

Tourist attractions

Zhanqiao Pier
Built in 1892, this is on the southern shore of Qingdao off Zhongshan Road. It’s the oldest artificial pier built for military purposes in Qingdao. The long strip stretches deep into crescent-shaped Qingdao Bay, with semicircular breakwaters built at the southern end. A two-storey octagonal pavilion, Huilan Pavilion, stands at the end of Zhanqiao Pier.

Badaguan (The Eight Great Passes)
Situated on the northern coast of Taiping Bay and in the southern foothills of Taipingshan, Badaguan – meaning “the eight great passes” – covers an area of about 1.5 square kilometres and has more than 200 villa buildings.

Laoshan (Mount Lao)
Among all the great mountains in China, Laoshan is the only one that stands on the coastline. Located near the Yellow Sea, its peak reaches an altitude of around 1,133 metres. With 18 islands of different size nearby, the great scenery of the mountain and the nearby sea provide stunning views for visitors. Laoshan is also regarded as one of the cradles of Taoism and is home to several Taoist temples.

St Michael’s Cathedral
Also known as the Zhejiang Road Catholic Church, this is the largest example of Gothic architecture in Qingdao and the only consecrated church in China.

Qingdao International Sailing Centre
Situated on the coast of Fushan Bay, the Qingdao International Sailing Centre once hosted the sailing competitions of the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 13th Summer Paralympic Games. When competitions are on, visitors can watch the boats competing fiercely. You can also walk along the breakwater, gazing out to sea and the reflection of the white buildings on the blue water.

A bite of Qingdao

Qingdao is renowned for its seafood. Specialities include braised sea cucumber and pork, abalone, stir-fried conches, stir-fried prawns with Chinese cabbage, braised yellow croaker with tofu, fried oysters, and mackerel dumplings. Qingdao’s most famous food street is Dengzhou Road, known as the “Beer Street”, where you can find the world-famous Tsingtao Brewery. Its old factory houses the Tsingtao Beer Museum.


New ways to get to Qingdao

In recent years, getting to Qingdao has been made simpler as the city has won several new air routes. From London, passengers can fly in directly on Beijing Capital Airlines on a route launched on November 17, 2017. This 12-hour, non-stop service flies two times a week with the airline’s two-class Airbus A330-200 aircraft.

Beijing Capital Airlines also offers a direct flight from North America. The Vancouver-Qingdao-Hangzhou route is thrice weekly and also served by an A330.

Rail travel to Qingdao has improved considerably since Paul Theroux’s 1980s trip, when a train journey from Yantai to Qingdao took an unimpressive seven hours to cover 150 miles (241km), with the train stopping every five minutes. Theroux was, however, able to enjoy a multi-course meal for only US$2.70.

If heading to Qingdao from the provincial capital of Jinan, travellers will soon have a new high-speed rail option. The Qingdao-Jinan high-speed railway, part of the Qingdao-Yinchuan passageway, is set to open at the end of 2018 and whisk passengers at 350 kilometres per hour between the two cities in just one hour (there are now no direct flights available and driving takes around four hours).

Jasmine Ji and Michael Allen

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