Miloš Jovanović

Tianjin's Imperial Discomfort

Categories: [field notes]

Originally published on the MPI MMG Blog

“When I have seen our navy's flag flying on the bridge and the barrack, it was strange in this Chinese environment, but one gets used to it quickly and wishes that if only our homeland's trade and industry would take part and opportunity to use this piece of land.” [^1]

-Géza Szuk, 1904


Géza Szuk, chief engineer of the Budapest Ganz tramway company, was hopeful about Austria-Hungary’s colonial success, as he proselytized the Empire’s Chinese possessions in the pages of the Vasárnapi Újság weekly. Writing of his visit to the 108-hectare Habsburg concession in Tianjin (天津), Szuk reported diligently on existing infrastructure and potential for expansion, noting the number of people, houses, and the carrying capacity of rivers. The area, “just as big as our downtown in Budapest,” inspired fantasies of success in Szuk, a sense of accomplishment that the Danubian Monarchy had finally carved a piece of “our little China.”

Most historians today would hesitate to call the Habsburg Empire colonial. A recent comprehensive work, penned by renowned scholar Pieter Judson and lauded by reviewers as “spectacularly revisionist,” affirms the trope of continental empire. Vienna’s perspective was inward, Judson argues, developing the tools of governance required by a multi-ethnic empire comparable in some ways to the European Union. In his book, ships leaving the main Habsburg ports of Trieste and Pula scarcely venture beyond Constantinople. Yet, from the eighteenth century onwards, both merchant and military vessels of the Dual Monarchy had strong engagements in lands much further east.

“Our little China”

Between 1901 and 1917 (de jure 1920), a central part of the northern Chinese port of Tianjin was an Austro-Hungarian concession. Split between eight imperialist powers after their suppression of the Boxer Rebellion, Tianjin was a hypercolony, a term used by historian Ruth Rogaski to describe a place where empires positioned themselves vis-a-vis each other in close proximity. Thus, when Géza Szuk talks about the Austrian flag on the “bridge and barrack” (the former depicted below), he does so in the context of multi-sided cooperation and competition between empires. Through new infrastructure, “European” architecture and the expansion of municipal authority, colonial administrations worked together to create “civilized,” industrial urban space on the banks of the Hǎihe river (海河). As Szuk notes, such universalizing projects were often guided by visions of profit.

Today, the Hǎihe river still runs through the center of Tianjin, on its way to meet the Bóhǎi bay. On its banks, the Austro-Hungarian presence is hard to avoid. A set of Habsburg-looking buildings marks the central promenade, inviting both tourists and local residents to stroll in a “historic” space. The city’s outward visage is deeply marked by its colonial past, in part a consequence of large renovation efforts from 2005 onwards. That year, the Tianjin Municipal People’s Congress inaugurated the Regulations on the Protection of Historic Buildings, which singled out 615 structures for protection throughout the city. Although officials emphasized preserving the residences of Chinese administrators and intellectuals, in practice, most the buildings preserved were of colonial origin.

Today part of the Hǎihé Historical and Cultural District (Hǎihé lìshǐ wénhuà jiēqū, 海河历史文化街区), Tianjin’s Austro-Hungarian concession had housed over forty thousand Chinese residents in the early twentieth century, as well as a few dozen merchants and a rotating crew of navy officers and marines, mostly Hungarian and Croatian. In population size, the concession was comparable to mid-tier Habsburg cities, such as Czernowitz, Zagreb, and Sarajevo, yet situated in the middle of a hypercolonial metropolis that rivaled Vienna in size. The architectural mark of Habsburg rule was modest in comparison to other imperial powers - what remains today is a Jugendstil consulate building, a steel bridge, several opulent mansions, a theatre, an officers’ club, and a number of smaller, two-story residences. Interspersed between these buildings are grandiose new additions built after 2005, featuring an eclectic style that merges opulent Viennese baroque and Parisian mansarde rooftops. While such developments exist throughout Tianjin, they are largest and most tightly packed by the riverbank in the former Habsburg concession.


I walk on the promenade by the river. It is a warm day for winter. The sun is out and a breeze clears the smog. I take off my breathing mask and look at the blue sky, feeling free. The promenade is designed to make me feel this way – pedestrian-focused, tree-lined, and open-air. People stroll with others, jog, play mahjong, and some brave souls even go for a swim in the river. I meet a middle-aged man pushing an older man in a wheelchair, out for some air. They ask me to take their photo. The younger man gestures that as a child he would roam around one of the buildings that line the promenade. I am doubtful, as what I see is a brand new building which has yet to receive its tenants. I am told later that a school had existed there, most-likely the Austrian gymnasium, torn down to build the present, more “Austrian” building.

In Tianjin, I stayed at the “Vienna Hotels” brand, a Chinese franchise of 150 mid-range hotels which offers its consumers a setting of European culture and glamour with an “art and music” theme. On the nightstand of every room in a Vienna hotel is a brochure advertising the franchise’s success with profit margins, occupancy percentages, and projected growth rates. Like the Austro-Hungarian colonist, Géza Szuk, the managers of Vienna Hotels emphasize opportunity.

At first, this production of “Fauxstria” appears to have an anti-colonial tint, as the marketing of “Europe” for middle-class Chinese consumers provincializes the architectural legacy of former colonial powers. Yet, its very production embodies the logic of imperialist capitalism which binds distant sites of dispossession for the purposes of profit. This peculiar conflation of the wide world and the fixity of place is perhaps best explored in Jia Zhangke’s 2004 film, The World (Shìjiè, 世界), which follows the lives of workers in a Beijing World Park, a theme park meant to give visitors a chance to see the world’s architectural heritage in one place. It is hard not to make the same connections in Tianjin (as Maurizio Marinelli has done), as the port city’s hypercolonial mix of architectural heritage continues to be commodified for the urban spectator. In Jia Zhangke’s film, this is a moribund future, a hyperproduction of unachievable desires and dashed hopes, a murder-suicide.

While colonial history appears as an ersatz for globalization and economic success, the booming production of urban space in Tianjin has allowed for the practical and material heritages of empire to intersect in nefarious ways. Contemporaneous with the production of economically-useful European-style real-estate, much of Tianjin’s pre-colonial architecture has been destroyed. Feng Jicai (冯骥才), a Tianjin native and one of China’s most famous writers, has written about the process painstakingly in Rescue Old Street (Qiangjiu Laojie, 抢救老街), a book that is part visual documentation, part lament for a lost cityscape. When interviewed about his work, Feng described it as a “race against time,” a sentiment shared by heritage preservation officials I had spoken to in Tianjin.[^2] When a demolition order is given, heritage institutions have at most thirty days to gather all the necessary documents to halt labor. Often, even these short deadlines are not respected by developers. In Shanghai Gone, her book about similar processes in the south, Qin Shao had eloquently called this practice of demolition and relocation of residents “domicide.”

Empires Past and Present

I had hoped to contemplate imperialism from the Dàgū fort memorial, watching the Hǎihe river meet the sea. Online maps had convinced me such a feat was possible. It is windy, wet and bitingly cold as I climb to the top of the fortifications. I find a paved plateau with tattered Qing flags and a few cannons. I try to imagine the assault of the Austro-Hungarian Navy and other imperial powers as they sought to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The perspective of the defenders had been reconstructed for me in a nearby museum, together with simulated cannonfire - yet I find it impossible to orient myself once on top of the fortress. Instead of the sea, the cannons face an immense industrial landscape: docks, silt deposits, lakes of brackish water, containers, bridges, buildings. It is hard not to make the link between the imperialist past and the contemporary moment. The Binhai industrial zone appears as an awesome foe, facing rusty Qing cannons.

There is little nostalgia for the Qing in Tianjin memorials and museums. On the walls of the Tianjin Historical Museum, a large quote from “Trade or Opium,” Karl Marx’s article in the New York Daily Tribune, describes the Qing as “vegetating in the teeth of time, insulated by the forced exclusion of general intercourse, and thus contriving to dupe itself with delusions of Celestial perfection.” Western imperialism is sharply condemned by official historiography, yet simultaneously framed as the beginning of capitalist globalization. Thus, imperial heritage can somehow be read triumphantly, an impetus for China’s successful modernization. Yet, when I look up Marx’s sentence in its entirety, it reads less as a description of progressive modernity, and more of a lament over the tragic and conjectural unfolding of capitalism:

“That a giant empire, containing almost one-third of the human race, vegetating in the teeth of time, insulated by the forced exclusion of general intercourse, and thus contriving to dupe itself with delusions of Celestial perfection, that such an empire should at last be overtaken by fate on [the] occasion of a deadly duel, in which the representative of the antiquated world appears prompted by ethical motives, while the representative of overwhelming modern society fights for the privilege of buying in the cheapest and selling in the dearest markets-this, indeed, is a sort of tragical couplet stranger than any poet would ever have dared to fancy.”

Imperial Discomfort

Reading primary and secondary sources, walking the streets of Tianjin, and speaking with its residents offers a limited perspective on the Austro-Hungarian legacy in the port city. To a scholar such as myself, who approaches the Danubian Empire from its Balkan periphery, the dynamics and logics of its overseas practices are at the same time comparable and incommensurable. Ultimately, my personal perspective and educational background offer little insight into Tianjin as it has been lived and experienced by its residents. Yet, the cultural and political economic landscape of the city’s Habsburg legacy invites a critical view backwards, towards the imperial center. Tianjin’s Austro-Hungarian concession reminds us that the preservation of imperial architecture is always much more than a cultural product. It necessarily plays a dual role – as a reference point in curated historical narratives and a result of historical material processes.

A month after my visit to China, walking among immaculately restored Viennese buildings, I am struck by the same uncanny feeling I had in Tianjin’s Fauxstria. I reflect on the urban text as a curated landscape, one that requires constant restoration and demolition, the production of past and present futures. In Unruly Masses: The Other Side of Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, Wolfgang Maderthaner and Lutz Musner note that “the external illusion of a homogenous urban landscape… merely serves to highlight the politics of identity and social differentiation throughout the city.”[^3] My experience in Tianjin has forced me to add “and the world” to this powerful statement, which encapsulates my discomfort with historic Habsburg streetscapes. The merging of the wide world and the fixity of place appears absent in the Viennese streets, as much as it is inescapable in Tianjin.

In both cities, Fauxstria represents the space where the material legacy of empire is articulated into its present-day role. Certainly, such a relation appears at the site of consumption, where a restorative, curated architecture revives and elaborates upon imperial vistas. What remains visible are the outer facades, obscuring the layers of alienation embedded in space. The constitutive violence of the city becomes increasingly inaccessible to the observer with each degree of historicity attached to a building, street, neighborhood. If Fauxstria presents itself as something which signifies “history,” its basis in the displacement of violence means that historical narratives are always inflected differently, and thus in potential contradiction. The imperial legacy of hypercolonialism and the present position of China in relation to global capital necessarily relates each building in Tianjin to the world, to space beyond the city. Such knowledge brings discomfort to the homogeneity of Viennese streets.

[^1]: Szuk, Géza, „A mi kis Khinánk. A tientsini osztrák-magyar telepítvény” Vasárnapi Újság, Május 1, 1904, 292-295. Translation and annotation by Mátyás Mervay.

[^2]: Michael J Meyer, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (New York: Walker & Co., 2008), 176.

[^3]: Wolfgang Maderthaner and Lutz Musner, Unruly Masses (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), 2.