The Bridges of Tianjin

Despite the total lack of interest in my Chinese arts post, I continue today under the common traveler’s illusion that the folks back home are anxiously awaiting descriptions of the most trivial incidents on my trip to China.

The official populations of Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin are about 19 million, 17 million and 12 million.   But in China the official figures are misleading, as they include a large rural hinterland.  The metro populations of these three cities are more like 17 million, 13 million, and 8 million; which is a bit less than metro NYC, LA, and Chicago, respectively.  BTW, the most absurd example of this problem is the newly created “city” of Chongqing, which likes to brag that its official population is 30 million.  Yes, but only about 6 million actually live in the metro area; it includes a vast rural population and lots of other distant cities.

Yesterday I visited Tianjin for the first time.  Although it is only 75 miles from Beijing, the Lonely Planet guidebook said it contained little of interest, and that it was a sleepy town where residents were just waiting around for something to happen.  Wrong on both counts.  Everywhere in China contains things of interest, and Tianjin is changing even faster than Beijing.  It does seem to be about a generation behind Beijing (which in China means about 5-10 years), but on a percentage basis the pace of building seems even more rapid.

It took us 75 minutes to get to the Beijing South railway station, but in about 2 weeks the trip will drop to 30 minutes when subway line 4 opens.  The railway station is amazing, the most impressive I have ever seen.  It made me think back to my 1994 train trip to Wuhan, when we were disgorged into a huge, chaotic mass of humanity.  Now everything is light and open and uncrowded.  On the wall they showed plans to extend the high-speed line to Shanghai.  It will travel 800 miles in 5 hours.  Or twice the Boston to DC trip in just over half the time.  BTW, the Beijing-Tianjin-Nanjing-Suzhou-Shanghai corridor is roughly equivalent to the Boston/Washington corridor in the US.  Krugman would approve of what the Chinese are doing—and so do I.  But if he thinks New Jersey is “dense” . . .

The actual trip is 30 minutes, with an average speed of 150 mph and a cruising speed of 203 mph.  The cost of a regular ticket is $8, so we decided to go “first class” at a cost of $10.  This gives you really nice seats, free water, and a special plush waiting area.

After arriving in Tianjin you immediately notice subtle differences.  The taxis are cheaper than the ridiculously cheap Beijing taxis (which are $1.50 for the first 3 miles, 50 cents a mile thereafter.)  I have never once had a female taxi driver in Beijing, but we had three different ones in Tianjin.  The traffic lights are vertical bars, where the green bar gradually descends.  Thus you can anticipate exactly when it will turn yellow.  I don’t know how this affects driving, as all Chinese driving seems hyper-aggressive by American standards.

Unlike Beijing, Tianjin has lots of old European architecture from the period before 1937.  Some of the neighborhoods had an art deco feel.  We started our Tianjin visit with the “porcelain house,” which is entirely covered in Chinese vases, or fragments of vases.  Then we had lunch at a Thai restaurant in little Italy, where there are lots outdoor cafes.  After lunch we saw the street of old Western banks from the 1930s.

At first the guidebook seemed accurate, but as we explored the city we noticed a lot of impressive changes.  I should mention that Chinese cities seem to magically transform over the course of a day.  At midday it is hot and smoggy and the cities tend to look kind of ugly.  At about 5:00 the air seems to clear up somewhat.  The riverwalk at dusk was very impressive, with new skyscrapers going up everywhere you look, one soaring over 1000 feet.  (Beijing really needs a river.  And it wouldn’t surprise me if the Chinese somehow create one there.)  At 7:00 the lights come on and suddenly the city seems to come alive.  If I described all the colored lights it would sound kind of gauche, and in a few places it is.  But often it is quite artful and it makes Tianjin seem much more attractive than it really is.

The most interesting feature of Tianjin was its bridges.  After lunch we crossed one that was decorated in the sort of gaudy style the French used on the bridge near the Place de Concorde.  The one with those four 19th century gold-plated neo-baroque sculptures on each corner.  This link has a few pictures, if you scroll down to the third and 4th pictures.  There are actually two bridges in this general style, although they are by no means alike.  But there are also all sorts of modern bridges, such as several of the suspension bridges with just one tower (did Calatrava invent that design?)  Another has fountains shooting up all around it.  This link shows some of the modern bridges at night.  One contains a 110 meter diameter Ferris wheel, which offers a great view at sunset (if you can see the sun.)  It cost the four of us $30 for the 28 minute ride in a gondola, several weeks wages for a peasant.  On the other hand dinner in a nearby restaurant cost us a total of $15 for four people (and that included taxes and tip.  Interestingly, the lunch in Little Italy was $45, and no better than dinner.  Prices in China are all over the place.  The restaurant wanted to charge us $1.50 for a little packet of paper napkins.  We asked if they had anything cheaper, and they brought out a whole cardboard box of napkins for 30 cents.  Go figure.

Returning to Beijing we found Tianjin’s new station every bit as impressive as Beijing’s.  And as an added bonus the escalators rose into a huge atrium topped by a wide dome decorated with a stunning rococo fresco.  Tiepolo has been reincarnated as a Chinese train station decorator.  After the 30 minute return trip, we waited 20 minutes for a taxi.  It’s not that there were no taxis around; there were 100s of them.  It was like a military operation.  Twenty taxis would pull up in two rows.  Twenty families would be released from the line for a mad scramble to the taxis.  Then they would pull away in unison.  Repeat over and over again.  Even with the incredibly efficient operation, it took a long time.  They really need that new subway line.

PS,  This link shows the 1000 footer under construction, for you skyscraper nerds.  Scroll down to see the white metal worker housing with the blue trim.  These dwellings are set up at almost every building site in China.  They are all almost identical.  The workers building the modern China are almost all men from the countryside.



16 Responses to “The Bridges of Tianjin”

  1. Gravatar of Karl Smith Karl Smith
    3. September 2009 at 05:36

    Is there a full text feed for the Money Illusion? I can only find one with headers.

  2. Gravatar of TJIC TJIC
    3. September 2009 at 05:43

    Your website software is corrupted. The RSS feed for the last few posts has read “The Bridges of Tianjin
    from TheMoneyIllusion
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  3. Gravatar of Current Current
    3. September 2009 at 06:17

    In 2004 I worked for an electronics company that had a major operation in Tianjin. I never had the opportunity to go there. The folks who went there told me that the whole place was a building site at that time. It was being restored and new buildings were being built.

  4. Gravatar of Bababooey Bababooey
    3. September 2009 at 10:01

    The lack of responses might mean people agree with you or simply enjoyed the post as is, wothout an urge to crrect you or the commentariat.

    But since you seem in need of a internet hug, I’m posting to say: “Nice Post!!! Tianjin sounds great. ‘atta boy!!!”

  5. Gravatar of Bob Murphy Bob Murphy
    3. September 2009 at 11:17

    Scott, if you say that the way to rescue the economy is to print up billions of claim to pieces of Chinese art that don’t actually exist, then I’ll be interested.

  6. Gravatar of rob rob
    3. September 2009 at 11:50

    Another great post. I don’t think there is less interest in your Chinese arts posts, just less to debate.

  7. Gravatar of StatsGuy StatsGuy
    3. September 2009 at 14:13

    Agree with Rob – I read it, just have nothing to add or argue about. Except that I still can’t really contemplate the scale of a billion+ people.

    But, I do have one question – what does your experience with napkins say about the Efficient Market Hypothesis? 🙂

  8. Gravatar of Current Current
    3. September 2009 at 15:02

    Bababooey: “The lack of responses might mean people agree with you or simply enjoyed the post as is, wothout an urge to crrect you or the commentariat.”

    rob: “Another great post. I don’t think there is less interest in your Chinese arts posts, just less to debate.”

    Exactly, I enjoy the non-economics posts. I just have little to say about them. I haven’t been to China.

    Since Scott is in a Hegelian mood these days I won’t give him an internet hug though. Neither of us would understand it.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. September 2009 at 16:01

    Karl, I am not sure how to answer your question. When I return to the US I will look into it.

    TJIC, Yes, this has happened many times, and been fixed many times. Unfortunately the problem keeps reoccurring. I’ll have my tech people look at it.

    Current, It has probably accelerated since then. In China buildings go up quickly. And near the riverfront there seem to be more big buildings under construction than completed. It looked to me like at least 30 or 40 were under construction near the river.

    Bababooey, Thanks, you just given a big boost to my chronically low self-esteem.

    Bob, That raises the question of what happens when a famous artist paints a counterfeit $100 bill. It shouldn’t be inflationary if it is collected. An artist actually tried this once, but the Treasury was not amused.

    Thanks rob.

    Stasguy. I should have divided the 30 cent boxes into 4 parts, and sold each back to the restaurant for $1.50 each. Your question about what a big population looks like is interesting. I think when China peaks at 1.5 billion, it may seem less crowded than today. Poverty makes a place seem crowded. Holland is far more densely pupulated that China, but seems much less so. The countryside will eventually be drained of much of its population, and new subway systems will eventually put underground many people who are now roaming the streets. Stores will eventually have only of a tiny fraction of the staffing they have now. Ever complained you can’t find anyone to help at Home Depot? Go to a store in China and there is someone every 10 feet to help you out. Many older peopple sit out on the sidewalk and play checkers, or go. That will also fade away. Don’t get me wrong, it will always seem more crowded than the US, but I think less than it seems now.

    Thanks Current. Unfortunately I know so little about Hegel that your joke went right over my head.

  10. Gravatar of Dilip Dilip
    3. September 2009 at 16:17


    A quick off-topic comment. When I tried to email you a link to your bentley comment, the out-of-office auto-responder says you are only returning on May 28th! Is that next year?!

  11. Gravatar of Dilip Dilip
    3. September 2009 at 16:17


    I meant bentley “account”, not bentley “comment”.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. September 2009 at 18:26

    Dilip, No, the date somehow got set incorrectly. I will be back the 14th of this month.

    And thanks for the Krugman link. BTW, I will have a piece up on September 10th, which is my view of why the profession got things wrong.

  13. Gravatar of Shi Shi
    7. September 2009 at 00:22

    It is great that you like Tianjin. I was brought up there, and left three years ago when my family moved to Beijing.
    It has been no more than two years since the skyscrapers were built, bridges decorated and the River widened. I have never been to the riverwalk myself. So I quite envy you, really.
    Having incidentally read this post, I think it’s time for me to go back to my hometown and look around.
    Yes, you are right that tourists cannot rely entirely on guidebooks, as far as Chinese cities are concerned.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. September 2009 at 17:24

    Shi, Thanks for the info. That makes it even more impressive, knowing all that occurred within the past two years.

  15. Gravatar of Bon Bon
    15. September 2009 at 00:39

    Thanks for pointing out in the beginning the real sizes of those three cities. Many of my Chinese friends like to talk about how crowded China is, but my impression was always that the densities of the big cities weren’t much higher than anywhere else, especially compared to Japan. The problem was always more about lack of transportation infrastructure, which is quickly being remedied with all these trains and subway systems spring up…

    I also think that the “bullet train interstate” that China is developing should get more attention than it does. If Wikipedia’s numbers are to be believed, China plans to spend $300 billion on this system that will connect all of its major cities with trains that go 220 mph. This can be compared to $8 billion announced under the Obama stimulus. Hmmm… I agree that in many areas rail probably doesn’t make sense for the US, but at least in the Northeast Corridor we should get our act together.

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    16. September 2009 at 04:16

    Bon, You make a very good point. But first one qualifier, the cities are more dense that American metro areas, with all their single family houses. But you are right about transport and the general affects of development. I have noticed that cities seem more crowded when they are poorer. Beijing has more people than when I first visited in 1994, but doesn’t seem more crowded. The new subway system (when completed) will put lots of people underground. The new airport and train stations seem much more spacious, much less crowded. Vast new shopping centers move people out of crowded street markets, and indoors. Bigger apartments make people less likely to sit out on the sidewalk and chat, or play checkers (although you still see lots of that.)

    I agree a fast train would make sense in the NE corridor, but we can’t put together the land–the train would have to blast through rich suburbs in the Northeast. We are too litigious. But I really wish I could get to NYC in 90 minutes, it would make day trips by train possible.

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