Monthly Archives: March 2013

Qingdao – German Concession

In October 2012 another business conference gave us the opportunity to visit Qingdao – Tsingtao for beer lovers – in Shandong Province a 1.5-hour plane flight north from Shanghai. Like Xiamen, Qingdao was a treaty port forced open for trade by Western powers. As in Gulangyu, colonial-era buildings are still abundant in the former concession area.

When Germany took possession in 1898, Qingdao was an impoverished fishing village. Local people resettled in villages further to the east, and the Germans set about building wide streets and lining them with solid German-style homes and government buildings.

They outfitted the concession with electricity, a sewer system and safe drinking water. The concession had the highest school density and the highest per capita student enrollment in all of China, with primary, secondary and vocational schools funded by the Imperial German treasury and by Protestant and Roman Catholic missions. In 1903 a joint venture established the now world-famous Tsingtao Brewery. German influence extended to other areas of Shandong Province, including the establishment of diverse commercial enterprises.

Germany considered Qingdao a strategically important port. As such the Imperial Department of the Navy, rather than the Imperial Colonial Office, administered Qingdao. From Qingdao the navy’s Far East Squadron conducted operations throughout the Pacific and South Pacific until 1914, when an invasion by an alliance of British and Japanese forces started four decades of political turmoil that continued until the establishment of the PRC in 1949.  Fortunately, the Tsingdao brewery kept operating and at one point represented over 90% of China’s exports.

Today Qingdao is one of China’s largest ports and a major manufacturing center of both foreign and domestic brands. The city remains Tsingtao Brewery’s international headquarters. Qingdao, along with Xiamen, is arguably one of China’s most livable cities and a favorite summer destination for Chinese tourists. They flock to Qingdao’s beaches to escape the heat, humidity and pollution of China’s interior cities. Qingdao is also popular with foreign tourists, especially Germans.

Qingdao became a concession 56 years after Xiamen, so its concession era homes, commercial buildings and government buildings are considerably newer. This fact alone can’t explain the relative condition of colonial era structures in the two cities. When the Meiji-era Japanese displaced the Germans in 1914, they continued to use the German’s homes and buildings and even continued to build structures and improve the city. Historical plaques on many of the post-German occupation, Western-style structures attribute the structures to Chinese architects. Since Qingdao is relatively close to Beijing, officials could use colonial era mansions as seaside retreats.

12_0252512_02521The German Governor’s Mansion, a replica of a German castle, is the jewel of Qingdao’s colonial architecture. Built in 1903 on a hilltop overlooking the city, its construction is said to have been so extravagant that Kaiser Wilhelm II fired the governor as soon as he got the bill.

Since founding of the People’s Republic of China, the building has functioned as a guest house for high-level government officials. Qingdao Ying Hotel, as the place is now known, is open to the public as a museum. According to the museum’s interpretive information, Chairman Mao and other top Communist Party officials spent lengthy periods of time with their families as guests.

Large half-timbered, stuccoed houses line the narrow tree shaded streets that meander around the hillsides below the Governor’s mansion and give way to German style government and commercial buildings culminating downtown in a monumental Protestant church and a Catholic cathedral.

12_02537North of the governor’s mansion, the concession area extends onto a peninsula ringed by gently sloping sandy beaches. The upscale residential area is now called Badaguan, Originally eight long parallel streets intersected by cross streets. Each of the eight (ba) long streets is named after a famous fortified Chinese mountain pass (daguan). Along each of the eight long streets, the Germans planted a different kind of tree. The now-mature trees shade the quiet streets. Behind gated walls, passersby can glimpse the well-kept mansions and villas along Badaguan’s streets.  During our mid-October afternoon visit, the houses appeared to be summer vacation retreats whose owners had mostly returned to duties in the city.

But one activity was still in full swing – wedding photos.  As in Central Asia, it is popular for Chinese couples to travel around and be photographed in front of famous places.  The sessions are organized by agencies who rent the wedding dresses and drive the couple around to the required sites, where they often need to wait in line for their pose in front of an historic building.  The whole process can take several days and thousands of dollars, so it is no surprise that the couples’ smiles are sometimes forced.



“Unequal Treaties” and Treaty Ports

Britain and the fading Qing Dynasty held conflicting views on diplomatic relations, trade and administration of justice, and control of the opium trade. When Chinese officials in Guangzhou confiscated and destroyed supplies of opium from British traders, Britain objected to the seizure and used its military might to retaliate.

Thus began the First Opium War (1839-42). During the Opium War’s Battle of Amoy in 1841, the British occupied Xiamen. Fighting continued for a year before the Qing government accepted defeat and signed the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing.

The treaty forced the Qing Dynasty to accept Britain’s trade-related demands of ceding the island of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom in perpetuity and establishing five “treaty ports”: Guangzhou (Canton), Fuzhou (now capital of Fujian Province), Ningbo (a port city near Shanghai), Shanghai, and Xiamen (Amoy). Soon afterward the Qing also granted similar “concessions” to France and the U.S. Before the 1912 fall of the Qing Dynasty, foreign governments secured more than 80 treaty ports.

These treaties placed no reciprocal obligations on foreign governments. To this day Chinese textbooks call these “unequal treaties”. The fact that Western governments forced these treaties on the Qing is still deeply humiliating to the Chinese government and to Chinese people. China is still seeking to recover “face” lost during the period and is struggling to resume its historic role as a powerful nation.

Xiamen’s Gulangyu: A Concession-Era Relic

In October 2012 a business-related conference gave us the opportunity to visit Xiamen, a 1.5 hour plane flight south from Shanghai. Xiamen is a port city on a large island in Fujian Province. It lies on the eastern side of Taiwan Strait – Taiwan is 180 kilometers across the Strait and actually controls several small islands 6 kilometers off the coast.

12_02253Xiamen is a pleasant modern city with an active seaport and university, but its greatest historical attraction is a small island called Gulangyu facing the main downtown. Stepping off the ferry after the five-minute crossing, you enter a time warp that is a unique mix of decaying colonial villas and trendy remodeled hotels.

Because of its location on the seacoast at the mouth of the Jiulong River, Xiamen has long been a trading center. During the Jin Dynasty (265-420 CE) China first extended control over the area. The city officially opened to foreign trade during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE). Trade with the West officially began in 1842 as a result of the Treaty of Nanjing which marked the end of first Opium War. At that time Westerners knew the city as Amoy, its name in the local Hokkien dialect.

12_02350Xiamen was one of the first “treaty ports” that the Western powers forced China to open to trade in the “unequal treaties” of the 19th century. Foreigners who settled in newly built concession areas on the edge of existing treaty port cities enjoyed “extraterritoriality” – exemption from local law as stipulated in the various treaties. They established clubs, race courses and churches and staffed and operated their own police forces and judicial systems.

In Xiamen foreigners from many nations built their embassies, churches, clubs and homes on Gulangyu. Wealthy Chinese merchants also enjoyed the concession’s prestige and security, building their own Western-style villas.

That security ended in 1912 with the civil upheaval and war following the fall of the Qing Dynasty. During this time foreigners gradually left Gulangyu, and the island was mostly abandoned after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.Private ownership ended and the abandoned villas became property of the state. Apart from a few that were continuously maintained, most of the villas and mansions were left to the ravages of time. The former British embassy is now an office building. The adjacent ambassador’s residence is now a small hotel and restaurant. The former Japanese embassy is now a ratty multi-family tenament.

12_02329 12_02348 12_02399Today more than 1,000 colonial era villas and mansions still stand along hilly Gulangyu’s meandering, tree-lined streets. Some have been renovated into boutique hotels and stylish restaurants. Many more have been haphazardly divided into individual living units. Others stand abandoned in various states of collapse.

12_02377 12_02373 12_02307 12_02245Interestingly, the front entry gate of many – even some dilapidated beyond habitation – bear a plaque designating them as an “Important Cultural Property”. Gulangyu is already a favorite destination for Chinese tourists. It seems that the Xiamen government, fully aware of this tourist goldmine, has decided to preserve Gulangyu’s heritage architecture in anticipation of privately funded restoration projects. In fact, we observed several restoration projects in progress.

Gulangyu’s historical buildings escaped the wrecking ball that has transformed the rest of China’s coastal cities.  Perhaps its island location made shopping malls, high-rise residential complexes and high-rise office buildings impractical.  But the island’s strategic importance in the cold-war political standoff kept Gulangyu off-limits to developers.  A significant part of the island remains a military reservation to this day.

12_02247The island has, of course, been discovered by the hordes of Chinese tourists, so the parts near the ferry are packed every day.  But it is not hard to turn a corner and find neighborhoods that are still quiet.  We particularly liked finding a set of three old tunnels that connect the busy areas to neighborhoods where local people live in decaying mansions with little interaction with the tourists.