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.
The 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.
North 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.