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REAL ESTATE: The History of Real Estate along Jiefang Road
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The History of Real Estate along Jiefang Road

By Chelsea Cai, Senior Analyst, JLL,Tianjin

BT 201503 26 Real Estate 001ec94de60613db1e320dOne of the hidden gems of Tianjin is the city's abundance of historical European architecture. Dotted throughout the city, these historical structures give Tianjin a unique look and feel, a characteristic distinction that rivals other cities in China with European architecture. North Jiefang Road is where many of the most historically significant European buildings are located and where many of the European and US historical figures burnished their reputations.

North Jiefang Road, situated in Heping District, runs from the northwest at Jiefang Bridge to the southwest at Xuzhou Avenue. The reason so many historically preserved buildings are located along North Jiefang Road was that the street once snaked through four concessions and housed the "Wall Street of North China". As the 2,300 meter long street wound through the French, British and German concessions its name changed depending upon where it was, respectively known as the Rue de France, Victoria Road and Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse. The latter section even became known as Woodrow Wilson Avenue after the defeat of the Germans.

Looking at the placards of the historical buildings in this area, the majority of the buildings are banks or trading houses. The main reason so many foreign financial institutions established a presence here in the late 1800s and early 1900s was because, after treaties opened Chinese ports to foreigners and permitted foreign legations in the Chinese capital, the city developed into a strategic center for trade, as Tianjin is the closest seaport to Beijing.

BT 201503 25 Real Estate hlOwing to its favorable geographical location and convenient railway and shipping network, Tianjin became the main distribution center for north and northwest China, and the Haihe River, which North Jiefang Road runs along, was the main thoroughfare for the distribution of goods to the rest of the world. Products, such as raw cotton, wool, timber, coal and even salt passed through Tianjin.

With the Haihe River the major thoroughfare to the sea, warehouses blossomed along its shores causing trading companies to first concentrate along North Jiefang Road, and then banks, which financed much of the trading activity. For example, a financial institution that had a notable building along North Jiefang Road is the Salt Industry Bank; during this era many of the wealthy people in the city gained their fortune from the salt trade. The building has a fantastic colonial interior with stained glass windows depicting the trade activity of the time.

Walking along North Jiefang Road, there are many old buildings with interiors just as impressive as the former Salt Industry Bank, many of which now house domestic banks. This is ironic, because the majority of the banks in this area during the early 1900s were foreign financial institutions. Here is a list of some of the major banks that used to occupy buildings along North Jiefang Road in the early 1900s:

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Unfortunately, today most of these historical buildings are closed to the public. However, some of them can still be semi-explored. For example, the Former Yokohama Specie Bank, located at 80 North Jiefang Road and built in 1926, is open to the public because it is being utilized by the Bank of China. The golden doors on the outside and the impressive wood paneling on the inside take people back to an era of haughty propensity that seems to have been lost in Tianjin.

BT 201503 27 Real Estate 100338489Old bank buildings are not the only structures that can be found along North Jiefang Road. The famous Astor Hotel, which used to be one of the most happening places in Tianjin at the nadir of the British concession reign, is also located on the former Victoria Road. The original Astor Hotel was built in 1863 and, at that time, was located between the Haihe Riverside and Victoria Park, which was considered the center of the British concession. In the original building, there were exterior corridors on three sides in the form of verandas, which seem impractical in Tianjin's frigid winter. Today, the many times remodeled Astor Hotel retains the semblance of the former British party house. Inside is an old museum dedicated to the history of the hotel, the first lift in operation in China and guestrooms that retain the hotel's historical style. Operated as a specialty luxury hotel by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the Astor Hotel has become a popular location among tourists and business travelers.

What ended this roaring period of prosperity for Tianjin was WWII. The outbreak of WWII quickly brought trade between China and the rest of the world to a halt, as the Japanese took control of trade routes and occupied most of the foreign concessions until 1941. The war caused the complete collapse of the financial sector in the city, and the ensuing period of communist rule kept capitalism out of the country for decades.

At present, North Jiefang Road is primarily a cluster of local government administrations, domestic state-owned banks and non-profit museums, where you can learn the history of the city. Recognizing North Jiefang Road's position as a key financial center in modern Chinese history, the government is planning to bring back the area's prominence as a major financial center in China. The government is building new office towers across the river from the central train station at Jinwan Plaza that caters to financial companies.

In addition, the architecture in the area is used in many television shows and movies that are trying to recreate the atmosphere right before and after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. Strolling down the street on a weekend, you can see film crew's filmy starlets.

North Jiefang Road is unlikely to regain the glory of its heyday, but taking a peek at the old European style of architecture is not a bad way to spend an afternoon in Tianjin. It will be a chance to see where some major historical figures, such as then future US President Herbert Hoover and Charles George Gordon, sipped their whiskey and smoked their cigars by candle light.


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