CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 21, March 2010


The 'New I-Style Town' | China Heritage Quarterly

The ‘New I-Style Town’:
From Italian concession to commercial attraction

Maurizio Marinelli
Bristol University

Fig.1 Map of Tianjin, 1912. From Madrolle's Guide Books: Northern China, The Valley of the Blue River, Korea. Hachette & Company, 1912.

History takes time. History makes memory
—Gertrude Stein


More than a century ago Italian troops participated in the repression of the Boxer Uprising during which impoverished local vigilantes in North China, outraged by the Qing court and its supine attitude to the Western imperial powers, rose up in armed rebellion. In retaliation for their attacks on foreigners in the northern provinces, and Beijing in particular, a massive foreign army, known as the Eight-Power Allied Expeditionary Force, invaded. The fighters of the ‘Righteous Harmony Society’ (Yihe Tuan 义和团), as the Boxers were generally known in Chinese (although the court originally called them ‘Boxing Bandits’, or quanfei 拳匪), were finally defeated on 14 August 1900 as 20,000 foreign troops entered the imperial capital of Beijing. With the signing of the Final Protocol that brought the conflict to an end on 7 September 1901, Italy received 5.91% of the Boxer Indemnity paid by China to the foreign powers, extraterritorial privileges and the concession of a small area of 447,647 square metres on the northern bank of the Haihe River 海河 in the nearby city of Tianjin.[1]

It was here that the Italians developed what became known as the ‘Italian Concession’, originally known in Chinese as the 義租界 (Yi zujie) in which the character yi (義/义, ‘justice, righteousness’) was used for ‘Italy’. It was subsequently called the 意租界, with 义 being replaced by the homophonous character 意 meaning ‘idea’ or ‘intention’. Today, in the context of the multiple layers of semantic puns and phonetic serendipity which characterise the Chinese language, another character, 異/异, also pronounced yi, dominates the debate on Tianjin’s cultural heritage preservation. The character 异 indicates alterity or strangeness and it alludes to something that is uncanny, or out of the ordinary. In the context of Tianjin, 异 refers to a foreign and alien land or yiyu 异域, and ultimately means ‘non-Chinese’.

Between 1860 and 1945, Tianjin was the site of up to nine foreign-controlled zones or concessions which developed and functioned side by side. Each colonial power wiped out the previous spatial organisation of the site allotted to it and redesigned the particular physical space under its control. The once-massive city walls paved the way to the emergence of ‘neighbourhood’ enclaves, or qu 区, that would feature architectural styles such as the early Victorian, like the 1863 Astor House, as well as buildings reminiscent of Brooklyn brownstones, Bavarian castles, Italian squares with fountains and Parisian cafes.[2] To this day, Tianjin boasts what is promoted as ‘alien architectural stylistic characteristics’ (juyou yiguo jianzhu fengge tedian 具有异国建筑风格特点); both in the past and the present, the cityscape has and remains dominated by ‘the scenery of foreign/uncanny locales’ (yiyu fengqing 异域风情). Strange indeed it is ‘to find yourself in a British, French or Italian street in the middle of a Chinese city’.[3]

Since 2008, Tianjin tourist maps show at the top right corner two special visual-textual boxes. One focuses on the ‘European charm’ of the ‘Five Street Area’ (Wudadao 五大道); the other features the re-christened ‘Italian-Style Scenic Neighbourhood’ (Yishi fengqingqu 意式风情区—a formulation that is also often translated as ‘Italian Business Park’).

Fig.2 Welcoming billboard at the entrance of the Italian Town. (Photograph: Maurizio Marinelli, September 2009)

In 2009, the former Italian concession was re-branded as Xin Yi Jie 新意街, the ‘New I/Yi-style Area’ where ‘I/Yi’ stands, of course, for Italy. The name has an intriguing, and probably accidental, historical resonance. When, on 21 January 1901, Italian troops first occupied the area which was destined to become the ‘Italian concession’, they placed stone markers on the chosen real estate which bore the capital letter ‘I’. Thus, they asserted the Italian occupation as a fait accompli. When the local magistrate, Zhang Lianfen 张莲芬, surveyed the area for himself in the spring of 1901 he was taken aback by these ‘I’ markers. At the same time he also learned that the Italian Ambassador in Beijing had intimated to the original residents that they should produce their property deeds and await further notice. The incriminating ‘I’ markers also created a diplomatic incident when the Russian Consul N. Poppé ‘energetically protested’ Italian presumption—the Italians had occupied by stealth part of what was already the Russian concession.[4] The commander of the Tianjin garrison, the Italian Navy Lieutenant M. Valli apologized—quickly and profusely—for the ‘inadvertent’ misplacement of their ‘I’ markers. Valli ordered them withdrawn immediately so that an ‘accurate delimitation’ could be made.[5] These are but minor details, a historical curiosity for specialists.

Back to the Present

Today, the only parades seen in the area completely lack a martial character; indeed, they are organised by the fashion industry. From 17-22 September 2009, the New I-Town was the stage for the celebration of the centennial of the Italian Fashion Business Community (Shishang shangye qunluo 时尚商业群落), organised as part of the local Chinese Tourism Industry Festival (Zhongguo lüyou chanye jie 中国旅游产业节).

Fig.3 Centennial celebrations. (Photograph: Maurizio Marinelli, September 2009)

Then there are commercial highlights such as the French-style restaurant, the Bavarian beer bar, the Milan Disserts [sic] Coffee Shop, all of which jostle with various Italian restaurants sporting such clichéd names as ‘Venice’, ‘Verona’ or Aristocrat’s Banquet (Yanhui shijia, 宴会世家).[6] I have myself visited the ‘Cinema Paradiso’, a modern coffee shop which shows old Italian films, at the invitation of a Chinese entrepreneur. The area also boasts a Tourist Commercial Information Centre and an Italian Cultural Centre, which features a small photographic exhibition of the semi-colonial-era ‘Italian neighbourhood’.

The New I-Town epitomizes how cultural heritage is invariably characterised by the manipulation and evocation of two interwoven elements: those of time and space. In the re-imagined decolonized Italian territory of Tianjin, due to the current commoditisation of ‘alterity’ 异, time and space assume multiple layers of meaning. The recent transformation points at the historically embedded nature of heritage. But the appropriation of the uncanny mimesis of a ‘Little Italy’ in China indicates the intention to replicate the past mechanisms of power, turning the built form into economic and symbolic capital.

The present plan for the re-invented I-Town of Tianjin is under the coordinated control of the Tianjin Haihe Developing Investment Co. Ltd., a public company known to foreign architects and urban planners by the acronym HEDO and to Chinese stakeholders as HAIHE, Haihe being the river symbol of what is vaunted as Tianjin’s ‘global charm and spirit’.[7] The beautified New I-Town is promoted by HEDO as ‘the only [scenic Italian-style neighbourhood] in Asia’ (yazhou weiyi 亚洲唯一) and it is promoted as an instant success, an example of ‘consumable cultural heritage of a foreign country’ (kexiaofeide yiyu wenhua yichan 可消费的异域文化遗产).[8] Such claims contain a dual paradox: the particular, and I would argue illogical, use of ‘consumable’ as opposed to ‘sustainable’, and the implicit assumption that the present ‘alterity’ is so unique that it commands a greater authenticity than the colonial past itself. Such paradoxes are a result of Tianjin’s heavily promoted global ambitions. In keeping with the particular logic of this kind of consumerism, unpalatable elements of historical reality are reformulated, ignoring the advocates of a combination of sustainability and preservation of the original dwellings.[9] The ne plus ultra of such promotional hyperbole is the claim that visitors can experience Italy fully without ever leaving China (buchu guomen, ganshou wanquan Yidali 不出国门, 感受完全意大利).

Fig.4 Map of the area. (Photograph: Maurizio Marinelli, September 2009) Page
Fig.5 ‘Milan Disserts’ Coffee Shop. (Photograph: Maurizio Marinelli, September 2009)

The claim is also made that Tianjin contains the highest concentration of foreign style villas in Asia (muqian gaiquyu yi xingcheng Yazhou zuidade yiguo fengqing bieshuqun 目前该区域已形成亚洲最大的异国风情别墅群).[10] But how has this transformation of imagery, from colonial enclave to State-developer-driven ‘consumable’ alien cultural heritage product, taken place? In the 1910s and 1920s the Italian concession became a pedagogical project celebrating exportable ‘Italianness’.[11] Today, what the latter-day tourist-cum-flaneur sees when sauntering through those streets is a distinctive re-appropriation of the ‘uncanny’ original site, which has been transformed by the commercial party-state into a place rich in economic, symbolic and emotional capital. As Michael Dear has argued, in the postmodern urban condition ‘Architectural dreamscapes are readily convertible into marketable commodity’.[12] Within the interstices of political representations, originated both from the foreign occupation in the past and the recent Chinese re-appropriation of the foreign-in-China architecture, we can claim that an arbitrary ‘presentness’ of heritage is created.[13]

During the 1980s and 90s, the Five Street Area was revived and renovated.[14] Since the year 2000, the former-concessions have undergone another wave of municipality-led urban regeneration. Over the past decade the area has been radically transformed through various cycles of demolition and relocation, summed up in the Chinese expression chaiqian 拆迁, as well as renovation and reconstruction. The most problematic aspect of this state and commercial regeneration has been the uneasy negotiation between two differing approaches: the imperative ‘to destroy the old and build the new’ (pojiu lixin 破旧立新, an expression familiar from the era of Maoist socialism) and the wish ‘to restore the old to make it look old’ (xiu jiu ru jiu 修旧如旧). HEDO claims that in its projects the second approach has been adopted. Walking around the renovated area with a volunteer from the group ‘Memory of China’ (Zhongguo jiyi 中国记忆; see Chen Songchuan’s essay in the Features section of this issue), one constantly hears the term zhengxiu 整修 to describe what has befallen the place. The expression literally means ‘to rebuild’, ‘renovate’, or ‘re-style’. The compound word is a shorthand for the verbs ‘to put in order’ (zhengli 整理) and ‘to fix up’ (zhuangxiu 装修). In reality zhengxiu 整修 indicates that the place has been given a radical makeover, and its use might lead one to infer that in practice ‘restoration’ in this particular Chinese context essentially means to give a building a face lift, to zhengxiu menmian 整修门面.

Hidden Shallows

The experience of urban regeneration in the former Italian Concession seems to confirm what might be called a ‘façade thesis’: what has been regarded as being important is maintaining the façade or outward appearance of historical structures, the superficial mien of which is thought of as being sufficient to convey a sense of an antique ‘I-style’. And here, beyond the ‘old-newness’ of the streetscape the spectacle of the ‘new-other’ emerges. We can find some evidence for this in the numerous interviews that the writer has conducted over the past five years.

In 2004, a small number of Italian architects began collaborating with Chinese colleagues to restore twenty-six of the remaining sixty-seven buildings in the area originally designed by colonial-era Italian architects. One of these latter-day Italian architects, a woman who spent two years on the building site with Chinese workers on a daily basis, highlighted the discrepancy between what are essentially two radically different approaches to ‘restoration’: ‘In China’, she told me, ‘all the emphasis is placed on the façade [of a structure]’. The exterior as spectacle is the core of an idealised Chinese sense of an ‘Italian flavour’; meanwhile, the beautification of the ‘neighbourhood’ as a whole is supposed to convey the impression of ‘modernity’ without necessarily inviting the viewer to go beyond the surface, to look inside the buildings or attempt to appreciate culturally-specific forms of living space. At the same time, an objective obstacle for the restorers has been sourcing locally high-quality materials and specific products commonly used to paint artificial and natural stone in Italy: ‘The quality of lime (calcium hydroxide) is inadequate,’ the Italian site manager told me, ‘Here they only have grey cement’.

Another architect remembers that: ‘In September 2005, when we were in the middle of the restoration of a couple of buildings, all of a sudden we were told that all the scaffolding had to be removed immediately as the Mayor of Tianjin [Dai Xianglong 戴相龙] had decided to visit the area.[15] We protested, but in vain.’ The buildings were hurriedly painted so as to display ‘the beauty of the façade.’ In general, high-quality restoration work requires detailed historical research and scientific surveys so that the restorers can get an accurate understanding of the original building materials, their composition and the building techniques used at the time. Only after such research has been completed can professional decisions be made as to how best to deal with the degradation of the site; that is, how best to consolidate the building, clean the stone or undertake the restoration of the original structure. All of this takes time, something that clashes with the pressing deadlines imposed by businesses expecting fast returns.

Fig.6 Derelict house prior to ‘regeneration’. (Photograph: Maurizio Marinelli, June 2006)

Some of the anecdotes one hears challenge credence. One architect told me that she explained to her Chinese colleagues that the stone used for a specific villa under renovation was covered with a particular limestone that had been subjected to a process which gave the material the appearance of great age. She reasoned that it was important to recreate this particular effect. Things may well have been lost in translation but, on the following day, when the architect arrived at the building site, she found workers busy boiling brand new stones in the courtyard to make them look old.

According to HEDO’s promotional materials the Italo-Chinese joint scheme to restore buildings in the old concession should be guided by three principles: ‘protecting the basic urban structure’, ‘maintaining the dimensions and styles of the original buildings’ and ‘restoring the old houses like the original ones’.[16] One might wonder if ‘boiling stones’ also falls within the semantic range of ‘restoring the old to look old’ (xiu jiu ru jiu 修旧如旧).

Another overseas architect opined that: ‘For them restoration is equivalent to cleaning the façade of a building.’ But who is this ‘them’; who are these workers? Various architects and urban planners argue that the developers always try to get the best deal and save money once they guarantee the tender. Therefore, the workers are mostly inexperienced and poorly paid farm labourers who move to the city and work on the building sites between the planting and the harvesting seasons.

In the end, the main objective of such ‘urban regeneration’ is the creation of upmarket commercial precincts: scenic spots with a ‘historic’ flavour that are primarily comprised of hotels, bars, restaurants, cafes, pastry shops and designer show rooms. As the restoration of the area progressed it became evident that it would not be a residential area. Indeed, the 5000 odd families still living there were either relocated or forcibly removed. The authorities stressed the physical danger posed to residents due to the derelict state and the precarious structure of the houses. As a result a justification for the policy of mandatory relocation was this ostensible official concern for the residents’ health and safety.

The poor condition of the buildings due to years of neglect was indeed evident at the beginning of the restoration process. Nevertheless, these buildings were not merely spaces of habitation, a place where people had sought temporary shelter, but rather they were dwellings where the residents had lived for decades creating a sense of home both physically and psychologically.[17]

The Human Cost of Beautification

Fig.7 Italian style building destined to be demolished. Source: Accessed 6 July 2006.

Fig.8 Image of former resident Li Keping being forcibly removed. Source: Accessed 6 July 2006.

Fig.9 Former resident He Xinnian after having been forcibly removed climbed up the Tianjin Millenium Tower. Source: Accessed 6 July 2006.

In the spring months of 2006, a team of reporters from the Chinese Central TV program ‘News Investigation’ (Xinwen diaocha 新闻调查) documented numerous cases of ‘coercive removal’ (qiangqian 强迁) in the former concessions of Tianjin. Such removals were evictions accompanied by violence or extreme duress, a violence that was also aimed against elderly and bed-ridden residents.

One case recorded by ‘News Investigation’ was summarised in the following words:

Li Keping, a seventy-one year old woman who was living at 66 Jinbudao Street (private property) was forcibly removed. She was thrown out of her dwelling and left in the middle of the street. Soon thereafter the personnel in charged of the removal called and ambulance which took the old woman to hospital where she subsequently passed away.’ (住进步道66号(私产)的被强迁居民71岁老妇人:李克萍被强行从室内扔到马路中央,随后由拆迁工作人员将老妇人用120救护车送往医院后死亡。)[18]

Another recounts the following:

He Xinnian was forcibly removed. While receiving intravenous treatment at home for serious rheumatic heart disease, he was forcibly dispatched to a hospital by the relocation staff. However, since he didn’t have the money to pay for medical expenses, he was forced to leave. At that point, He Xinnian realised that he had no way out: all he could do was to write a will, after which he climb up a ten-meter high clock [the Tianjin Millennium Clock) to announce to the crowds the real reason for his death. (被强迁居民:何新年。因身患风湿性心脏病重病正在家中输液时,被拆迁工作人员强行送到医院,因无钱交纳医药费而被医院赶出,该男子已走投无路,无奈之下留下遗嘱,爬上10米之高的天津市世纪钟以告世人其死因。)[19]

Speculating on the reason for the lack of residential scope in the New I-Town, many of the interviewees in the program noted that it would appear inappropriate for the authorities or the company to remove Chinese citizens by force and then turn around and rent the villas to wealthy foreigners or, for that matter, middle-class Chinese residents.

Fig.10 Hedo’s promotional materials for the New Istyle Town. (Photograph: Maurizio Marinelli, September 2009)

Renting out the space can also be problematic due to the nature of the original title deeds. For example, ten buildings between Bei’an Dao, Jinbu Dao and Minzu Dao remain empty. The Diocese of Taiyuan in Shanxi province claims that these buildings were acquired by the church in three lots between the years 1911 and 1943. In 2005, a group of fifty Catholic priests and nuns led by a Father Wu and other members of the Catholic diocese travelled from Shanxi to Tianjin and demonstrated outside the government’s offices. Their protest, directed at the Tianjin municipal authorities, advocated both the application of the ‘rule of law’ and the assistance of God. Unable to achieve their desired outcome, the priests and nuns eventually decided to squat in one of the houses. This resulted in a physical clash with the workers who arrived the following day to find these new unwelcome ‘landlords’. In late 2009, the dispute remained unresolved and the buildings stood empty: a ‘Big-character Poster’ or dazibao-style notification dated 16 September 2008 still politely informed potential investors that in order to avoid financial loss it would be preferable not to rent these venues.

I-Town: a model for development?

Some scholars have studied the minutes of the sittings of the foreign-led Tianjin Provisional Government from 30 June 1900 to 15 August 1902. The practices of the colonial powers are regarded as the first cases involving a modern legal system that guaranteed, at least de jure, compensation for evicted households [20]. A copy of an article published in the influential Chinese paper Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo 南方周末) that made this point was anonymously posted up at the main entrance of the Tianjin Municipal Council in 2007.[21]

Fig.11 Notification at one of the properties claimed by the Shanxi Diocese. (Photograph: Maurizio Marinelli, September 2009)

The ultimate result of the re-engineered New I-Town has been the creation of a Disneyland-esque commercial enclave with Italian inflections. The whole site now revolves around ‘Marco Polo Square’, which is to be found at the intersection of Minzu Lu (National Rd.) and Ziyou Dao (Freedom St.). Ziyou Dao is a pedestrian road connecting Marco Polo Square with Shengli Lu (Victory Rd.). The 2007 ‘Preliminary Masterplan Concept Strategy’ drawn up by Design International for HEDO on 20 March 2007, proposed a combination of lifestyle, food, fashion and drinking ‘culture’ to express the ‘Italian spirit’ in Tianjin. HEDO originally insisted on renting out its properties exclusively to Italian entrepreneurs. The plan proved to be unrealistic, however, in no small part due to the financial difficulties that small and medium size Italian enterprises had in investing in the city.[22] Eventually, HEDO decided to allow other foreigners as well as Chinese entrepreneurs to rent properties in the area. On various occasions, HEDO consulted two international companies, Jones Lang LaSalle and Johnwood Property, both specialists in real estate development who offer integrated services that are aimed at making developments commercially viable in the long run. HEDO sought their advice and possible assistance, but despite extended discussions and planning, an effective collaboration failed to materialise.

Nevertheless, by the summer of 2009, the New I-Town was being promoted as a model for urban regeneration in Tianjin as a whole. Another redevelopment plan—that for the German ‘neighbourhood’ of the old concession—was essentially inspired by the alleged success of the New I-Town, while Freedom Street is the model of another ‘flagship development’: a pedestrian ‘1902 European-style road’ (Oushijie 欧式风情街). While this ‘broadway’ glitters like a stage set crowded with coffee shops there are few paying customers. In the mean time, young Chinese men dressed up to look like cowboys walk up and down the street.

One wonders if the ‘Tianjin model’ is another version of what economists call ‘enclave development’, a kind of development that typically encloses economic spaces which are sequestered from their surroundings, and thereby exclude the majority of local residents.


[1] For more on this cp. Maurizio Marinelli, ‘Making Concessions in Tianjin: Heterotopia and Italian Colonialism in Mainland China (1860-1945)’, Urban History, vol.36, no.3 (December 2009): 399-425.

[2] The Astor Hotel is known in Chinese as 利顺德. This building was going through ‘restoration’ during the summer of 2009, when only the façade remained. It is scheduled to re-open on 1 May 2010 when it will be part of the Starwood’s Luxury Collection Hotels. See: As Starwood’s promotional material claims, the re-branding of the Astor Hotel capitalises on three things: ‘timeless finesse’, ‘exquisite surroundings’ and ‘classical touches’.

[3] See ‘Best of…Tianjin. Taste of Tianjin: The definitive guide to the city’, Summer 2009, 12, a supplement of China International Business magazine. The same impression was conveyed by foreigners living in Tianjin during the concessions period. See John Hersey, ‘A Reporter at Large: Homecoming. I: The House on New China Road’, The New Yorker, 10 May 1982, p.54.

[4] Italian Foreign Ministry Historical Archive (ASMAE), Political Series P (SPP), Folder 426, T1902, Letters 20 January-2 February 1901.

[5] ASMAE, SPP, 426, T1901, P. 86, D. 2287.

[6] Perhaps echoing the former fame of the Italian concession as ‘aristocratic’ (guizu zujie 贵族租界), since its beautiful villas were mostly occupied by affluent Chinese (rather than Italian) politicians, warlords and writers.

[7] 海河经济开发综述, No.3, 2006: 37. Part of the series Melodies of Haihe (Haihe shengyun 海河声韵).

[8] See HEDO’s promotional materials New Istyle Town.

[9] This combination is advocated in the documents: UNESCO, Towards a Sustainable City. Methods of Urban Ecological Planning and its Applications in Tianjin, China, Final Report of the Co-operative Ecological Research Project (CERP) Paris: Jouve, 1996, available at; UNESCO World Bank, ‘China-Cultural Heritage Management and Urban Development: Challenge and Opportunity’, 5-7 July 2000, Beijing, available at Accessed 15 Feb. 2010.

[10] Shangceng 上层 magazine, No. 27 (March 2008).

[11] Maurizio Marinelli, ‘Internal and External Spaces: The Emotional Capital of Tianjin's Italian Concession’, in Emotion, Society and Space, vol.3, no.1, 2010, forthcoming.

[12] Michael Dear, The Postmodern Urban Condition, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, p.145.

[13] David Harvey, ‘Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents: temporality, meaning and the scope of heritage studies’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol.7, no.4 (2001): 319-338.

[14] More than 2,000 garden-style villas were built in the 1920s and 1930s in this area of 1.3 sq km.

[15] Dai Xianglong, the former Governor of the People’s Bank of China, was Mayor of Tianjin from December 2002 to December 2007.

[16] See HEDO’s New Istyle Town.

[17] Heidegger emphasises how baeun (to build, construct) strictly relates to ‘dwelling’. In an ontological sense, building implies the need ‘to cherish and protect, to preserve and care for’ since the building indicates a sense of homely, community and continuity of space in time. Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper and Row, 1971, p.147.

[18] See Accessed on 6 July 2006, but subsequently ‘harmonised’, that is removed from the site.

[19] See a href=" Accessed on 6 July 2006, ‘harmonised’ thereafter.

[20] Procès-verbaux des Séances du Conseil du Gouvernement provisoire de Tientsin. For an edited Chinese translation, see Liu Haiyan 刘海岩, Tianjin linshi zhengfu huiyi jiyao 天津临时政府会议纪要, 天津:天津社会科学院出版社, 2004.

[21] 陈 春, 八国联军是怎样在天津搞拆迁的, 南方周末, 12 September 2007. See also: 拆毁城墙搞建设:八国联军留给中国的‘遗产’ at: Accessed on 3 February 2010.

[22] Take, for example, the January 2006 ‘Come to Tianjin’ initiative which invited SMEs to invest in the ‘Italian Business Park’. The mission was organised by AISCRIS (Italian Association of Consultants in Research, Innovation and Development), AISM (Italian Marketing Association) and FITA (Italian High-Tech Federation) in collaboration with INSME (SMEs International Network) and with the support of the Italian Embassy in Beijing.