Tianjin Ancient Culture Street ushers global guests to celebrate Spring Festival with its time-honored brands
An irreplaceable hometown
Published: Feb 18, 2024 09:45 PM
Tourists enjoy themselves at the Tianjin Ancient Culture Street during the Spring Festival holidays. Photo: Chen Xi/GT

Tourists enjoy themselves at the Tianjin Ancient Culture Street during the Spring Festival holidays. Photo: Chen Xi/GT

Tianjin Ancient Culture Street, a place that I am deeply familiar with, was a hit this Spring Festival after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited it ahead of the festive holidays.

Located in the Nankai district, North China's Tianjin Municipality, the street was opened in 1986. It features about 100 shops built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) architectural style and is home to many renowned time-honored brands.

As a Tianjiner, I have never seen the 687-meter-long street so packed with so many tourists. Or so crowded that one could only move an inch at a time. The shock of seeing the famous street swarmed aside, I was fully immersed in the festive atmosphere amid the exuberant red adornments, lanterns, antiques, handicrafts, and folk products lining this historical and cultural block and welcoming the guests from all over the world.

Culture has no border

From afar, I could see a group of foreign visitors weaving through the crowded street under the introduction of a tour guide, which brought me back to my college days as a part-time tour guide, assisting foreign tourists on cruise stops at the Tianjin Port. 

The first stop on my tour guide trail would also be the Tianjin Ancient Culture Street. I would give the visitors one hour to wander along the street, but most of the time, they would return to the shuttle bus later than advised with bags in hand containing some traditional Chinese artworks, including the representative Tianjin arts - ­Yangliuqing New Year paintings and Clay Figure Zhang figurines. 

Many would tell me how they were amazed at the superb quality of the hand-made crafts, and could not believe that such a small Clay Figure Zhang figurine would take craftsmen several months to finish.

It was the time that I deeply resonated with the saying "culture has no border." Indeed, traditional fine arts are the shared treasure of all humanity.

Unconsciously, I walked to a Clay Figure Zhang shop packed with customers lining up to pay for their selected pieces. Such lively scenes speak to the overwhelming confidence of Chinese people in the country's booming cultural industry. 

The ordinarily chatty staff were too busy engaging in friendly small talk. A woman holding a pair of figurines of an old couple holding a peach, representing the wishes of longevity, told me that she planned to send this gift to her grandparents. 

She said that as a local, she likes to choose different clay figurines as gifts because this traditional art form carries on with innovation, and creates a wide range of images that are welcomed by all ages. 

A cursory glance around proved her right. The figurines displayed in the showcase not only include many classic images such as the mythological figure of the monkey king, and Lin Daiyu from the classic Chinese literature work A Dream of Red Mansions, but also included some modern images like a dancing girl dressed in a Dunhuang dance costume, and protagonist Ne Zha from the Chinese blockbuster film Ne Zha. 

As one of the representatives in the field of clay sculpture in China, Clay Figure Zhang was included in the first batch of national intangible cultural heritage lists as far back as in 2006, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

"Intangible cultural heritage should take the initiative to embrace a more dynamic market," Zhang Yu, the sixth generation descendant of the art of Clay Figure Zhang, once said in an interview.

It made me think times are changing, and fine traditional art is also advancing with the times. 

A unique charm

Entering the head shop of time-honored brand Shibajie Mahua (fried dough twist) or Guifaxiang, some people took pictures of three traditional snacks displayed on a showcase. A staffer surnamed Sun told me those were the three kinds of snacks that President Xi purchased during his visit to the shop ahead of the Spring Festival.

"As a staffer working at the street for more than 20 years, I have never seen as many visitors as I have this year," Sun told me while tucking into a piece of bread. She confessed to being famished since she could not take a breakfast break and it was already 11:20 am, and she would only have her lunch or dinner at 5 pm. 

This breakneck pace of business was the case throughout the Spring Festival period. 

"We have gotten used to the busy status, but this year is super busy…Usually, this street would boast about 10,000 visitors, but this year, the number has surely doubled, " Sun explained that as a time-honored store, food prices haven't changed in the last two decades. 

The high-quality traditional snacks together with the favorable price often attract many local customers wishing to stock up on New Year goods. However, this year saw a new crop of visitors from other provinces and regions come to visit.

Though exhausted, Sun said she was very happy to see so many tourists coming to visit the old street.

At around lunch time, I queued up at a stall selling Tianjin Jianbing, a traditional Chinese street food similar to crepes. Ahead of me was a family of three. The daughter told me they were from East China's Shandong Province, and came to visit Tianjin during the Spring Festival holidays. 

She shared that Xiangsheng is one of her favorite performances during the Spring Festival Gala. Xiangsheng, also known as crosstalk or comic dialog, is a traditional performing art in Chinese comedy and one of the most popular elements in Chinese culture.

"I heard that Tianjin people like to listen to Xiangsheng, but I did not expect that you guys love it so much. Almost every few dozen meters, I can see a Xiangsheng hall. Tianjin is worthy of being called the 'hometown of Quyi,'" she said.

I wanted to refute this blanket claim that every Tianjiner shares this particular hobby, but I hesitated. I have always been averse to being pigeon-holed and collective stereotypes about Tianjin and the locals, but I find myself far more amenable to some. Far from stereotypes, these impressions speak to the authenticity of my hometown, and its unique charm as a tourist attraction. 

Amid booming tourism across China as witnessed in Harbin, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, I was worried that my hometown would lose its competitiveness due to its limited space. But after visiting the Ancient Culture Street and witnessing the "Tianjin diving grandpas" near Haihe River, I was assured of my hometown's unwavering status as a regional and international tourist destination complete with unique and irreplaceable charms.