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Tianjin's hotels - crucial to economic development
| Updated: 2013-07-23 17:36:52 | By Paula Taylor, David Wong (JIN Magazine) |

Of course now we are very proud of Tianjin, but go back a decade or two and we would not have recognised the city. It must have been extremely interesting to have been around back then, and to witness the rebirth of Tianjin. The hotel industry here has gone from strength to strength, from humble beginnings has appeared what some may say is one of the most interesting hotels in the world. We may think that the Ritz in Paris or the Savoy in London are full of history and stories of famous guests. In Tianjin too we have the Astor hotel, which can rival them both in many ways. We also have many other fine hotels that do as much to attract visitors as some of Tianjin's other famous tourist sites. However it wasn't always the case, in the past the hotel industry was very basic. Some businessmen who have very vivid memories of that time shared them with us. A point to keep in mind is that back then foreigners could only stay in the designated hotels that were approved for foreign guests.

Not So Comfortable Back Then

Back in the 80s and 90s there were quite a few hotels that were catering for foreign guests, for instance, The Sheraton, The Hyatt, The Astor, the Crystal Palace, the Friendship Hotel, etc. Actually when government ministers come here, they generally stay in those hotels.

Roy says "When I first came to Tianjin in September 1995, I was met at Beijing airport by the Nankai University minibus and driven directly to the Foreign Specialists' residential dorm. The beds were rock hard but there were comfortable chairs in the sitting room of the suite. I enjoyed buying local calligraphy and hanging it all over the room. A cleaning woman came daily to empty the trash and change the sheets periodically". It must have been quite a shock to be taken to a university campus rather than to a hotel. He continues "If expats or business people wanted to stay in Tianjin for a few days their options were quite limited". There is no way that we can say our options are limited now, we have so many different styles of hotel to choose from and there surely something to suit everyone's tastes and pockets.

In a way I really envy people who were in Tianjin a long time ago before the city transformed itself from a caterpillar into a butterfly – well okay that is a bit far-fetched, you would have to have a good imagination to think of Tianjin as a butterfly, but if you have been here for some time, then like me you will be delighted with the changes that have taken place and which we are all benefiting from.

Mr. Wang is the Vice President of Tak International a Canadian company that has been doing business in Tianjin for over 20 years and employs over ten people. He told us. "When I first came here I stayed in the Tianjin Guest Hotel (天津宾馆), a typical Chinese government guest house built in the 50s with Russian influence. It was antiquated. The service was not great at all because of the state run enterprise mentality of staff. At that time (20 + years ago) there was the Crystal Palace Hotel and Friendship Hotel available for expats and business people. Later on in the late 80s the Hyatt Hotel and Sheraton hotels became available that offered better options". Actually, although I think it must have been interesting to stay in a hotel back then, I am still grateful to be here at a time when hotels can offer us exactly what we need, rather than struggle with the facilities or lack of them, bad food and poor service.

One experience I wanted to include was Phil Harnett's. He came to China in 1994 and was based in Dalian. Although our article is about Tianjin, Phil's experiences were so fascinating that I felt our readers would be very interested to read them. He says "When I first came to China I lived in Dalian, in 1994, all hotels had to be especially licensed to house Westerners. In Dalian there were only 2 hotels that had such a license - the Holiday Inn and the Furama - a Japanese brand. As the Furama was very Japanese in every way, most Westerners stayed at the Holiday Inn. People would stand and stare at us, and children would come up to me and try to touch my beard in the market street". Well you know what, it is 2013 and although I don't have a beard, people stand and stare at me, so this is one respect in which time seems to have stood still.

Phil continues "During a busy time, we decided to move from the hotel to live in a small guest house run by the factory. When it was time to renew our visas we went to the local police station and told them our address and they put us in a cell for 4 hours whilst they investigated, as we were illegal. The guest house owner had to pay a fine and we were sent back to the Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn did have a Western restaurant, but the food there was not very good - I think getting raw ingredients such as pasta and cheese was difficult in those days. There were many things we could not buy, bread, cheese, fresh milk, baked beans, well actually just about anything Western. We did have the Friendship Store that was supposed to sell these things but it never had them. I can remember in about 1996 seeing 2 bottles of imported red wine for the first time in a supermarket, so I bought both and we had a party for 10 in the hotel. How things have changed!" Yes indeed, we can buy almost anything we want now, although sometimes I have to go to one shop for some things and then another shop for others etc. Imagine not being able to buy chocolate………I shudder to think.

He continues "I also remember Dalian getting its 1st KFC in about 1996. All of the Westerners were very excited and on the opening day walked the short distance from the hotel to KFC for our evening meal. What a disappointment - the queue of Chinese people stretched for maybe 100m out of the door and down the street. There was no way we were going to eat that night. In fact I don't think we ate there until about 4 days later when the queues had reduced". Well now I am sure you are able to eat all the KFC you want, one thing we are not short of in China is KFCs.

He continues "I also remember with great fondness the street food in those days. Now it has almost disappeared from the city streets, which I think is a great shame. On every corner would be a small tent with some small BBQ's and people eating all sorts of things. Washed down with a small bottle of Bai Jiu there was no better meal for taste and value. Many a great night was spent eating and chatting to the locals in our bad Chinese. Now everything is cleaned up and supposed to be better - but I think China has lost some of its identity by clearing away what people enjoyed most. There are still a few small streets where you can buy this food - but it gets harder and harder each year".

Brian also told us what he remembers of the hotels available back then, he says "The hotels I remember were visited from the late 1980's to the 1990's. Tianjin Grand Hotel: this was a huge hotel that was spread out over a very large area with old dark concrete buildings. It was my understanding that it was a hotel for Government Officials and it included a pharmacy, nursing care, etc. It was cold and Spartan at least in North American terms. Meals (breakfast) were of the Chinese style with no one having any ability to speak English. Breakfast communication was done by sign language which caused more laughter than anything".

I hope these guys realise how precious their experiences and memories of old Tianjin are. Those times have disappeared, and what they lacked in comfort, is more than compensated by the intensely interesting times to be had. I think they should get together and write a book about it.

As we are speaking of Tianjin's past, we really need take another look at that remarkable hotel that existed way before the above gentlemen came to Tianjin and still it exists today. Its endurance is a testimony to the love and care with which it was created. This hotel is the jewel in Tianjin's crown and has contributed significantly to the development of Tianjin. Let us now examine this hotel – The Astor.

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