Once Upon A Time In China

The story of Tianjin, the Italian concession in the Middle Kingdom.

The Italian concession
Photo by 墨色鲜艳 / Source: Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The story of Tianjin, the Italian concession in the Middle Kingdom.

Tianjin, China. Located on the Bohai Sea about 90 minutes from Beijing, it is known for its vibrant financial sector, sheep-leg mutton, and something called the Italian Style Town. While one might at first cynically assume this was a shopping district abounding with imitation Gucci, Fendi, and Ferragamo, reality is a little stranger.

Our tale begins at the Daqing Jingshi Spanish Embassy in September 1901. China had been gripped by uprisings and violence since 1899, when small militia groups known as The Righteous and Harmonious Fists began launching attacks against Catholic missionaries and converts. Bishops and priests were slaughtered and hundreds of Catholic orphans were killed or sold into slavery. Though initially the unrest was confined to the province of Shandong, it spread south and mushroomed into the Boxer Rebellion. As the Chinese government lent their support to the rebels and foreign diplomats were besieged and assassinated, an international coalition was formed. 45,000 soldiers and sailors from eight countries including the United States, France, and Italy, descended on Beijing and pushed back the Boxers. The campaign lasted 14 months, and resulted in the executions of tens of thousands of Chinese guerillas and sympathizers. 

With the conflict over, the eight nations met to determine how to punish China and the Qing Dynasty for their aggression. At the Spanish Embassy, the powers agreed to the guidelines of the Boxer Protocol. Among these was a large fine levied against the Chinese as well as territorial concessions for all present, including Italy. On June 7, 1902, Italian consul Cesare Poma took possession of the territory and the Italian administration of the area began. The 113 acres granted to Italy was the smallest amount of land given to any of the coalition members, and was located southeast of the city center. It would grow in size after World War I, when Austria-Hungary’s concession was given to the Italians. While under Italian control, the occupants were required to pay an annual rent of 2,800 lire to the Chinese in perpetuity

The Italian concession was established in an area which was known for three distinct zones. There was the village of Tianjin, the large local burial ground, and the valuable salt works on the banks of the Hai River. It was not exactly prime real estate. The roads were unpaved, and the filth on the street was fought over by crows, wild dogs, and the homeless. Arnaldo Cipolla, the journalist and explorer known as the Italian Kipling, visited the concession in 1923 during his Eastern Asia expedition and was taken aback by how primitive Chinese society was. In his travelogue Per la Siberia, in Cina, Corea e Giappone, he noted that  “In Tientsin, the construction company building our canals does not utilize excavators or dredges, relying solely on manual labor.” 

Despite the lack of cutting edge technology, by 1930 the settlement had grown significantly in size. There were around 6,000 inhabitants, of which close to 500 were Italian citizens. Many of the others were wealthy Chinese who enjoyed the Italianate architecture and the Italian standards that kept their neighborhoods enviably clean and well-maintained. The concession boasted 17 streets and two piazzas, as well as a cathedral, a hospital, an Italian cultural center, and two schools. Missionaries and nuns made up a large portion of the total Italian presence in Tianjin and across China, with almost 400 out of the 913 Italian citizens counted in a 1929 census serving the Catholic Church. Between the years 1922 and 1939, there was a concentrated effort by figures like Monsignor Celso Constantini and Pope Pius XI to more firmly establish the Church within Chinese culture, but the mistrust towards Western institutions and turbulent political circumstances provided few permanent victories.    

The Italian military presence in the region fluctuated from a high of 2,000 soldiers and sailors during the Boxer Rebellion to only a few hundred between the World Wars. Aldo Fucheris was a member of the Battaglione San Marco, one of the first Italian naval contingents stationed at the concession. When not training, the most popular pastime for him and his comrades was playing soccer amongst themselves and against other European soldiers. Fucheris had seen quite the career on the soccer field before being deployed, playing for Savona F.B.C. when it was one of the best teams in Italy. After injuring his knee he retired from the game, but once in China he joined the concession team as a midfielder, and was part of the squadra that defeated England 3-0 in the regional championship. 

Italy’s concession avoided major damage during the Chinese Civil War, but as the rest of the planet went to war for a second time, even Tianjin was impacted. The colonial ship Eritrea anchored in China in 1941 after fleeing the disastrous East African campaign, but was mostly a nonfactor as the occupying Japanese controlled her movement. After Pietro Badoglio announced the armistice between Italy and the Allies on September 8, 1943, Japanese troops immediately seized the concession and deported many of the remaining Italians to Korea. The German puppet state known as the Italian Social Republic renounced the concession to the Japanese the next year in an impotent diplomatic gesture.

As the war drew to a close and the Japanese evacuated China, the concession came under the full control of the Chinese. The Italians formally ceded the territory to China in 1947 through the Paris Peace Treaties. Under Section V: Special Interests of China, the article reads “Italy agrees to the cancellation of the lease from the Chinese Government under which the Italian Concession at Tientsin was granted, and to the transfer to the Chinese Government of any property and archives belonging to the municipality of the said Concession.” 

The Italian Style Town was refurbished between 1999 and 2005 in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, so many of the palazzos that line Piazza Regina Elena are still in pristine condition. Some of the best known spots in the concession are restaurants like Venezia Club Italian Restaurant & Winery, founded by a Venetian immigrant, and Pasta Fresca Da Salvatore, popular for its penne arrabbiata. While one of the most isolated and underrecognized outposts of the Bel Paese, Italian Style Town still reflects its proud heritage more than a century later

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