A Stroll in Tianjin under Nine Flags

Life in Tianjin’s concession zones

Tianjin, the ancient port city with China’s 4th largest population, is where my family comes from. However, with Shanghai being the financial centre of China and Beijing the capital, the city eludes attention in the West. Most people not from China have never heard of it. However, before the Cultural Revolution, Tianjin was vibrant and affluent. A coastal city, it acted as the port for the landlocked Beijing, 100km away. The geographical advantage was not lost on the imperial powers that sought concessions following China’s defeat in the Opium Wars. Nine empires divided Tianjin into zones where they governed, built, and traded, and the city became an international hub. Following the two World Wars and the Chinese Civil War, the colonial powers left, but their influence is still present on the buildings and bridges in heart of the city today. (More history can be found here.)

I came across the Tianjin Virtual Cities images from searching for databases of Chinese photographs. I wanted to take this archival GIF-making project as an opportunity to explore my own heritage. When I stumbled across the photos, I noted that the locations were labelled by their foreign names from during the concession era, in French or Japanese, for example. It was bizarre to see the places I was familiar with called by these different names, and I formed the idea to animate a stroll around the city, to explore how the city used to be.

Man pulling sedan chair

To make my GIF, I browsed through the database for photos that caught my interest, and photos that have clearly defined figures that I could animate. In the end, I decided on a boy skating, a man pulling a sedan chair, and two women walking along the streets.


Unnatural movement

I used this tutorial to remove the background from my characters. In a new Photoshop document, I duplicated them and manipulated their forms to mimic some movement. However, limited by my own technical ability, I tended to animate one part of an image only, for example, I could not get the wheels to turn on the sedan chair above. To the right, the man biking is an example that I decided to exclude from my project because it appeared too unnatural.


Having created my characters, I pasted them onto three backgrounds. The women are walking along Shandong Rd, formerly rue Chabeneix, in the French concession. This is in the old part of town where my mother grew up. The skating scene is unlabelled; I made an assumption that it was on Haihe, the river that runs through the city, where people still skate in the winter, and fish in the summer. The last scene takes place in Piazza Regina Elena, now named Marco Polo Square, in the Italian concession. I tried survey a few different concession zones, but I also had to consider the perspective in the photographs and whether they would make sense with the actions of my figures. The column in the last scene is topped with a sculpture of Nike, the victory goddess. I make the column fall over to create a sense of finality, marking the departure of the colonial powers in the early 19th century.

Felling the column proved to be a challenge: the other figures that moved were pasted onto the new background, whereas this column was embedded in the background itself. I cut out the column and positioned it on each frame, but the main problem was the electrical cables which made a mess in the sky.(Historical fact: Tianjin was the first city to have an electrical grid, constructed by the Belgian concession.) Fortunately, the spot healing brush in photoshop can detect and match imperfections in photos with pixels in a different area, so in each frame I could erase the cables and clean the area.

Finally, I compiled all the scenes together and my GIF was complete. With this GIF, I hope to draw attention to the invaluable resources in the Virtual Cities databases – they have collections of other cities also to be explored. After showing my parents the GIF, they, like me, expressed a sense of sentimentality, immersed in the world that existed for my grandparents and great-grandparents. My parents and I, along with most people today, have only known China as it is, the People’s Republic, but its long and diverse history is worth re-telling. Thus I also hope that the GIF spark the interest in others to learn about my hometown and China’s past.

This map shows the location of the scenes in my GIF.

Here is a link to my GIF on social media.



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