An Ode to the Ford of Heaven Part 1: Tianjin Astor House Hotel Booklet, ca. 1935

A ca. 1935 advertisement booklet for the Tientsin (Tianjin) Astor House Hotel. From the MOFBA collection.
A ca. 1935 advertisement booklet for the Tientsin (Tianjin) Astor House Hotel. From the MOFBA collection.

This lovely ca. 1935 advertising booklet for the Astor House Hotel from our collection has a centerfold map & offers the perfect opportunity to take you on a journey through old Tianjin, the second biggest foreign settlement of Republican China.


Tianjin, or Tientsin as it was once called, is located 140km South-East of Beijing on the shore of the Bohai sea and its Chinese name translates to "Heavenly Ford" or "Ford of Heaven". After the end of the Second Opium War in 1858 the Treaty of Tientsin was signed, which opened the city to foreign trade. By 1860 Western settlements, so called concessions, for Britain and France were established and over time up to 9 of such concessions existed incl. for the USA, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Japan and Russia, making Tianjin at one point arguably an even more international metropolis than Shanghai. 

In the summer of 1863, John Innocent, a British Methodist missionary, arrived in Tianjin and soon after established the first international hotel of the city, The Astor Hotel. His co-founders, shareholders and investors included the who-is-who of the early foreign business community such as the German-British Gustav Detring, Director of Tianjin Customs and Chairman of the British Concession Municipal Council, his son-in-law, the German Constantin von Hanneken, military advisor to Li Hongzhang and at one point a general of the Chinese army and the German George Ritter who also served as general manager of the Astor from 1883 to 1903.

In 1924 the hotel was expanded with an adjoining building and was equipped with one of China’s first elevators by the American company Otis. The venue became the prime location for diplomatic activity in the city and over the years housed many famous Chinese and international guests such as the China’s last emperor Puyi, Sun Yat-sen and several former American presidents such as Ulysses S. Grant and Herbert Hoover. 

The Tianjin Astor by the way, was entirely unrelated to the equally famous Astor House Hotel in Shanghai which by the 1930s belonged to the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotels Ltd. company. Neither was it related to the first Astor Hotel in the Far East established in Hong Kong in about 1842, nor the many Astor-named establishments in other foreign outports of China such as the one in Nanking opened in 1910, Hankow, today’s Wuhan opened in 1911 nor to the one in Beijing, opened in 1935. 

Outside flaps of a ca. 1935 advertisement booklet for the Tientsin (Tianjin) Astor House Hotel. From the MOFBA collection.
Outside flaps of a ca. 1935 advertisement booklet for the Tientsin (Tianjin) Astor House Hotel. From the MOFBA collection.

By that time the British business man William O’Hara had become the major shareholder of the Tianjin Astor and chairman of the board of the holding company, the Astor House Hotel Ltd. This brings us the period when our booklet was created and which advertises the establishment as under “British Directorate” and “Swiss Management” by Paul Weingart. The outside flaps offer us a glimpse at the luxurious interior of the hotel, almost all of which is conserved to this day. The hotel today also houses a highly recommended museum in its basement.

Map of Tientsin (Tianjin) ca. 1935. From the MOFBA collection.
Map of Tientsin (Tianjin) ca. 1935. From the MOFBA collection.

But now to the map, which, given that the Astor was a British establishment, was centered on the British concession related parts of the city. It leads us mainly along Victoria Road (today’s Jiefang Street), lined with beautiful colonial architecture representing some of the major landmarks of the British section. No 1 is the “Grande Dame of Tianjin”, the Astor itself, conveniently located just across from No 2, the central Victoria Park with Gordon Hall built in 1890 (now rebuilt as the Ritz Carlton Hotel, except for a small remaining structure on the North-East corner), the former seat of British Concession administration.

Across the park to our left, we can see the Victoria Park Mansions on Taku Road, built in the late 1920s. Next to them the buildings of the substantial Lidell Brothers & Co compound is located which between 1912 and 1917 were used by the US 15th Infantry before it moved to the Racecourse Road - No 23 on our map. 

But first on to No 3, passing a row of buildings that housed the well-known Tientsin Press & book store on the ground floor of the British Trading Firm Cook & Anderson and the Hirsbrunner & Co general store building adjacent to the Astor. The actual building of the American Express Co, after the next intersection no longer exists today and is replaced by a modern neo-classical inspired high-rise. 

As we continue to walk along Victoria Road, we pass by Swire’s office, built in 1896, to the right but in the year 1935, when our brochure was created, the Streamline Moderne-style Leopold building would not have yet stood on the opposite side, as it was only erected in 1938. Likewise, the Kinchen Bank (TRC Bank today) next to the Leopold building was only constructed in 1937, but might have already been under construction. The round corner building on the left is the former Belgian bank Banque Belge pour l'Étranger, built in 1921 and which now houses the China Construction Bank (thanks to Nicholas Kitto for his help to identify the original purpose of this building).

We reach the corner of EWO street with the imposing Jardine & Matheson building to the right, after which’s Chinese trade moniker the street was named.


Across the street to the right, stands our next destination No 4, the Chartered Bank built in 1926.

Next to it is the JSS building erected in 1923 inside of which or next to it No 5, the offices of Thomas Cook & Son was located. 

It lies right across the street from the building of No 6, the National City Bank built in 1921 and which today houses the Agricultural Bank of China. 

No 7 is the British Consulate General, originally located on the British Bund in the former Dent’s compound.


Since around 1926 seems to have also taken over the old building of the former Russo-Chinese Bank (built in 1896) on Consular Road.

It faces No 8, the impressive neo-classical Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) building erected in 1925. 

We continue to stroll along Victoria Rd. to reach the border of the British Concession with No 9, the Chase Bank to our right.


Across from it stands the Yokohama Specie Bank building, today Bank of China, and as we pass Saint Louis Street into the French Concession, Victoria Road becomes Rue du France.

Right across the street we can see No 10, the Banque Franco-Chinoise built in 1933 to our left with the French post office opposite of it built in 1878. Hidden behind the post office is the wonderful French Catholic Church of St. Louis built in 1872. 

Back to Rue de France and a peek to the left on the next intersection allows us a quick glimpse at the French Municipality Administrative Office on Rue du Verdun.


At the next block on the corner of Rue du Consulat sits No 12, the Banque de L’Indo-Chine completed in 1908 and north of it, on the riverfront of the “Quai de France” the French Consulate General, No 11. Around the corner from there on 10 Rue Pasteur L'Amiraute, we can spot the Yien Yieh Commercial Bank built in 1928.

The unlucky number 13 was conveniently omitted, although 14 to the Chinese is arguably even worse, but here we are back on Rue de France and one block further at No 14, the French Club built in 1931 at the intersection of Rue de Baron Gros.


Why No 15 the Japan Tourist Bureau on 53 Rue du 14 Julliet is missing on the map remains a mystery. 

The way to our next location takes us across the Peiho River on the International Bridge, re-erected in 1926, and we can see the Belfran building and the Imperial Hotel (photo by Nicholas Kitto - see below) next to us as we step on the bridge. 

We are now close to the Italian Concession, next to which the Chinese Post office, No 16 was located. The edifice no longer exists today and likewise No 17, the buildings of the East Railway Station for the foreign concessions had to make way for the modern Tianjin Main Railway Station. This is not to be confused with Tianjin West Railway Station, next to which the beautiful original historic building from 1910 has been preserved! 

Back to the French Concession on Rue Pasteur for No 18, the office of the China Travel Service established in 1925. We continue south as Rue Pasteur becomes Rue Chaylard and we reach No 19, the Chinese Telegraph Office on 23 Rue Fontanier just across from the lovely French Park. It today houses a Post Office. Just one block north we, in 1935, could have watched the final construction work on the iconic Art-deco Bohai building which was completed in 1936.

We now jump back to the start of our journey, but from the Astor turn east on Victoria Road right towards No 20, the British Tientsin Club built in 1905. Two blocks south of that corner on Meadows Street lies No 21 the U.S.A. Consulate General, which’s building no longer exists and was opposite the massive Kailan Mining Administration (KMA) building constructed in 1921.One block further lay the British (Army) Headquarter, marked as No 22 but its former building also no longer exists.

We jump to No 23, which once was on the border of the British and German concessions but in the 1930s was the compound of the U.S. Army Headquarters. It is today part of the Tianjin Medical University campus. The Germans had lost their concession during World War I and their main street and extension of Victoria Road, the Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse, was renamed after the Victor to Woodrow Wilson Street. 

This is where No 24, the Capitol Theatre was located, the original building of which was erected in 1916 but demolished in 2009 just to be re-built again immediately after.


The German Club Concordia built in 1907, still stands right opposite of it. 

We briefly jump back to No 25, the magnificent Empire Theatre (today’s Tianjin Concert Hall) on Racecourse Road built in 1922 and across from the Victoria Café building, which today houses the reimagined Kiessling Restaurant.


The actual famous Kiessling was never located there but that’s another story for another time… 

The numbers 26 to 29 are wharfs of the various big trading firms on the British Bund and the below panorama gives an impression on how the river front looks today. 

Similarly, the area of No 30, the N.Y.K. Wharf on the Quai de France close to the Customs House nowadays looks like this. 

The final location on the map, No 31, was the offices of the Peiyang Press, but which’s former building no longer exists and today is a park. The company was a private publisher from at least 1924 (or slightly earlier) until 1949 in Tianjin and Beijing and was most likely founded by Germans based on the managers and staff listed in historic directories. 

We hope you enjoyed this little tour exploring Tianjin’s historical charm, although it only entailed a small fraction of the preserved historic buildings and barely scratched the surface of what can be explored in the former British Concession let alone, the French. It did not even take us to the Chinese city, nor the stunning former Japanese, Italian or Austria-Hungarian sections of the city. Little is left of the Belgian concession and the historic architecture of the Russian concession has almost entirely been replaced by modern high-rise buildings. For a glimpse at the history of department stores in old Tianjin please see our two-part series on the “Retail Battle of Tientsin” here and here. We’ll take another of the artifacts from our collection as a starting point sometime soon to explore more of this wonderful, yet often overlooked historical gem of a Chinese city with a lasting Western influence. 

P.S.: A great book on Tianjin's historic architecture and in fact on the colonial buildings of all foreign outports is "Trading Places - A Photographic Journey through China's Former Treaty Ports" by Nicholas Kitto.

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