Colonial gems defy years

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2011, 12:00am


Qingdao is that rare gem in modern China - a city seemingly immune to the rapid changes that often bring dramatic transformations to the cityscape. It's almost as if its colonial past has inoculated it against the reconstruction that has been sweeping the nation for more than three decades.

Qingdao's colonial period began in 1897 when Imperial German troops landed near the tiny fishing village of barely 1,000 souls and claimed it in the name of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Imperial Qing authorities signed a treaty two years later that ceded the village and surrounding land to the Germans for 99 years.

The Germans went to work with typical Teutonic verve and efficiency. Within a few short years, the village had become a bustling town of 3,000 with electricity, a sewage system, several schools and an astonishing number of colonial homes, buildings and churches that would shape the character of Qingdao for the next 100 years and beyond.

Much of what the Germans built between 1903 and 1914 remains standing. Guangxi and Jiangsu roads are exceptional examples of turn-of-the-century German architecture - solid granite edifices, towers and large glass windows. Many old homes are now beautiful shop fronts that act as a window to the past and will be an attraction for tourists well into the future.

Major architectural landmarks include the Governor's Mansion, Protestant Church, St Michael's Cathedral and Huashi Lou.

The Governor's Mansion was built between 1905 and 1908 and resembles Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle in terms of lavish decor, ambition and folly. The mansion cost an estimated 2.5 million silver taels to build and housed the German governor for a brief period before he was recalled and sacked by Kaiser Wilhelm II for overt extravagance.

Today the mansion is a museum offering a guided tour through the dozens of rooms.

Notable sights are the green marble fireplace, an original 1876 German grand piano and an array of plush Imperial European furnishings, stained glass windows and hardwood panelling.

Qingdao's Protestant Church remains mostly intact. The church was built in 1908 and resembles a squat beer cellar, with an accompanying tower for defence rather than worship.

The yellow stone and granite foundations are beautiful, solid structures and a red tile helps to warm the homey interior. The bell tower boasts the original bronze bells and a three-sided clock face.

Whereas the Protestant Church marched through history unscathed, St Michael's Cathedral limped into the 21st century a gutted shadow of its former self. It hosts regular Sunday mass.

Huashi Lou is another fortress-like example of Central Europe's fusion of beauty and solidity.

The building was a villa for Russian and German aristocrats during the early 20th century and now serves as a bustling destination for newlyweds snapping pictures in long white dresses and tuxedos.

The Ba Da Guan district has dozens of beautiful homes that are now hotels or boutique restaurants. A walk from the hilly centre towards the sea, focusing on major landmarks, affords a pleasing look into China's colonial past.