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Tour guide keeps precinct's history alive

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Jin Pengyu has made it his lifelong passion to research the colorful history of one of Tianjin's famous tourist attractions - the Wudadao district, also known, as the Five Greater Avenues.

The 74-year-old retiree volunteers to lead tour groups that often include foreigners, some of whom want to see how their ancestors once lived in the northern city.

During the tours, Jin brings to life the vivid history of the buildings in the 1.28-square-kilometer block, which has shining examples of both Chinese and Western architecture.

The district has hundreds of villas in various Western styles built in the 1920s and 1930s. The former US president Herbert Hoover lived at No 6, Machang Avenue. The Scottish Olympian Eric Liddell, whose gold-medal winning feats and dedication to his faith were featured in the film Chariots of Fire, lived in Chongqing Road when his parents worked as missionaries.

Many prominent figures from Chinese history also once resided in Wudadao, including imperial family members who moved from Beijing after the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) ended.

Zhang Boling, founder of the 100-year-old Nankai University, along with military heroes in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945), affluent businessmen, politicians and artists, also called the district home.

Jin said many overseas visitors hope he can help them find where their parents or grandparents once lived.

One success story was finding the former home of Austrian Richard Frey (1920-2004), who fled to China during World War II and became a renowned communist. His residence was located by Jin and cultural and historical expert Zhang Shaozu with the help of an old photograph.

News of the find was published in a Chinese newspaper, which Frey's son read about. In 2015, with Jin's assistance, he made a trip to visit his father's home and talk to people in the neighborhood.

"When he saw the house I led him to, he could't help but cry," Jin recalled.

For many Chinese tourists, his illuminations on the Western-style buildings, their tenants and their history, make it more than "just a walk around" an old part of the city. One Chinese tourist wrote in an online review that Jin's tours were a chance to "get a stronger taste of the history of Tianjin and modern China".

Jin said comments such as those are what have driven him for more than 30 years, adding he has taken more than 160 tour groups every year.

Street smarts

His early knowledge of the area's history came from his family, and he still lives in Guangjie Lane in Wudadao district. He was born in a villa in the district, where his relatives were prominent underground figures in the Communist Party of China.

He donated his parents' wedding photos to the Five Greater Avenues History Museum in Minyuan Stadium, which has replicas of scenes from life in the Western-style buildings.

Jin often starts his tours there for both Chinese and foreign visitors.

A Beijing tourist wrote in a visitors' book in the museum, that he was impressed by Jin's stories. "He is a witness, and tourists can also see that there is enormous love in his and many residents' stories."

Jin, who retired 15 years ago, also serves as a consultant to the Five Greater Avenues Cultural Tourism Development Co and continues to play a role in the protection and development of the area.

His connections to conservation of the buildings dates back almost 60 years.

In 1962, he was assigned as a youngster to work for a construction team of the local housing management bureau. One of their major tasks was to renovate Tianjin's old buildings, including the ones in Wudadao.

In his spare time, Jin studied at Xinhua Vocational University and graduated with a history diploma. Since the 1980s, Jin said, he has walked every corner of Wudadao. "I think half of my life has been spent around every corner of the area," he said.

In 2005, he was promoted to director of the research office of the Tianjin Municipal Office of Conservation of Stylish and Historical Architecture and lead a team to review the status of the historical buildings of the area.

He has written more than 50 books about the district.

Wang Yeming, the director of the Administrative Committee of the Wudadao Area, said they need more experts like Jin to help the rest of the world learn about the conservation of the buildings and the culture and history of the area.

Wudadao has 300 residential buildings with styles ranging from Renaissance to baroque, and likes to promote itself "a museum of architecture" of many countries.

Wang said he wants to set up a research institute for the Wudadao district.

China Daily


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