Qingdao is rich in history and economic potential alike
Qingdao’s rich colonial past and rapid economic development make for a worthwhile visit
In a visit during the 1980s, when China was first opening its doors to the outside world under its reform policy, travel writer Paul Theroux found the city of Qingdao had an “irrational, dreamlike quality”. He felt uncomfortable in a non-European city filled with European architecture, a stately Lutheran church abutting a noodle stall. Today, many areas in the city still preserve architectural styles from the German colonial period: Baroque, Byzantine, Eclectic, Gothic, Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and Romanesque buildings abound.
Although Western colonialism in China more commonly brings to mind British Hong Kong, Portuguese Macau or Shanghai’s French Concession, Qingdao was actually the first European colony fully located on the Chinese mainland.
Theroux was sharply critical of the colonial powers – “imperialists”, he called them – that had come to Qingdao, criticising the “fat and monumental” buildings constructed “whether they fit the place or not”.
At one point in history, at least, the Chinese government seemed to share Theroux’s view. Red Guards, those members of the student paramilitary social movement mobilised by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, partially destroyed the city’s St Michael’s Cathedral, including its 2,400-pipe organ that was one of the two biggest in Asia, according to state-owned newspaper China Daily. In April 2008, the Qingdao Diocese ordered a new one from Germany with similar capacity.
Qingdao is now an international port city and a maritime hub in northeast Asia, benefiting from its strategic geographic location. The city trades with over 450 ports in more than 130 countries or regions around the world, according to World Port Source.
“Shipping and international trade is huge there,” says David Yu, an adjunct professor of finance at New York University Shanghai, pointing to a World Shipping Council report stating that Qingdao is the world’s eighth largest container port by volume. “On the manufacturing side, there are major shipyards, both commercial and military, including one that built China’s first aircraft carrier. In terms of port activities, Qingdao is ranked one of the top in China and top ten globally in container volume.”
Besides shipping, major Chinese companies such as Haier, Hisense, Tsingtao Brewery and Qingjian Group are based there. “It’s a big second-tier city. There are some major enterprises,” Yu says.
A view of Qingdao’s old town, with St Michael’s Cathedral