Tianjin may be a mere thirty minutes from Beijing by bullet train, but it sometimes feels half a world away. Choices for the ex-pat are inevitably sparse, even in such a big city. The book-thirsty Tianjiner can find innumerable shops selling Chinese language books, but those selling English language books are rather harder to come by.
One of the few shops stocking them is the Hai Guang Si Bookstore, on Weijin Lu, by the Nanjing Road junction. It's just off the Hai Guang Si subway station, too (obviously). With two floors and a pleasant, quiet, wood-furnished atmosphere, the English section is on the upper floor, just off the top of the stairs. The large majority of books available are cheap "Wordsworth" editions of 18th and 19th century classics, from authors such as Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. The quality of these books is perfectly reasonable, with introductions and annotations to help the new reader; and most retail for less than 40 RMB. (They sell for £1 in Britain, but beggars can't be choosers, and so on). The contemporary section has less space and sticks to popular writers such as Stephen King, John Grisham and JK Rowling, and biographies and autobiographies of footballers and other inconsequential celebrities. This is indicative of the intellectual level of the books available – ther'’s no non-fiction on any contemporary matter, no history or politics or biographies of recent politicians. There are some English language books on Chinese subjects, however, such as Chinese cooking, history and language, for those more interested in intellectually acclimatising themselves.
The bookshop on Machang Dao, in the centre of the pleasant Wu Da Dao area and titled "Foreign Languages Bookstore", raises some hope. It's on one floor, right at the junction of Machang Dao and Xi Kang Lu, and easy to spot. The stock is fairly similar to the aforementioned bookstore, but with added travel books. Somewhat surprisingly, there is a fairly substantial travel section, mostly on Asian countries, including "Lonely Planet" guides. There wasn’t one on China, or Tibet, inevitably. The fiction is more diffuse, not simply the Wordsworth classics but with American "Signet" editions, a higher proportion of modern books and a generally more varied selection. Non-fiction, outside the travel field, remains somewhat elusive, unless of course you are looking for books with a positive take on China.
As the name suggests, there are also other foreign language books inside, but the English books make up the largest proportion. Prices are reasonable, around 50 RMB for a basic paperback to 150 RMB for a higher quality or more rare book.
In either case, books sometimes feel like a precious commodity in Tianjin. If you don't have the opportunity to visit the bookstores in Beijing's Sanlitun area, these bookstores are your only opportunity to stock up. The book thirsty – those who know a craving for information, for the ruffle of paper, for the quiet contemplation and rapt elucidation that only books can deliver – will have to make their way to find them.
Hai Guang Si Bookstore 海光寺图书城
Add: 44-46, 1F, Xin Du Plaza, Weijin Lu, Nankai District, Tianjin
Tel: 022 2777 8505
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