East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Sixteen Italians in Tientsin

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There were sixteen Italians in Tietsin in 1901.

  • Two hairdressers
  • Six owners or staffers of two Italian restaurants
  • One mechanic
  • One miner
  • Two businessmen
  • One builder
  • Three artists: a singer, a musician and a painter.

These are the things one learns doing historical research.


And one can also get an article out of it, and sell it. Because bills won’t pay themselves.

Tientsin_Italian_concession_mapOf the two restaurants, one was called Cantina Italiana (Italian Cellar), and might explain why the most requested Italian exports to Tientsin were wine, olive oil, vermouth and fernet, and pastries.
Of the two businessmen, one worked with the Italian Trading Co., based in Shanghai, the only Italian company in China at the time, and one that also acted as a bank in case of need.

We know nothing of the painter, the musician and the singer.
Where did they ply their trade?
Were they successful? Were they in demand?

This is the sort of shadow area in which historical fiction could take place. A singer in Tientsin, in 1901.
gg0006_enlargeI envision a soprano or a mezzo-soprano, one that has a good selection of opera arias she can do on recital nights, maybe accompanied by the musician. A piano player, most likely, her musical partner.
But she probably also plays the violin. A well-rounded musician. I once dated a soprano that played the violin.

But these two, now…
What’s their relationship?
Husband and wife?
Brother and sister?
Now this would open some interesting options.
Why are they in China? How did they get here? Were their parents missionaries?
This is unlikely – Italian missionaries would be Catholic, and most probably members of the clergy.
No sons, no daughters.

See how simply, how nicely the mystery develops and widens, as we ask ourselves questions, as we imagine, visualize?
It’s so easy to find a story, even just browsing an old report by the Italian Consul…


She looks a little like the Gibson Girl. She is Italian, so the dark hair are almost a given. Raven black hair and a pale complexion, and a supple, flexible voice, as she sings arias from Rossini, and Mozart. Verdi, too, of course, but she doesn’t like Verdi a lot. She prefers the humorous songs.
Her brother — he has to be her brother — is moodier, more melancholy. Long fingers, unruly hair.
What brought them to Tientsin?
Why now, so soon after the Boxer Rebellion?
Are they looking for someone?
Someone that disappeared during the chaos of the uprising?
Or where they left behind?
Mystery upon mystery…
I will have to write something about this.
But first, my article, sold for six cents a word. Now I have one more reason to write it quickly.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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