German brothers revisiting their childhood home after 62 years

German brothers revisiting their childhood home after 62 years
Heinz & Rolf Haesloop in their old house in 2013.

At the 150th anniversary celebration of Tianjin's Astor Hotel, I was lucky enough to meet two German brothers who had spent their childhood in Tianjin. Though it had been 62 years since they had left, their childhood memories of old Tianjin were still vivid. Seventy four year old Heinz and seventy two year old Rolf Haesloop lived at No.23 Fu Jian Dao, then called the German Courtyard, over 60 years ago. They were born into a privileged family that was influential in old Tianjin. Their great grandfather, George Ritter, was one of the founders of the Astor Hotel.

The Astor Hotel started life as a humble one storey structure known as the Mud House. Over his 20 years tenure managing the Astor, Mr. Ritter rebuilt the Mud House and transformed it into the most fashionable hotel in Tianjin. Heinz remembered meeting people of many different backgrounds. As he recounted,"At that time, there were Americans, Germans, Englishmen and Chinese all looking for new lifestyles coming to stay or dine at the Astor. Although they spoke different languages, they always smiled and greeted each other. The atmosphere was so harmonious. I never encountered any quarrel caused by cultural differences."

German brothers revisiting their childhood home after 62 years
Heinz & Rolf Haesloop Newchwang Road 1945.

Rolf also told a story. In 1900 during the invasion of Eight-Power Allied Forces, Mr. Ritter sheltered with some local citizens in the basement of the Astor. After the fighting stopped, the locals who had been saved by Mr. Ritter showed their appreciation with presents. Since then, the emotional bond between the Ritters and Tianjin remains strong. When George Ritter went back to Germany, he named his residence Tianjin Mansion in memory of his life in Tianjin.

The brothers' parents were married in Tianjin in 1929. Their wedding was held at Club Concordia which was at Jie Fang Nan Lu. The club was established soon after Germany acquired its concession in Tianjin. It was originally in a four level building in Victoria Street. However, as the German population increased, a larger social center was needed, so it was relocated to the current site. The four towers with sharp peaks represented classic German architectural style and were completed in July 1907. The club was the main social center for the high-class German residents and Tianjin's social elite with facilities such as a theatre, meeting rooms, bar, restaurant, chess and reading room. The Haesloop brothers were not permitted into the club as it was adults only. However, they found their fun in other places.

Life in Tianjin was carefree and happy for the boys and their parents. They often went out on their Plymouth bicycles or in a carriage to the watch horse racing at Ma Chang Dao or boat racing in Haihe. They had parties at Club Concordia and hunted downstream along the Haihe River. Although they were only a few short years in Tianjin, it was a time of happy memories.

German brothers revisiting their childhood home after 62 years
The boat race in Haihe River.

The two brothers became very excited when talking about the boat racing. Rolf recalled 60 years ago, the Haihe River seemed to be wider and several ships could sail side by side. Rowers of different nationalities participated in the events but the Germans were always the strongest and smartest crews of all. Rolf still feels proud: "We always defeated the English team! I developed passion in sports when I was little because of my father. And I became an enthusiastic rowing amateur just like him."

I was shown a picture of the brothers sitting in the doorway of the old house in Tianjin. In the picture, Heinz was six and Rolf was four. They left Tianjin six years later. On their first trip back to Tianjin, they revisited the old house and took a picture in the same place. I asked Heinz what came to mind when he thought about Tianjin. He thought for a while and said one word: "Home". He couldn't help shedding tears when he returned to Tianjin and recalled his childhood. To the brothers, Tianjin was not just a city or a place where they had stayed for a while. It was a major part of their childhood with memories that have been carved out of every one of the bricks in the old house. For decades, they have been thinking of coming back "home".

Although 60 years have passed, they could still speak some Chinese. Rolf told us that he rarely left the German Concession and had little contact with Chinese people outside this area. The only Chinese he knew were the calls of the craftsmen and tradesmen who came to fix the furniture and the house. He admired the Chinese carpenters and loved to watch them as they were doing their jobs. His parents were also amazed by the carpenter's craftsmanship.

Rolf and his mates were very excited each time a particular old man came to their community. He was the knife sharpener. In China, people touted their skills by calling out their particular specialty as they walked up and down the street. The knifeman called out "yao he澪哉". The "yaohe" was drawn out like he was singing and the sound of it drew all the children out to see him working. Rolf showed us how the man sharpened the knife and imitated his "yaohe" in the Tianjin dialect: "Mo jianzi mo dao……". It made me think that it is so sad that the old ways of doing business in the city are slowly dying out.

German brothers revisiting their childhood home after 62 years
The Haesloop brothers' parents wedded at Club Concordia.

Rolf also recalled a tongue-twister he learned in Tianjin. When he tried to pronounce every word correctly, he sounded just like the child he must have been 62 years ago. The brothers have made an agreement to send their grandchildren to see Tianjin when they are too old to travel. The bond they have with our city is so special that they want to make sure it is not lost to the family.


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