Tianjin is usually defined in relation to Beijing. For good or bad, its proximity to the capital city - 137 km from both cities' downtown railway stations - has determined that it will forever be in the capital's shadow, the relatively neglected younger sibling of a high-profile brother, so to speak.
Tianjin was China's third municipality under the central government, after Beijing and Shanghai. It got that status in 1927, but lost it temporarily from 1958 to 1967. Tianjin's awkward position is not just the result of its geographical location.
In terms of history it cannot compete with Beijing. In terms of cosmopolitan flair and industrial prowess, it is no rival for Shanghai. A Tianjin Museum exhibition that highlights its history over the past 100 years even includes several exhibits specific to Beijing.
Moreover, it seems Tianjin has not fully reconciled with its colonial past, which was tinged with such violence as the 1870 church incident and the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. It had nine concessions, while foreign trade also turned Tientsin (as it was then termed) into an international hub.
Western civilization flowed in through this port city, creating China's first modern university, the first law school, the first teacher training college for women, the first school for training music and physical education teachers, the first aquaculture school, among others. Tianjin holds some 100 records of this kind in the nation's progress toward modernity.
While Western imperialists used Tianjin as a stepping-stone, those loyal to the throne, and revolutionaries, viewed the city as a back yard.
They withdrew from the center stage that was Beijing, morphed into "crouching tigers and hidden dragons" in Tianjin, and bided their time for a chance to return. The last emperor Puyi lived in the Japanese concession from 1924 to 1931 and was divorced by his concubine, an unprecedented blow to his imperial honor.
It was also in this city that Peking Opera stars found their fame. As the old saying went: Learn the trade in Beijing, gain fame in Tianjin and make money in Shanghai.
Nowadays, Tianjin is the cradle of crosstalk, the Chinese equivalent of stand-up comedy. Ma Sanli, with his dialect-heavy delivery, had a strong influence on a generation of Chinese comedians. Guo Degang, the reigning king of crosstalk, has re-established his hometown as the spring for this kind of Chinese humor.
Tianjiners are widely believed to be acerbic and witty. Having a "Tianjin mouth" is tantamount to possessing a certain eloquence, somewhat similar to David Letterman's humor.
Tianjin is more laidback than other Chinese metropolises. Some call it "lagging behind", citing the slower pace of ultra-urbanization; others deem it a way of preserving the old lifestyle with its quirky humor, distinct dialect and folksy sensibilities.
Like it or not, Tianjin is on the march. Whole streets are being renovated. New buildings - in the old colonial style nonetheless - are being erected along the Haihe River. Most importantly, a high-speed rail line opened last year between Beijing South Railway Station and downtown Tianjin. The journey takes just 30 minutes and trains depart every 15 minutes, essentially turning Tianjin into a Beijing suburb.
Since 2003 when the Beijing-Tianjin integration plan came into being, Tianjiners have come to realize that they don't have to see the city next door as a rival, but as a neighbor whose halo will spread endless light. As San Jose is to San Francisco, or Shenzhen is to Hong Kong, Tianjin has found its unique position that allows it to flourish in its own right.