By the 1890s the eyes of the western imperial powers were turning eastwards, especially towards Manchuria.
Why had Manchuria become such a hot property?
As any real estate agent will say, it’s “location, location, and location.”
For Russia, its imperial gaze followed the ambitions of Tsar Nicholas II and Finance Minister Sergei Witte, who wanted to expand Russian influence in the Far East and China by way of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. To fulfill that aim, Russia required both a chunk of Manchuria as a right-of-way for the railway and an ice-free port on the Pacific, since Vladivostok, its only other port in the east, remained ice-bound much of the year. With Manchuria strategically positioned between the Trans-Baikal and Vladivostok, it assumed a central role in Russian foreign policy.
Another nation coveting Manchuria, however, was Japan, an emerging power in the East. Japan had just defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-95, and, in the process, established itself on the mainland, acquiring the Liaodung Peninsula with its strategically valuable, warm-water port of Port Arthur (Lushun).
Aroused by fears of Japanese ascendancy in the Far East, Russia, with French and German support, forced Japan to retrocede Manchuria and its ports to China. Moribund and cash-strapped, China in 1896 granted Russia an eighty-year concession to build and operate the Chinese Eastern Railway across Manchuria. The railway became an all-out Russian colonial enterprise in Manchuria, with capital, personnel, and railway management all under the control of its chief proponent, Sergei Witte. It essentially endowed Russia with a gateway to the Far East, its communication facilitated by a 1,780-mile railway shortcut through Chinese territory that connected the Siberian town of Chita with Vladivostok.
Bolstered by its success, the Tsarist government seized Port Arthur and Dalian on the Liaodung Peninsula – the same territory forcibly vacated by an aggrieved Japan three years earlier — and began to construct a 500-mile railway line linking them with the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER).The link up would be placed near the intersection of the CER and the Sungari River, already selected by an 1895 Russian expedition as the perfect spot for a town to serve as an administrative center for the projected railroad. To the local Manchu the site was known as Harbin, or “a place for drying fish nets.”
From Harbin the 500-mile spur off the CER, eventually known as the South Manchurian Railway, was built southwards to the deep-water port of Port Arthur, and later connected with the open port of Dalian. Subsequently leasing the Liaodong Peninsula from China, Russia had set off a chain of events that would lead to a disastrous conflict with Japan.
Like Winnipeg, Billings, and Albuquerque, the city of Harbin was conceived during a major railway project and grew to become a provincial capital. The town, as headquarters for the CER, formed a hub for commerce; businesses sprung up to serve the burgeoning railroad industry and its employees. It attracted Russian bankers, engineers, and technicians; Chinese farmers, traders, and servants; Japanese merchants; and those wishing to escape the law. What had begun as a fishing village and a distillery had quickly transmogrified into a Wild East boomtown.Seeking opportunities, Russian architects, in addition to Italian and Swiss town planners, designed its parks, buildings, boulevards, and suburbs, giving Harbin a distinctly Russian aesthetic. Street names reflected the nouveau vibe of the community: Artillery Street, Chinese Street, Novgorod Street, Tap Water Street, Diagonal Boulevard, Kiev Street, Electricity Street, to cite just a few. The various ethnic groups congregated in their own settlements. Chinese populated the sector called Fudiadian.
The bulk of the city’s Jews lived in the neighborhood of Pristan (though it included many Chinese). Representatives of Imperial Russia and the CER resided in New Town, which also housed the art nouveau railway station and numerous parks. To facilitate life among the town’s multifarious inhabitants, Chinese shopkeepers and vendors devised a Russo-Chinese pidgin called “moya-tvoya,” i.e. “mine-yours,” that became its signature lingua-franca.
Russians, though in the minority, dominated the city from the first decade of its existence, turning it into an important cultural center, which, according to one prominent Kharbinets (someone born in Harbin), attracted theatrical troupes, singers, Russian schools, periodicals, libraries, churches, and synagogues.
Harbin assumed a growing military role in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, when Russia fortified key points along the South Manchurian Railway with troops. It also served as a supply depot for the Russian Army in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-05, but in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s loss, the city became prone to strikes and revolutionary movements, and its population further declined due to an epidemic of plague in 1910-11.Over the subsequent years Harbin nevertheless continued to attract its share of exiles, especially those fleeing along the Chinese Eastern Railway from the Russian Revolution, 1917-18. Following its takeover of Manchuria in the 1930s, Japan used Harbin as its chief base of military operations. In 1946 it was returned to the Communist Chinese.