July 2, 2008

Japanese Houses in Dalian

Filed under: asia,China,Dalian — Kim @ 8:20 am

The Japanese were in Dalian for a fairly long time (1905-1945) and left their mark. And that, for me, is part of the place’s charm, especially when it comes to architecture. The Japanese built the tramway and some quaint old-style trams still run. Some of the buildings, such as the redbrick Railway Hospital, are well known amongst architecture buffs in Japan. And certain districts and certain buildings have an antique European (and dare I say “colonial”) charm that stands out starkly from the overwhelming majority of modern Chinese “shoebox” tower-blocks. A very small number of these buildings are Russian, and there is a well known “Russian street” in Dalian, but actually the great majority of this antique looking, European-style architecture is Japanese.

j house

Now, I lived in Japan for 3 years and I never saw any Japanese houses like these, and it is of course slightly odd that Dalian’s European-style buildings should have been built by the Japanese. But then again the Japanese have a certain reputation for copying and this is maybe another manifestation of that. It could even be argued that Japan went into a kind of national trauma at finding out how technologically and militarily superior the Western powers were (famously initiated by the July 8, 1853 incident when Commodore Perry’s black ships steamed up to Tokyo and scared the bejaysus out of the natives) and that this trauma worked itself out in an aping of the despised-yet-admired western powers. Hence the ultra-quick modernisation of Japan, hence the Japanese adoption of western habits (business suits etc) and western institutions, hence the launching of an ill-fated “Japanese Empire”, and hence the Japanese European-style colonial houses in Dalian.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese have a slightly more ambivalent attitude towards reminders of the Japanese occupation. Colonial charm is often lost on the colonised. When I was teaching a visiting banker from Beijing last summer she told me that her 14-year old daughter would be coming for the weekend and asked me what I would recommend seeing in Dalian other than the zoo and Xinghai square, coz they’d already been to those places. I thought for a while and then came up with the suggestion that it might be interesting to look at the old Japanese houses, as they really were different and curious and of historical interest. She looked appalled at this suggestion and shook her head and said, “No, no, no”. When I asked why not she just shook her head again and said “Not good.” I was pretty sure I knew what she was thinking (shame for China etc) so I didn’t push it.

And here in Dalian most of these wonderful old houses are almost completely neglected. In England, the English equivalent of “period houses” like these would be highly sought after and expensive. They would be owned by upper-middle-class owners who would renovate them and refurbish them and treat them with loving pride. Here in Dalian the locals don’t want to live in them. They are often occupied by garbage collectors from the countryside and so are rather decrepit and surrounded by piles of rubbish and rubbish carts.


j hoose

Some are in slightly better nick, but they are still rather undesirable and run-down, as this flickr photo and accompanying comment shows,


This is an old residential area from the Japanese era..I think the houses are nice but poorly maintained..they told me the poor people live here

But actually I suppose we should be thankful that there are any Japanese buildings left at all. The Chinese could have easily and understandably demolished them all and thus gotten rid of a reminder of oppression. I heard that ex Dalian mayor and all-round good guy Bo Xilai was largely responsible for ensuring that a lot of these old Japanese buildings survived – cheers Bo!

And I shouldn’t finish this post without mentioning the strictly-for-tourists “Japanese street” in Dalian, which was trying to piggy back on the success of the “Russian street”, I guess. This surreal and silly street is lined with large modern buildings which were built by Chinese to look like Japanese houses and which end up looking bland and somehow western. I’ve been there a few of times and it’s always empty, and I’m really not sure what it’s for or who it’s aimed at. Don’t go there.