China's Dalian harbour spawned a classic Japanese novelist's travelogue

China's Dalian harbour spawned a classic Japanese novelist's travelogue

DALIAN, China - On Sept. 6, 1909, a Japanese novelist set foot on the pier of Dalian Harbor, the gateway to Manchuria. That writer was Soseki Natsume, who had come at the invitation of the South Manchuria Railway Co.

For nearly 50 days, Soseki travelled around Manchuria (now northeastern China) and the Korean Peninsula. During that time, he wrote "Mankan Tokorodokoro" (Travels in Manchuria and Korea). Toting a copy of that travelogue by the literary great, I walked around the city of Dalian, which still retains some remnants of those days.

Erected in 1908, Victory Bridge is located about a 10-minute walk from Dalian Station, whose structure dates back to the age of the South Manchuria Railway. The vehicle bridge, which is still in use a century after its construction, was described by Soseki as being elegant and well-built, the sort of thing that could only be found in central Europe.

Crossing the bridge and walking through the Russian quarter of town, which was redeveloped as a tourist site about 10 years ago, brought me to the building known as old Dalniy City Hall. Built around 1900, it is one of the few remaining architectural structures from the era of Russian rule. The white walls of the massive structure gleamed in the winter sunshine.

Along with the right to construct a railway in Manchuria, Russia gained a leasehold of the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula. It then named the area Dalniy, which means "afar" in Russian.

After the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Japan took over the city and renamed it Dalian. The old city hall was transformed into a hotel run by the South Manchuria Railway, which is where Soseki stayed.

"Standing on the stone steps, I gazed down at the avenue that ran directly from the entrance to Nippon Bashi," he wrote. Victory Bridge was called Nippon Bashi during the Manchurian period.

Stopping in front of the entrance to the old city hall, I glanced back at the road that I had just travelled down. Indeed, the avenue did stretch straight ahead, and I could see the bridge in the distance.

Soseki visited the city just as the Japanese urban development of Dalian had entered full swing. The era saw the rapid construction of trams - which are still a means of transport for locals - and an electrically lit park known as Denki Koen, a rare phenomenon back then.

Witnessing such progress in the city, even Soseki could not help jotting, "There is no doubt that those who came from Japan ought to be called countrymen." Dalian was later developed into a port city.

Preserving the past

With the aging of buildings and the redevelopment of urban areas, the old streetscapes of Dalian are now disappearing. The old city hall, which was used as a museum until the 1990s, is in a decrepit state, with paint peeling off its exterior walls and some of its windows broken.

The desire to preserve prewar buildings has been spreading among younger generations.

A small craft shop is located near the old city hall. Zhou Ke, a 30-year-old former art teacher, opened it in 2011 with his wife, Shen Jie, 28. They sell pictorial maps that show the old architecture of Dalian, as well as postcards featuring images of traditional streetscapes and trams.

Zhou was born and raised in a house that had been inhabited by Japanese until the end of the war. The couple stock their store with such products in the hopes that if more people become interested in old buildings, it may enhance opportunities for architectural preservation.

Soseki left Dalian, wishing the best of luck to the young people trying to pass down the memories of the city to future generations.

Makita is a correspondent in Shenyang.

Soseki Natsume was a major fiction writer in modern Japanese literature. His given name was Kinnosuke Natsume. After making his debut with "Wagahai ha Neko de Aru" (I Am a Cat) in 1905-1906, he joined the Asahi Shimbun and wrote exclusively for the newspaper company. In 1909, he received an invitation to visit from old friend Yoshikoto Nakamura, who had become the chairman of the South Manchurian Railway. From September to October, Soseki travelled to Dalian, Mukden (currently Shenyang), Harbin, Pyongyang and Keijo (currently Seoul). Upon his return to Japan, "Travels in Manchuria and Korea" was published in the newspaper over a span of two months.

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