For much of the past century, Japan and the Soviet Union have been battling for influence over this strategically situated city, the gateway to Chinese Manchuria.
In 1904, the two nations went to war after Japan attacked the Russian fleet south of here at Port Arthur, and President Theodore Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the conflict.
The city remained under Japanese occupation until World War II. At the end of the war, Soviet leader Josef Stalin insisted on access to Dalian during the conference at Yalta, and Soviet troops did not actually leave here until 1954.
Now, once again, Japan has gained the upper hand.
Nowhere in China today is the Japanese presence as noticeable as it is in Dalian (formerly called Dairen), which is located at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula at the point where the rail lines from Manchuria reach the sea.
Rooms at the stately old Dalian Guest House in the center of town, where Japanese naval officers once dined, are now occupied by the offices of leading Japanese companies such as Sumitomo Corp., Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Bank. In the hotel’s restaurant, Chinese cooks now obligingly serve tempura for their lunchtime business clientele.
A Japanese firm is building a golf course here. Dalian’s Ocean Shipping Co. has opened regular cargo service to Osaka, Yokahama and Kobe. Direct air flights from Dalian to Tokyo are expected to start within the next year.
And at the Nanshan Guest House, a recently built Chinese hotel, English-language brochures advertise the availability of a “turkey bath,” apparently a misrendering of what the Japanese customarily call a Turkish bath.
By contrast, little remains from the Russian era in Dalian except for some onion-domed architecture and the name of one of the city’s widest intersections, still called Sidale (Stalin) Square.
Dalian residents admit to some lingering mistrust of Japan. “I came here after the war because Dalian was of great historic interest. It had been under Japanese occupation for 40 years,” said Prof. Yu Zhiyuan, principal of Dalian Teachers College. “The Japanese didn’t want Chinese here to be anything but coolies. Dalian had a lot of problems then.”
Nevertheless, the Japanese return is tolerated because it is primarily from the port of Dalian that China seeks to channel enough exports to reduce the nation’s growing trade imbalance with Tokyo.
Actually, these days it is hard for the visitor to see why Dalian was considered such a prize. The city seems important far more for its strategic and geopolitical value than for any great intrinsic interest.
Although Dalian (whose American sister-city is Oakland) is considered one of China’s best summer resorts, in winter it seems like a grimy, polluted port town.
The distinctive detached, European-style houses that once housed Japanese, Soviet and other foreign visitors now display fading paint and crumbling exteriors. Many are occupied by at least three or four Chinese families. Their chimneys belch coal smoke that covers the city each morning in a brownish haze.
Dalian’s port ranks third in China behind Shanghai and Qinhuangdao for overall tonnage--and it is the largest in the country for exports and foreign trade. Yet the port remains so hopelessly choked that ships often face long waits in the harbor until a berth becomes available. Some new berths are being built, but it is doubtful that they will be enough.
“We have tried to solve this problem but, up to now, not too successfully,” a spokesman for the Dalian Port Administration said. He acknowledged that there are usually about 20 ships at any one time waiting for berths in Dalian and that the wait can last anywhere from a week to a month.
One Western analyst said he believes that even this estimate of the port delays may be an “underbid.” He said the average wait for ships coming into Dalian and other Chinese ports now is about 45 days. Even after a ship is unloaded, he said, it may be required to leave the port and wait for another two or three weeks before it can return to take on cargo and leave. Some shipping firms reportedly are being required to pay special fees to cut the delay time and get berths.
Dalian is classified as one of China’s “open cities.” In 1984, China proclaimed that 14 cities along the eastern coastline would be opened to foreign investment.
The Chinese regime last year scaled back its plans for 10 of these cities but is still trying to bring in foreign capital to Dalian, Shanghai, Canton and Tianjin.
“We want to create this area as a window to China’s northeast and Inner Mongolia,” said Zhou Haifei, vice chairman of Dalian’s economic and technical development zone. So far, he added, Dalian has signed 16 business contracts with foreign companies for either joint ventures or co-production arrangements.
2 Contracts With U.S. Firms
Eleven of these contracts are with Hong Kong companies, many of which are now eager to develop ties with China before it regains sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. Two of the 16 contracts are with American firms, two with Japanese businesses and one with a West German company.
Dalian is finding that Japanese firms are much more eager to pursue trade with China than they are to invest here. Asked why only two contracts have been signed so far with Japanese firms, Zhou replied: “It’s a good question. The Japanese are very interested in this area, not only at present but as a matter of history. But our Japanese friends tell us the port hasn’t been completed yet. So the Japanese are waiting.”