Liaoning: Dancing Cabbage, North Korea, and Plenty of History

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Seriously: dancing cabbage. And other dancing produce.

After a BeijingShanghai-Beijing sequence during the first ten days of my China trip, I was off to a new (to me, that is) province: Liaoning (pronounced Lee-OW-ning).* Liaoning is up in China’s industrial northeast, part of the region known as Dongbei described in Michael Meyer’s In Manchuria [affiliate link]. Once the country’s center of heavy industry, Liaoning has suffered since state-owned enterprise reforms began in the 1990s; the province recently made headlines for posting a negative growth rate in the first quarter of this year. Jobs for low-skilled workers are tough to come by, and the real-estate market is so sluggish that cities are offering cash incentives to home buyers. Based on what I’d read in the media, I was expecting a gray, wintry, depressed rustbelt (never mind that it was June).

Shenyang: Not at all what I expected.
Shenyang: Not at all what I expected.

Instead, I landed in Shenyang and found a green and shiny modern city, filled with high-rises and construction cranes. At first glance, things looked much more promising than I had anticipated.

But on closer inspection, many of those high-rises seemed to be mostly empty, judging from the lack of lighted windows at night. And many of those cranes stood still, waiting for an infusion of money that would get the building projects moving again. When I went with several other members of the group to see the Shenyang Acrobats perform one night, the beautiful new Poly Theater was only about half-full—a shame, since the quirky Cirque-du-Soleil-style show was a lot of fun. Weird (I still don’t know why the first act features a quartet of dancing produce), but tremendous fun.

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We visited the Shenyang Allied POW Camp, where high-ranking Allied prisoners of war were held by the Japanese during World War II. The museum at the camp is fairly new, and very well done. Several rooms are devoted to reproductions of cartoons drawn by prisoners detailing conditions at the camp and the interactions the inmates had with the Japanese officers in charge, which made the whole complex feel more personal and real. It isn’t always easy to imagine what life was like in a given time or place, but the cartoons in the museum helped me envision some of the struggles the POWs faced, and understand the small moments of humor they relied on to get through the ordeal. I bought a book about the camp that contains reprints of many of the cartoons so I could examine them more closely at my leisure (which hasn’t happened yet).

Bunks inside the Shenyang Allied POW Camp.
Bunks inside the Shenyang Allied POW Camp.

The final major tourist site we saw in Shenyang (again, I’m skipping over the business meetings that filled most of my time in China) was the Imperial Palace, built in the early 17th century as the Qing Dynasty seat of power, before the Qing overthrew the Ming in 1644 and took up residence at the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Shenyang palace has some architectural similarities to the Forbidden City, but also contains many uniquely Manchu elements (and some Tibetan) as well. It’s also far less crowded than the Forbidden City, even with the daily visitor limit that has made visits there more bearable, so you can actually get close enough to see star attractions like the throne room.

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From Shenyang, we drove down to Dandong, a border city directly across the Yalu River from Sinuiju, North Korea. As in, I could actually see North Korea from my hotel room …

The buildings in the foreground are China; the land in the background is North Korea.
The buildings in the foreground are China; the land in the background is North Korea.

… and the nearly total darkness of the North Korean coastline at night, when less than a handful of lights are visible across the river.

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If you accept the gimmick of Dandong (“I can see North Korea from my hotel room”) but keep your expectations low (I didn’t learn much about North Korea looking at it from my hotel room), it’s an okay place to spend one day. Probably not more than that. There is a lively night market with vendors selling all sorts of grilled/fried things on sticks; I wished I hadn’t just finished a generous banquet dinner and had room to sample some of the offerings.

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One of the main tourist attractions is the Broken Bridge, bombed by Americans during the Korean War. The bridge extends about two-thirds of the way across the river before it ends at a viewing platform; the remaining pillars are still in place to remind visitors what was destroyed.

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My group also took a boat ride on the Yalu River, giving us the closest view of North Korea we could get without actually traveling there.

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But really, Dandong is all about the thrill of proximity. Can you catch a glimpse of someone over on the other shore? If you wave, will he wave back? What’s going on over there?

View of Broken Bridge from the water.
View of Broken Bridge from the water.

Don’t expect any answers.

Our final stop in Liaoning was the port city of Dalian, where now-disgraced official Bo Xilai first made his name (well, beyond being born into a well-placed political family). Bo’s legacy is a tough needle to thread in Dalian: he’s credited with many of the urban-planning initiatives that have made the city a pleasant place to live and visit, but since he’s been convicted of corruption and abuse of power, favorable mentions of his name have to be done at a murmur.

The Dalian Modern Museum, once a temple to Bo’s vision for the city, has been transformed into a fairly standard Chinese urban history museum that narrates major events in Dalian’s past between 1840 (the First Opium War) and 1949 (the Communist victory). One room of it that I found especially interesting recreated a street in Dalian during the 1920s-30s, featuring a variety of shops, “calendar girl” posters on the walls, and a few statues like this one, of a modern girl (smoking a cigarette!) riding in a bicycle rickshaw.

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Anyone who has visited the Shanghai History Museum in the base of the Pearl Tower will notice the similarities between the two exhibits. I found it interesting to see interwar Dalian presented as a cosmopolitan metropolis in the way that Shanghai generally is—especially since the city was a Japanese colony during the years in question.

The area’s time as a colony, first of Russia and then Japan, has left a rich architectural legacy in Dalian and the adjacent city of Lüshun (Port Arthur). One of the most impressive buildings is the Lüshun Museum, built by the Japanese.

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I didn’t find the exhibits all that fascinating (Chinese museums all seem to hold more or less the same artifacts: bronzes, porcelains, jades, chopsticks), but the interior, which retains the original Japanese decorations and fixtures, looks like what I think a museum should look like. Even if it didn’t have any dioramas.

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Lüshun is also the place to go for great views of the water. Standing on top of Baiyu Hill looking down at the bay reminded me of being in Hong Kong. It’s really pretty spectacular.

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For me, Liaoning emphasized the importance of being both a critical reader and visitor. If I’d only read about the province’s economy, I would have held on to the rustbelt image in my mind; if I’d gone there without doing any research ahead of time, I would have probably thought that things are better than the numbers indicate. As is so often the case in China, there’s a lot more to the story than I could possibly learn in six days.

So I guess I’ll just have to go back.

* I just stopped to tally, for the first time, exactly how many Chinese provinces I’ve been to. I’ve now visited 14 of the 28 provinces/autonomous regions, three of the four provincial-level municipalities (need to cross Tianjin off that list), and one of two Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong, but not yet Macau). Not too shabby; I think I’ve seen much more of China in 11 years than I have of the United States in 33.

Next: Taipei

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