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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chinese Town Capitalizes on Its Colonial Past

DALIAN, China — Close to the city center is a cobblestone street lined with brick buildings that could almost have been transported whole from Moscow to this Asian seaport. There is a looming brick hotel, a spire-topped structure that resembles a Russian Orthodox chapel and a recreation center whose architecture hints at the Bolshoi Theater.

But the newness of the buildings — and the absence of tenants in their offices and shops — gives them away as modern. Russian Traditions Street, a $21 million project slated to open May 1, combines new construction and the renovation of historic buildings to create a slightly idealized vision of the past life of this northeastern city, once part of a Russian colony that included Port Arthur.

While some peoples regard their colonial legacy with anger or shame, the authorities in Dalian are trying to cash in on it. The city is also rebuilding a former Japanese colonial neighborhood at a cost of $61 million, as Dalian's leadership tries to lure tourists and create homes for its nouveau riche.

"The government wants the streets to bloom, and foreign guests can invest capital here," said the Russian Traditions project's manager Zhou Li Bin. "There will be no need to go to other countries. You can enjoy other countries here."

Dalian is a city of 5.4 million filled with office towers, high-rise construction projects and alleyways crowded with vendors and hung with red lanterns. It boasts deepwater ports and a booming growth rate of 11.1 percent, the government reports. In some ways, with its clean streets and throngs of foreign businessmen, Dalian feels closer to Japan or Korea than a typical Chinese city.

But there is a twist of irony in the Russian and Japanese street projects.

Dalian's strategic position on the Liaodong Peninsula along the Bay of Korea made it a coveted spot for foreigners for more than half a century. Russia controlled the area from 1898 to 1905, when it lost the territory to Japan following the Russo-Japanese War. After World War II, the Soviet Union reoccupied the city under the Yalta accord until 1955.

But the feelings toward Russia are far less bitter than those toward Japan. Imperial Japan was notorious for atrocities in occupied China. And the wounds have yet to heal, for Chinese survivors of Japanese germ warfare experiments and Korean women forced into prostitution are angry that Japan has failed to issue a formal apology.

In fact, a group of Chinese citizens is suing the Japanese government in an attempt to receive compensation for the imperial army's crimes in this country.

Unsurprisingly, Dalian's government was forced to back away from plans to name their second project Japanese Traditions Street and opted for the neutral Nanshan Street — after the name of the hill atop which the area is situated.

"Many people wouldn't accept it," admits Li Yan, general manager of the Nanshan Street project. "There are many old soldiers who fought against the Japanese who live on this street, and that's why this is no longer called Japanese Traditions Street."

Russians, on the other hand, are perceived as having made amends for their period of occupation.

"Russians in the old days were known as 'Big Noses,'" Zhou confesses. "But our Soviet friends helped liberate Dalian [from the Japanese] and construct it. And that's why we have very good relations with the Russians."

Still, some might ask, why look back with nostalgia to a time when the city was dominated by foreigners?

The answer, like so many in contemporary China, comes down to business. Li said properties on Nanshan Street and in the surrounding neighborhood will sell for $1,680 per square meter — higher than in other areas. Russian Traditions Street should bring in similar sums. City officials say they have already lured investors from Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Russia, and hope to draw 2 million visitors a year to the Russian street alone.

Eight of the Russian project's buildings were erected in the late 19th century; the rest were reconstructed with the help of architects from Khabarovsk Technical University in the Russian Far East city of Khabarovsk. The Russians were brought in because the original blueprints for the project didn't satisfy the former mayor of Dalian, Bo Xilai — an educated man who recognized that the Greek columns and Roman facades he was being offered had little to do with Russian classical style, according to Vera Luchkova, chairwoman of the university's architectural board.

The initial plans also called for reproductions of the Kremlin and Red Square on the street, but the Russian team squirmed out of it by saying "only a president or king can live in the Kremlin."

Instead, the Russian architects consulted archive photos and blueprints and came up with a historically accurate portrait of the street as it looked some 100 years ago.

"The work was very interesting and very fast," Luchkova said, adding that she was pleased to be a part of rebuilding a historic Russian street. "We decided to work on the project because we wanted to leave a trace of our culture in other countries."

The city plans to fill the street with tenants who will create Russian- and European-style shops and restaurants. It is working with Russian partners to bring in businesses that would presumably unload fur hats or matryoshki, the traditional Russian nesting dolls, on tourists from China, South Korea, Japan and — the planners hope — Russia.