Welcome to the Most Japanese City in China

From its fascist architecture to the 'Puppet Emperor Palace', relics of the occupation linger in the former Manchurian capital.

(GERMANY OUT) Changchun, capital of Manchukuo, Manchuria: bystanders waving with Japanese flags in front of Changchun station- undated (1930-1933)- Photographer: Photothek, Willy Roemer (Photo by bpk/Willy Römer/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Changchun, capital of Manchukuo, Manchuria: bystanders waving with Japanese flags in front of Changchun station- undated (1930-1933)- Photographer: Photothek, Willy Roemer (Photo by bpk/Willy Römer/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

With a one-off national holiday on Sept. 3, China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory in the “war of resistance against Japanese aggression,” as it calls its theater of World War II. But in the country’s northeast — formerly known as Manchuria — Japan’s occupation still feels near. You can sleep in former Japanese hotels, embark at Japanese-designed train stations, and descend into former Japanese bunkers. Farmers still sink hoes into unexploded ordinances; shuttered Shinto temples squat stubbornly in parks. Erstwhile colonial buildings are now museums or government offices, protected and marked as “patriotic education bases” and popular with domestic tour groups.

The largest concentration of these sites is 600 miles northeast of Beijing, in the city of Changchun. In 1932, it was declared the capital of “Manchukuo,” a puppet state nominally headed by China’s last emperor, Puyi. The Japanese military lured him north to legitimize its occupation, which began six years before an all-out invasion of the country. Puyi claimed to have been duped: To his dismay, he sat not on the throne of the restored Qing dynasty but in an office, behind an empty desk. “I soon discovered that my authority was only shadow without substance,” he wrote in his memoir, From Emperor to Citizen. “I didn’t even have the power to decide whether or not I could pass out of the door to go for a walk.” Yet were he to stroll outside today, Puyi would recognize a surprising amount of Changchun.

The wide, Japanese pine-lined, axial boulevards still lead to roundabouts such as the former Unity Plaza — renamed People’s Square — ringed by steel-frame bulwarks of buildings that were meant to signify Japan’s permanent presence. All remain in use. The former Central Bank of Manchukuo is now the People’s Bank of China; the Manchukuo Telephone and Telegraph Company is a branch of China Unicom; and the police headquarters has become a public security bureau.

Nearby, Puyi’s preserved “Puppet Emperor Palace” looks more like a cheap state-run guesthouse — a nondescript, two-story structure of gray scalloped cement that would not have qualified as a storage shed at the Forbidden City, Puyi’s former residence. There are no vermillion walls, no awe-inspiring gates, no elaborate gardens, and no throne room. The swimming pool holds only rotting leaves; the rockery masks a tiny bomb shelter; and the Puppet Palace’s signage include captions such as: “To kill time after getting up, Puyi would sit on the toilet reading the daily newspaper.” A copy of the Manchurian Daily News sits, folded, before his lesser throne.

Changchun is a city of 8 million, renowned in post-liberation China as the home of First Automobile Works, producer of the Socialist era’s ubiquitous powder-blue truck and black, boxy Red Flag sedans. The city doesn’t have the dying feel of Detroit, however: Half of China’s high-speed train carriages are manufactured here; the car factory now makes sleek Audis; and 160,000 students attend the town’s 27 universities. Yet the city center is still littered with reminders of the occupation. While Japanese war memorials and cemeteries have been razed, the government has protected over 100 colonial sites, making the town itself a sort of patriotic education base.

A walk south on People’s Avenue from the train station leads past a waving statue of Chairman Mao Zedong inside the gates of Victory Park, then past the spiky pagoda rooftops of the castle-like structure that had been the Japanese army headquarters. (The provincial Chinese Communist Party bureau now calls it home.) Just south of a central roundabout, a Shinto temple to the god of war stands shuttered in Peony Park. Speed skaters on in-line skates whoosh in loops around its wide, flat apron of asphalt. On the building’s back wall, painted slogans from Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution fade in the sun. Otherwise, the building’s swooping tiled roof and white walls look recently built.

Japan chose Changchun as Manchukuo’s capital for its central location and its rail connection to Korean ports and shipping lanes to Japan. Tokyo means “Eastern Capital,” and Changchun was christened Shinkyo, or “New Capital” — Xinjing in Chinese. It would be unlike other planned capitals, mired for years on drawing boards and budget sheets, as in the United States and Australia. (Around the time of Xinjing’s inception, an English reporter wrote of Canberra, “Londoners may be all too aware of the disadvantages of living in a city without a plan, but these cannot be compared with the rival disadvantages of living in a plan without a city.”)

Three decades before Brasília, Xinjing was a rare well-planned city. The colonial blueprint called for modernist urban planning that looked nothing like Tokyo’s tangle of narrow lanes. Planners drew clean lines, circular plazas, and numerous parks. They added ornate colonnaded buildings with steam heat and flush toilets — a rarity in Japan and the rest of China in the 1930s — meant to attract new settlers.

Recently, I walked past the curving lines of the former art deco movie theater, now home to the Great Jilin Medicine Store. KFC was packed, as usual, and I carried a cup of steaming Nescafé past Walmart and the Shangri-La Hotel down Comrade Street to Liberation Road, ending at the expanse of Culture Square, the world’s second largest after Tiananmen. A grand palace for Puyi was to overlook the 50-acre plaza, but only its foundation was finished when Japan surrendered in 1945. China built the Geological Palace Museum atop the site. Inside, I watched as schoolchildren stared up at the skeleton of a dinosaur from the genus Mandschurosaurus.

Culture Square bookends Xinmin (New Citizen) Avenue, which is to fascist architecture what Havana is to classic American cars. The road slopes gently like the Champs-Élysées, terminating after a mile at South Lake Park. Under Manchukuo, the boulevard was named Datong (Grand Unity) and lined with eight ministries set back from wide sidewalks shaded by the spindly branches of Japanese pines. The buildings look unlike any other in China — or the world — and their style, with crenelated towers, porticoes, and curving roofs, was called Rising Asia. Now the structures stand as markers of a fall.

Puyi read the notice dissolving Manchukuo on Aug. 17, 1945. For the second time in his life, he abdicated then fled his palace. Soviet forces nabbed him soon after, boarding a plane bound for Japan. They packed him away to detention in Siberia, then in 1946 the Soviets brought him to Tokyo to testify at the war crimes tribunal.

Looking frail beyond his 40 years and fearing execution in China, Puyi talked to save his life. “The people in Manchuria were complete slaves of the Japanese,” he averred. “They could not obtain necessities, and they could not even get clothing in severe weather. It would be an offense if a Chinese had in his possession any high-grade rice. The Chinese did not have the freedom to say anything without fear of facing death.”

In his memoir From Emperor to Citizen, Puyi admitted: “I now feel very ashamed of my testimony…. I said nothing about my secret collaboration with the Japanese imperialists over a long period…. I maintained that I had not betrayed my country but had been kidnapped…. I covered up my crimes in order to protect myself.”

In 1950, he was shipped to a prison near Qingyuan, a Manchurian county whose name meant “Origin of the Qing,” the dynasty that had ended when he abdicated the dragon throne in 1912. Released in 1959, he was assigned to work in the hothouses at Beijing’s Botanical Garden. Always slight and sad-eyed, the 53-year-old Puyi looked as delicate as the orchids that had once adorned the Manchukuo imperial seal.

In 1967, as the Cultural Revolution consumed China, Red Guards found Puyi, enfeebled by kidney cancer, and shouted, “We will take you back to the northeast and smash you, you dog’s head!” The cancer took him first: He died later that year, at age 61, leaving no heirs or treasure. In its obituary, the Associated Press called him “a historical leftover.”

Since he was no longer an emperor, his cremated remains were interred not at the Qing tombs alongside his royal ancestors but at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, the final resting place for Communist heroes. In 1995, a private cemetery paid his widow an undisclosed fee to move his ashes to one of their plots, aimed at the nouveau riche. The cemetery, named Hualong (Chinese Dragon), neighbors the Western Qing tombs — favoring the interred, its advertisements promise, with imperial feng shui. Puyi’s ashes lie beneath a headstone bearing only his name, written not in Manchu but in Chinese.

A living trace of him is seen in Changchun, outside the former Manchukuo State Council, tiered like a cinnamon wedding cake and crowned with a squat pagoda. A sign says that Puyi planted the mature pine tree shading its colonnaded portico.

Like the other Manchukuo ministry buildings, the State Council has been repurposed, as university classroom space. The front doors were open, without a ticket window or security guards forbidding entry. Inside, I passed Puyi’s personal copper-plated elevator — “closed for repairs” — and walked under the chandelier to climb the marble stairs. Carved orchids adorn the balustrade; orchids were Puyi’s favorite flower. The stairs lead to an unlit second floor. Reflexively, I stomped my foot, which usually turns on the lights in a Chinese building. The room stayed dark. The only sound was my echoing footsteps wandering the remains of Japan’s imperial ambition.

That night, I slept at the former Yamato Hotel, built as part of a chain along the South Manchuria Railway. A 1934 guidebook described the hotel as “quiet and cozy, surrounded by a spacious summer garden.” The garden is now a parking lot, and the hotel, now called the Chunyi, is dwarfed by a bus station whose rooftop neon sign flashes Amway.

The bedding had been updated and a television added, but otherwise the room — with floor-to-ceiling windows and a cavernous claw-foot tub — was a time capsule of the 1930s. The desk phone rang, and I expected to tell the caller I did not want a massage. But it was housekeeping. I was the building’s only guest, the maid said, so she wouldn’t be making her regular rounds. She would leave two thermoses of hot water by the door. The front desk had said that Chinese preferred to stay in the hotel’s characterless new wing, which cost double the roughly $30 I paid. Being an appreciator of history (or, as the clerk called me, kou men’r, a cheapskate) had resulted in having the old hotel to myself. Even the masseuses ignored it. The room was quiet and cozy, with original steam radiators running along a wall. At night they hissed low, as if urging me to keep this place our secret.

This excerpt was adapted from In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China by Michael Meyer. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing, PLC.

bpk/Willy Römer/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Michael Meyer is the author of The Last Days of Old Beijing and In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.