With roughly 8 million people, Shenyang (formerly known as Mukden or Fengtian) is the largest city in Northeast China and part of the Top Ten of China’s largest cities overall. Because of its strategic location between Russia, Japan and Korea, Shenyang has been under Manchu – it was the throne city of the early Qing emperors, which led to the only Imperial City outside of Beijing being established there – Russian and Japanese rule in the course of its long history. Aided by well-developed infrastructure, Shenyang remains an important industrial hub for the PRC as well as a prominent point of intersection for all trade in the region.
Remnants of Shenyang’s 8000-year-old history can still be discovered all over its 5 inner-city districts (Huanggu, Shenhe, Heping, Tiexi, Dadong) as well as outside the city proper. In today’s Huanggu district, for instance, you can find an exhibition of finds of the first settlement in the Neolithic period (including a recreated village sporting that era’s straw huts) as well as one of the city’s Qing dynasty-era mausoleums, located in Beiling Park. In Shenhe District, there is Mukden Palace of early Qing dynasty fame, and Hunnan District boasts Shenyang’s second Qing tomb named Dongling. Shenyang Railway Station (called South Station by the locals), built in Heping District under Japanese rule in the very last year of the 19th century, is proof of a more recent history, as is the evidence of Shenyang’s industrial past and present, which can be found in the Districts of Tiexi and Dadong.
Shenyang sports four distinct seasons: it has super-short springs, but beautiful hot and frequently humid summers (2016 especially has seen rain falling by the bucket loads so far), long sun-filled falls and extremely dry and freezing cold winters. Those winters mean combatting the cold by any means possible – from an onion-like dress code where it feels like you basically wear every single piece of clothing you own on top of each other, to slathering your face with chapstick and face cream before covering it up with a balaclava or two. The temperatures can drop to between -30 and -35°C. In the summers, on the other hand, it can turn very hot – to about +40°C. That is when you feel that moving into your bathtub filled with ice water permanently would be a good idea. It is also the time of year when fights break out over who gets to hog the space right below the A/C unit.
When speaking about the weather, talk usually quickly turns to air quality or rather pollution levels in the city. The Shenyang Environmental Protection Bureau claims that the coal used for heating is the source of 30% of the air pollution here. Other factors contributing to sometimes quite elevated smog levels include dust from construction sites (supposedly 20%), vehicle exhaust (20%) industrial emissions (10%), and extraterritorial dust (20%). What this means on a day-to-day basis is that the air tends to be quite bad during the winter (aided or worsened by certain wind conditions) and improving noticeably during the summer months. Since Shenyang – like most of North China – is supplied with central heating that has power plants burning coal firing up on the 1st of November and switched off on the 31st of March, winter days can be very smoggy with levels of around 200-400 or, in extreme cases, climbing so high that the air quality apps’ scales cannot accurately depict the pollution levels. The authorities insist that the air quality is continuously improving, but wearing masks during the coal-burning period is recommended.
Being close to the Korean border and a former stronghold of the Manchu during their early reign as the Qing dynasty, Shenyang has a number of ethnic minority citizens. Even though a little over 90% of its population is made up of Han Chinese, there are 37 other minority groups (such as Manchu, Hui, Mongolian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tartars etc.) represented. In addition, there are quite a lot of foreigners who live in the city on a more temporary basis. Amongst them, the biggest groups of Westerners are Germans, Russians and Americans, whereas the biggest groups from Asia are Koreans and Japanese. The Russians come, because it is close to home, the Germans are in the city because of BMW and many Japanese move here, because their companies are situated in the city – like Sekisui House, the builders of Yuqinfu Residence, one of the prime choices for foreigners to live in Shenyang.
The city is one of China’s important industrial hubs with a large number of national and overseas companies having put down roots here, especially from the automotive, the software and the electronics sector. BMW-Brilliance has several production facilities in Shenyang, Michelin is here as well as General Motors and Mitsubishi. The software sector is well represented – amongst others – by China’s biggest software company Neusoft. And, ever since the 1920s, the city has been a focus area for heavy industry such as aerospace, machine tools, heavy equipment and defense contractors.
When you are not working, Shenyang has quite a bit to offer as well. The sports enthusiasts among you will find countless options: from shooting a few hoops to joining a soccer, table tennis, badminton or other sports team in one of the numerous paying and sometimes even free sports facilities scattered around the city. The simplest way to do so is to just join those practicing and engaging in friendly matches in one of the numerous sports parks, by the river or sometimes even in the squares. If culture is more your thing, Shenyang boasts a big theater showing everything from classical to pop concerts, plays, opera performances etc.
In Shenyang you can find the real China – complete with highly inventive transportation methods, unconventional ideas about what constitutes work safety or what the right way is to secure a road construction site. Shenyang is a place where throngs of people stream into the parks and onto the squares for those balmy summer nights of super-loud singing, dancing and marching to techno-folk tunes, but also for a game of Go (Chinese chess), some tai-chi or some good conversation.
This is the place where kites are flown, popcorn is popped, skewers barbecued and sunflower seeds roasted on the street, and a place teeming with people for a shopping spree on a Sunday. A place where people will stare at you intensely, take a covert picture of you or greet you with a resounding “laowai, laowai, laowai” if you happen to have light skin, light hair or a long nose. A place where you can observe little kids with strange hairstyles and holes in their clothing where your average Westerner does not expect them.
There are things to be discovered, adventures to be had, friends to be found and a great life to be led!
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Written by Julie Marx.