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In 1896 Russia negotiated a contract to build a railway line from Vladivostok to Hāěrbīn and Dàlián (in Liáoníng province), which brought Russian workers to the region. In the early 1900s large numbers of Russian refugees fled to Hāěrbīn as well. Although the Japanese gained control of the railway after Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), the Russian imprint on Hāěrbīn remained in one way or another until the end of WWII.

Many of the Russian émigrés were Jewish, and by the 1920s Hāěrbīn’s Jewish population topped 20, 000. The little that remains of this Jewish legacy is on display in a museum of Jewish history and culture housed in a former Hāěrbīn synagogue.

Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese occupied Hāěrbīn until 1945, when the Soviet army wrested the city back. The following year, as agreed by Chiang Kaishek and Stalin, Kuomintang troops were installed, marking the end of the Russian era.

Hāěrbīn, which derives its name from alejin (Manchu for ‘honour’ or ‘fame’), is a sprawling largely industrial city. Russia is once again a major trading partner for this region, and most foreign faces on the streets are Russian.