There’s quite a lot written about Changchun on Chinese websites – especially promoting tourism in the city, so I thought i’d add my opinion based on living here – from a Westerner’s perspective. It may sound a little negative but I have simply based it on my experiences, and what I have had to encounter living here as a foreigner for the last 3 years.
Changchun is pronounced chung choon; If its pronounced following English phonetics it sounds more like chang cheng 长城 which means the Great Wall! )
Changchun 长春 (sometimes written as the traditional 長春) is a pretty big city in the middle of the north east of China, It is the provincial caiptal of Jilin Province (吉林省). According to the government some 7 million people live here, though I think it’s more like 2 million who live in the city proper. It’s primarily an industrial city known for its production of cars and trains, VW and Audi both have plants and employ a significant amount of the workforce- 20% so i’m told. Toyota, Mazda and Nissan also have operations here in the south west of the city.
Considered part of China’s ‘rust-belt’ (many Chinese from outside the north east sneer at dongbei as backwards and falling apart with ailing state-owned enterprises) Changchun is not a place where people usually spend a holiday, and with unemployment at 20% it is one of the poorer provincial caiptals in China.
Changchun owes it’s existance to the railways and it expanded rapidly from 1905-1935 as a juncton between the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway and the Russian-owned Chinese Eastern Railway.
After the Manchurian Incident war broke out between China and Japan. In 1932 Changchun became the capital of Manzhuoguo 满洲国, a state in Manchuria led by Pu Yi with Japanese backing, which existed from 1931 to 1945. Then known as Hsinking 新京 (Xīnjīng), the capital was a well-planned city with broad avenues and modern public works. The city underwent rapid expansion in both its economy and infrastructure, indeed there are still many buildings from this period standing today.
Changchun was severely damaged during World War 2, it was invaded/liberated (depeding on your viewpoint!) by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, who then went on to loot the city of anything they could. The Russians maintained a presence in the city after the Chinese civil war until 1956. The Kuomintang (KMT) 国民党 forces occupied the city in 1946, but were surrounded by the Chinese Communist forces who had surrounded the city and controlled the neighbouring countryside. The city fell to the communists in 1948 after a bloody 12-month-long siege by the PLA that resulted in a massive famine with a civilan death toll of 100,000-300,000 (depending upon whose account you follow!) .
It was later in 1954 that Chángchūn (literally meaning long spring 长春) was give its present name by the Communist government. Anyone who has lived in Changchun can tell you that this name is completely ironic as Changchun actually has a very short spring!
Changchun is a little of the beaten track and there are not that many (White) foreigners living here. Most of the foreigners are either Germans working at VW 一汽大众 or teachers, and many live around the Guilin Road 桂林路 part of town. I’ve met a lot of other waiguoren (foreigners) in my stay in Changchun and there is -as you expect – an interesting mix of different people from various places and backgrounds. Generally though, many, (though not all) of the foreigners I have met are here for all the wrong reasons.
At risk of sounding like a snob, there is undeniably a fair amount of shady expats that operate from here (and asia to an extent) the type of people that would be in prison in the west. I’m certain there are many criminals on the run, tax evaders , child support etc, that use china as a haven to continue doing what they did un-noticed. After a while you can develop a sense for these people and can spot them a mile away but the Chinese don’t percieve this as well and so are more open to being fooled.
People often ask me about the bars and places to socialise in Changchun- what are they like? Where are they?
There’s a fair amount of bars around longli lu and jianshi jie, some people refer to them as bar streets and at night they come alive. To be honest, they are pretty seedy and dodgy and not really my cup of tea; I didn’t come to Changchun for the nightlife! There’s plenty of KTV (karaoke, not TV stations!) bars around the city – if you can (or can’t) sing -and a few nightclubs; though they are closely assocaited with bad elements 黑社会 prostution, drugs , fights etc… If you go with a group may be worth visiting, if only once.
Many expats go to the clubs- especially the Mayflower 五月花 where they pay 30元 a glass to drink fake ‘foreign’ beer and listen to 80s music. For me the Mayflower is a waste of money, as are all of the other ‘foreign’ bars – unless you’re into bad music, watered-down beer and protitutes that is.
There are many good restaurants and tea houses which offer a much better atmosphere
and you can and spend 3元 for the better Chinese Beer…harbin 哈尔滨, ginshibai 金士百, huadan 华丹 etc…. If you’re into bars and clubs like in the west, go to Beijing or Shanghai.
The weather here is great!
Unlike the UK with its 300 days of grey skies, in Changchun almost every day the sky is blue.
It’s really not that cold in the winter, and the central heating in buildings is good.
It’s very dry and so doesn’t feel as cold as you might think during the winter however the summer is quite humid and often feels much warmer than it actually is.
Air con is nice to have in the summer and thick thermals are a must during the winter.
Changchun, unlike many places in China, has 4 distinct seasons:
Winter, which is and dry cold( down to -30C), with only a little snow. Everything freezes
Spring, changeable, short and very windy- sometimes get sandstorms and it’s very dusty outside, might get the odd day of rain in April.
Summer, From about June-September. Gets pretty hot (25-35C )during July/August, might want air-con. Nice thunder-storms throughout the summer especially in June/July.
Autumn – Pretty short, only a couple of months. Windy like spring, seldom rains.
It’s one of the few places in the world where there can be a sand storm in the morning then snow in the afternoon.
Communist architecture is box-like and particuarly unappealing to the eye, most of Changchun’s outer areas are remaniscent of a former Soviet cities in eastern Europe. It’s easy to get lost at first as many of the buildings look the same! Changchun does have some nice parks and (by Chinese standards) lots and lots of trees. It is a nice size and so
walking during the summer months is a viable option, something you can’t do in many cities due to the sheer size of them.
The South Lake 南胡 is a cool place to relax around, especially during the summer when you can hire boats for the whole day. During the winter you can ice-skate as well as some other winter activities. Some people swim in the lake, though I would not advise this, especially during the winter!
In terms of food Changchun mainly offers north east (Manchurian) 东北 and Korean 韩国 cuisine. The food here is one of the best things about the city, north eastern food is much more heartier and filling than the sweet small dishes from the south.
Personally I think most of the Western 西方 restaurants here are a waste of money and offer Chinese-style alternatives to popular western dishes. And why would you want western food when you have so many choices of Chinese food to choose from! You can always try the 5 star hotels, though that would soon bankrupt you on a Chinese wage!
You can also find other types of food here; Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, North korean, Mongolian (highly recommended!), Russian and the inescapable fast food outlets – though the quality from place-to-place differs considerably!
To the southeast of town is the jingyuetan 净月潭 district. Here there is a large man made lake and forest that makes a welcome break from the city centre. It’s nice but it’s not that beautiful in terms of natural scenery, and certainly not worth the 30元 admission fee. (note: Don’t pay this, just walk for about five minutes along the line of the fence until you find a hole then go in for free. This is what the locals do, only the tourists and the foreigners pay!!)
Changchun isn’t the most clean of places, although the air quality is actually better than other Chinese cities. In Changchun, most days you can see blue sky- unlike most of the other industrialised, inland Chinese cities.
Although (like the rest of China) there is much development going on, I consider Changchun relatively un-developed – and In my eyes – unspoilt by western influences; Changchun is very Chinese. OK, you can still get you KFC or Mcdonalds -if you want- but if you don’t like the Chinese lifestyle your best bet is to not come to Changchun in the first place.
Overall, It’s a city full of contrasts and exciting and different things all mixed together. Some are good , some are bad, but most strikingly for me no two days are the same.
Despite some of what I have written, Changchun is a great place to experience what it’s like to live in a foreign country, and If you can handle the living through the winter and the big initial shock of it all, I would thoroughly recommend anyone considering living in China to give it a go.