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Š is for Šanhaja

“Šanhaja” is the Latvian name for “Shanghai”. But wait – why is a Chinese city a topic on a Latvian genealogy blog?

A year or so ago, the idea of Latvians in China might have seemed a bit strange to me too. But as I learned through my work with Latvians Abroad – Museum and Research Centre, Latvians have ended up pretty much everywhere in the world at one point in time or another. So this post for the Family History Through the Alphabet challenge is going to be not only about Latvians in Shanghai, but Latvians in China in general.

The history of Latvians in China begins with the 1890s and the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, specifically the branch called the Chinese Eastern Railway. While this railway was running through China, it was built, run and administered by the Russian Empire, with its headquarters in the city of Harbin.

The city of Harbin was created out of a small village at the time that the railway was being built. While it is now a very Chinese city, in the early 1900s it was a city predominantly populated by people from the Russian Empire – according to a 1913 census, half the population was Russian, and only a third was Chinese. The remaining sixth was comprised of people from all corners of the Russian Empire – including 218 Latvians.

Most of the Latvians in Harbin and the rest of China would have been railway workers, but over time other families also moved there. In the 1930s, most of the Latvian population in Shanghai was engaged in retail occupations, administration and seafaring. The records I found registered 303 Latvian citizens living in Shanghai in the 1930s. Looking at the names on this list, the majority are either ethnic Latvians or Jews, with a few ethnic Russians. If anyone is interested in the names on this list, do let me know. I will eventually post it on my website.

The Latvian community in China mostly disappeared with the coming of the Second World War. When Manchuria was occupied by the Japanese, and the prospect of further war was imminent, most Latvian citizens returned to Latvia, which could be a complex procedure, since it required requesting permission to travel through the Soviet Union.

And with that, the Latvian community in China came to its end. Today, diplomatic relations exist between Latvia and China, and the number of Chinese tourists in Latvia is increasing. I’m not sure about Latvian tourists in China.

Did any of your Latvian ancestors spend time working on the Trans-Siberian Railway? Did they work in China in any other jobs? Do share!

2 comments to Š is for Šanhaja

  • Wow, Latvian’s in China … who’d have thought? That just proves that your family really could could be ANYWHERE.

  • Dzintra

    Mans Vecaistēvs un viņa brālis piedzima China Ķīnā, Harbinā . Vecvectēvs tur strādājā bankā, vēlāk ( 1920.g.)bija Latvijas goda konsuls Šanhajā.

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