Founded as a military outpost around 1860 and named “Lord of the East”, Vladivostok grew rapidly when it was designated by the Imperial Russian Navy as its main Pacific naval base in 1872. In the 1880s and 1890s, the city was integrated into the Trans-Siberian Railway, running all the way west to Moscow and St Petersburg, and linked up with the Chinese Eastern Railway, with its connections back through Siberia, down to Korea, and as far as the ice-free port of Dalian and the Chinese capital, Beijing. Russian newspapers noted Chinese peddlers of paper flowers and other cheap goods at every station all the way to St Petersburg and, as with all who sought to exploit the natural wealth and new opportunities in Vladivostok, the Russian Empire’s most easterly city, many Chinese workers decided to settle there, too. The Vladivostok district most of them would come to call home – an area that would soon become known as Millionka – was next to the busy port. Initially intended for the city’s expanding mercantile middle class, it consisted of well-built, three-storey red-brick buildings, replete with ornate arches and balconies. However, with views of a functioning port – rather than a romantic sea vista – the settlement somehow never attracted its target market. As the area’s population swelled, so illegally built wooden extensions appeared in its cul-de-sacs. Lodging houses, basic dosshouses in many instances, were subdivided again and again into labyrinths of small dormitories equipped with bunk beds for Chinese workers. The buildings began to fall into disrepair, rubbish piled high, and the overloaded drains backed up. Millionka became a slum. Legends grew about a network of tunnels beneath the district, “oriental cellars” for opium smoking and gambling. According to the local police, there were perhaps as many as 40 organised gambling and prostitution parlours. Inevitably there are various stories about why the name Millionka stuck, but the most likely and oft retold is that it came from the Russian perception that a million Chinese lived there. The denizens were assorted. There were the desperate folks who came from then poverty-wracked Manchuria to work in the Russian Empire’s Far East, and there were those who had laboured in the goldfields to the north, until the government shut them down in 1868. And, as so many of their countrymen had done in North America on transcontinental railroad projects, labourers found work building the 1,000km Vladivostok to Murmansk railway, from the Pacific coast to the far northern Arctic Circle. They laboured in terrible conditions in sub-zero temperatures. Some were recruited to the timber trade, too, living a harsh life in the forests of Primorsky Krai, the Far Eastern “Maritime Territory”, of which Vladivostok is the administrative centre. A Russian government survey of conditions in the Maritime Territory in 1911 found the average monthly pay for a Russian worker was just over 58 roubles; for a Chinese only 38, and often as low as 30. “Survival wages,” the survey concluded. Sustaining themselves on black bread and marsh water, there was a staggeringly high death toll from disease, the cold and overwork. In Vladivostok itself, Chinese construction workers were hired to help build the docks, naval yards and new buildings of the booming city – it was easier to recruit Chinese from Manchuria than Russians from the more distant heartlands. As numbers grew and a local economy emerged, Chinese opened restaurants, taverns, laundries, hotels, as well as opium parlours, brothels and the other businesses that an overwhelmingly male community would frequent. The population of Millionka swelled once more during the Great War, when, in 1914, Tsar Nicholas II’s armies recruited more than 200,000 Chinese as labourers on the Eastern Front, almost double the number hired by the French and British on the Western Front. The new recruits dug trenches, hauled munitions and supplies, built roads and rail lines, and helped plant and harvest crops. Historian Li Yongchang has estimated that during World War I as many as 150,000 Chinese labourers went to Europe-adjacent Russia while as many as 300,000 worked in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Shenzhen’s sleazy past as short-lived gambling hub Shum Chun In 1917, the chaos of the war made way for the Bolshevik revolution and the fall of the Tsarist regime. The hired Chinese labourers were left stranded, reliant on their own finances to get back home. At least 10,000 had died in Russia during the war, and 40,000 reportedly joined Vladimir Lenin’s ranks in the new Red Army. Others, stranded and unpaid, got as far as Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway and found Millionka swelling once again. They became peddlers, day labourers, small-scale entrepreneurs, beggars and sometimes criminals. In 1917 alone, a reported 1,243 crimes were committed in the district. As the Bolsheviks consolidated power, Millionka became a bolt-hole for soldiers of the armies of intervention – Czechs, Japanese, British, Americans, Italians, and a dozen other nations who all found themselves in Vladivostok on the wrong side of the growing Bolshevik wave. They, too, patronised the booming, illicit attractions of Millionka. Chinese troops soon arrived, after appeals from Millionka merchants calling for soldiers to protect the local Chinese community, some of whom were even evacuated by the Chinese government in 1918, on the Hai Rong, China’s largest naval vessel. Eventually, the Tsarist interlopers retreated and then fled into exile, many from Vladivostok, on rust-bucket steamers limping down the coast to Korean ports and from there largely to northern China and on to safe havens such as Shanghai and as far south as Hong Kong. The armies of the Allied intervention forces went home. Still, the Chinese presence in Millionka remained throughout the 1920s, as internecine warlord skirmishes and Japanese interferences across northern China only boosted the numbers fleeing the chaos. According to American diplomat George C. Hanson, stationed in Vladivostok around 1900, and into the first couple of decades of the 20th century, Millionka was home to perhaps as many as 50,000 Chinese, in an area roughly the size of two Manhattan city blocks. And this is a conservative figure. Russian historian F.V. Soloviev cites 100,000 Chinese in Millionka, plus another 10,000 Koreans (whose numbers grew after Japan’s colonisation of the peninsula in 1910) and some Mongolians and Japanese, too. But it was always referred to as a “Chinatown”. Riots and strikes against poor conditions, heavy-handed policing and low wages occurred in 1905 and saw Millionka partly torched. There were regular brawls between Russian sailors on shore leave and the Chinese gangs of the district, usually over gambling debts and women. After 1905 the authorities only occasionally attempted, invariably unsuccessfully, to enter the rookery and enforce order. First the Tsarist authorities, and later the Soviets, considered Millionka a slum, a fire hazard, a den of iniquity and a nest of criminality controlled by gangs, with the police too afraid to enter. Surviving photographs of the district show an almost exclusively male world of individuals who have clearly laboured for many years outdoors. And Millionka had its own merchant class trading with the Russian Far East. Chinese merchants had arrived with goods to sell: leatherware manufactured as far away as Zhejiang province, in eastern China, ceramics from Hebei, vases fired in dragon kilns in Hangzhou and as far south as Guangdong, all brought into Millionka on junk ships from China and Korea. The Vladivostok middle class had a taste for chinoiserie, as much as London, Paris or New York did at the time. Many of these traders left after the Bolshevik consolidation of power, when Vladivostok came under the control of a Soviet of workers, sailors and soldiers. In his 2003 book, The Bear Watches the Dragon , Alexander Lukin writes that the Soviet transition saw the Chinese population of Millionka drop to just under 30,000, still an estimated third of the city’s total population of just below 100,000. The Soviets continued to recruit Chinese workers – as dockers, stevedores and loggers, though they remained the lowest paid. Still, Millionka survived into the Soviet era, at least for a time. A popular pulp fiction author of the time, L. Ron Hubbard, writing in the 1930s about the late 1920s, described a highly cosmopolitan Vladivostok in his story The Devil – With Wings : “In a cafe just off the lobby of the Seven Flags Hotel in Vladivostok […] it was a cosmopolitan crowd, made up with samples from half the races of the earth, jangled incessantly and moved restlessly up and down, ever changing past the lobby door.” Presumably the internationalism and demi-monde of Vladivostok finally became too much for the Kremlin. In 1936, nearly two decades into the Soviet era, Joseph Stalin reputedly ordered the area “liquidated”, the lodging houses shut and all Chinese deported. The usual paranoias of Stalinism were rolled out: hostile ethnic groups, foreign spies, agent provocateurs, etc – the normal language of the Great Purge. Those slow to obey the edict to leave were arrested and forcibly deported. Moscow encouraged (or forced) Russian citizens to move to the Far East and repopulate. Veteran journalist Mark O’Neill, who has researched the Chinese labourers of World War I extensively, claims that by the end of the 1930s, and for the first time in a century, there were no Chinese in the Russian Far East. Millionka became a ghost town, the lodging houses empty except for some dock labourers; clientele for the restaurants, opium dens, bordellos and all the other businesses had gone. Shops signs were pulled down. It was as if the Chinese had never existed in Millionka. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not kind to Vladivostok. Years of isolation had seen it become run-down, mostly cut off from any wider economy, whether that of Russia, its Chinese or Korean neighbours, or the wider Pacific world. The port became a symbol of how far Russia had sunk, a graveyard of rusting battleships and alarmingly unstable nuclear submarines. Across the old central districts, most commerce involved low-quality, fake Marlboro cigarettes sold on street corners, or intrepid merchants with knock-off Western sports brand T-shirts made in China. In recent years, local tourist authorities have attempted a rebrand of Millionka as Vladivostok’s “Arbat”, named after the old and highly culturally significant street in Moscow, with buskers, cafes and art galleries on pedestrianised streets. Hanging flower baskets and public benches have appeared, as well as a few boutique hotels and plenty of Airbnbs. The former docks are now a “Sports Harbour” for yachts and dinghies, all observable from waterfront bars. Upscale restaurants are furnished with wicker peacock chairs, lacquerware tables, and Asian fusion cuisine is served, all emphasising a new notion of Vladivostok as a geographical node of the Russia-China relationship , though Millionka is never mentioned.