Victor Seow

Life and Work in Coal Capital

The people of the region had mined coal in centuries prior, but they mostly did so surreptitiously and on a small scale between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, when the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty forbade digging for coal for fear of damaging the dragon veins that pulsed between their nearby ancestral tombs and the sacred Changbai Mountains to the east.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Chinese merchants purchased rights to mine coal in Fushun from the cash-strapped government and, thereafter, attracted Russian capital towards their undertakings. Following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, the victorious Japanese laid claim to the recently opened mines on account of Russian investments in them, in spite of Chinese opposition. Over the next four decades, under the management of the Japanese colonial South Manchuria Railway Company, Fushun came to boast the largest coal mining operations in East Asia, earning itself the nickname “Coal Capital” (炭都).

The postcards I have of Fushun contain a variety of scenes. These include ones of urban life in the mining town, such as views of the wide, store-lined main street on which both horses pulling carts and automobiles ran or of the colliery’s exclusive club, perched atop a hill and reserved for the company’s ranking employees (today, the three-star Coal Capital Hotel).

The majority of the pictures are of the industry that made this locale, from the surface installations of the colliery’s various underground mines to the power plants that generated the electricity that kept machines moving, ventilation fans whirling, and water pumps pumping—energy production here and elsewhere was and remains a deeply energy-intensive endeavor. By far the most common images on postcards of Fushun, though, come from the open-pit mine.

« Immutable Mobiles The Spectacle of the Open Pit »