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Siberia As a Field for Americans Originally published in HARPER'S WEEKLY for 28 October 1899
"Go West, young man; go West to the Far East," may be the slogan for the American youth of the coming century. Siberia, once scorned by all nations, is now proving herself a rival of our Western wheat States, while Manchuria is pouring millions of dollars into this country for machinery and other necessary supplies. What the possibilities are if American manufacturers and merchants ever really evince a desire to control the trade of this new country is beyond computation, but so far it has been with great difficulty that our manufacturers have been persuaded to enter into business relations with Russia's eastern provinces. In fact, Russia has done more in the last two years to open up Asia to American manufactures than America has ever done for herself. Not only that, but to-day she is openly expressing her desire to bring Siberia and our Pacific coast into close trade relationship, and backing her friendly expression in a most substantial manner commercially.
Spending the past summer in Manchuria and eastern Siberia, I was astounded by the almost miraculous changes that have taken place in the country during the last two years, and nearly all of these changes due to American influence and the introduction of Yankee machinery and methods. Cities have risen up in waste places as though called up through the ground by some Aladdin with his wonderful limp. Completed railroads now run through territory which was unexplored two summers ago, and these railways from cross-ties to locomotives are of American make, the very rails being put down by Yankee track-laying machinery and tools.
Over ten million people have been brought under the disquieting influences of civilization, and their wants of to-day will become their necessities of to-morrow. Wheat-fields are springing up everywhere. and American flour-mills are being erected. From European Russia a steady flow of population is being poured into the country by the government, Whole villages arrive and are located, school-houses are built, and education begins its work. In Harbin, the centre of the entire railway system, from which point the iron rails run through Manchuria in every direction, American steam-rollers crush the rock for asphalting the streets, and Yankee ice-plants provide comfort for the workers, while this city of thousands, which was a barren waste less than a year ago, is to-day brilliantly lighted by electric lamps.
In another year, when the Trans-Siberian Railroad is completed, an ever-increasing, influx of population will be poured into this section. Russia has evinced a disposition to make it understood that all that part of Asia which comes under her domination will remain open to American trade151;this, no doubt, as the price of America's non-interference. European Russia cannot compete with America, its freight over 6000 miles of railroad would quickly eat up all chance of profits on goods sold at a fair price; while but 4500 miles by water separate Manchuria from America, and the Amur River is navigable to almost every part of the interior. Ours is the water-way. This, then, in brief, is the situation in northern Asia, which Russia invites young America to tape advantage of. Russia needs our help in her Far Eastern provinces, as she has always needed Germans and Frenchmen at home, and she offers exceptional inducements and great advantages; but she expects us to do what Germany and France have always done in the pastsend our best brains, and men who can both understand the institutions of the country and speak its language. And any young man who shrinks from the task of learning Russian should remain at home. Russia wants the best we have to give, and she will give her best rewards in return.
Already there are many young Americans in Siberia and Manchuria. I do not know of one of them who is not doing well; some of there are wealthy, and a few extremely so. In the big cities the largest and finest business houses are branches of American firms, and Pacific business houses are constantly establishing offices and agencies.
While I was in Vladivostok this summer several Americans representing large firms in the States stopped at the same hotel, which, by-the-way, is just having its French system of electric lighting removed, and is inviting American estimates. These Men, sent out at a large expense to look the country over and secure business, remained in the hotel for a week or two, and then sailed for home, disgusted with the prospects. Not one of them spoke a word of Russian, yet they reported Siberia a desert waste, devoid of interest, where no orders could be secured. In the same city was another American, who spoke the language fluently; he took orders for machinery, lumber, tools, etc., in two or three weeks, aggregating hundreds of thousands of dollars, and refused orders for as much more. He had studied the language, and knew the needs of the country.
This year a young American from the Pacific coast, who had been in Vladivostok for a couple of years, eking out a precarious existence, started out through the country as a salesman. He had learned the language, and his first trip proved so successful that he has given up all idea of returning to America, and has started in business for himself.
Another young American, who was struggling here two years ago, is now an employé of the Chinese Eastern Railway at Port Arthur, at a salary of several thousand rubles per annum. In Harbin, in the very heart of Manchuria, a young Pittsburger has just located himself, and, with a knowledge of French and German to start with, he is doing well, with every prospect of accumulating a large fortune as soon as he masters the Russian tongue; for, being an American, he is popular with the railway engineers; and they are the power in northern Asia. In Port Arthur there are several Americans; in fact, the only really excellent building in this centre of Russian and Chinese activity is the office and storehouse of an American firm.
From Port Arthur this summer several Americans have gone into Manchuria to prospect for gold, and as the Russian government advances money to bona fide miners and buys the entire output of the gold-mines, there is some degree of stability in the venture.
Not every American will succeed in Siberia. For the college professor there is little demand. In Vladivostok there is one gymnasium, and private schools are discouraged, although many wealthy families retain English or French tutors for their children. Vladivostok boasts also of but one drug-store, the government having decided that a, city of 30,000 can support but one chemist properly, and that to employ more would only lead to cutting prices and adulteration. Foreigners are usually taxed anywhere up to 2000 rubles for doing business in Siberia, but doubtless, under present friendly relations, this tax may be abolished; however, as will be seen from the above, every business is protected from too active competition.
One serious deprivation must be noted. In Vladivostok good water is not, procurable, the milk is often the product, of consumptive cows. and the aerated waters soon pall on the palate; accordingly, every one drinks either beer or vodka, which is far stronger than whiskey, though in the low damp climate of Vladivostok its effect is not so readily noted. In fact, the physicians recommend drinks that stir the blood, stating that the atmosphere is so depressing that without stimulants no one can keep his health, and to an extent this is true.
In the banks, and, in fact, in every office, small boys are employed to keep the samovar going summer and winter, and to see that a glass of boiling-hot tea is kept on every clerk's desk. All day long the clerks and officials imbibe hot tea and smoke cigarettes; every one smokes; and at first to see a sedate-looking young woman sitting in an office at a type-writing machine, clicking away, and at the same time solemnly smoking the inevitable cigarette rather takes one aback; but it is the custom in Siberia, and no one thinks anything of it.
In a few years Port Arthur or its port, Tailenwan, thirty miles, away, will be the all-American centre for Americans in the Far East; it is the new terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Efforts are now being made to have a Transpacific line connect San Francisco with Port Arthur before the completion of the Great Asiatic Transcontinental Railroad next year, but at present Vladivostok is still the key to Manchuria and the doorway of American interests in northern Asia. Just now, more than ever, it is imperative that we be well represented at the only consular port in all Siberia. That the proper man can open up the entire country to American manufacturers goes without saying, and the absolute need of America being represented by a capable man alive to her business interests is demonstrated by the fact that it was a sharp Yankee, who visited the country two or three years ago, to whom the credit is due of opening the eyes of the Russian engineers to the superiority of American tools and machinery. This salesman, first preparing himself by becoming thoroughly conversant in the language, sought the proper officials, and induced them to give American tools a trial. They did so unwillingly, but with the arrival of the first consignment realized that not only were the tools better and cheaper, but that machinery could be ordered, manufactured, and received from America far in advance of the slow-going ways prevalent in Europe. From that moment the European orders for machinery and supplies dwindled; even the Siberian bridges are being constructed here, and doubtless men acquainted with American bridge-building will be needed to superintend their placing.
The consul at Vladivostok holds the key to the situation for the next few years. America has the upper hand to-day, but to the respect and esteem in which the consul at Vladivostok is held by the Russian officials will be due the amount of influence he can wield in keeping this, vast territory, richer far than all the Philippines, open to our makers of railroad equipment and other manufacturers.
This page created 16 December 2002; most recent update 6 June 2011.
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