The Greek-Australian Harbin Connection

Eva Boleti

Greek immigration to China, particularly Harbin, represents a significant yet understudied facet of global migration patterns. The commencement of the 20th century witnessed a dynamic surge in Greek migration towards Asia, notably China, characterized by a considerable influx from Aegean and Ionian ports, primarily from regions like Kefalonia, Corfu, Samos, and Chios. A common trajectory among Kefalonians and Samiotes involved passage through Odessa and traversing the trans-Siberian railway to reach Manchuria, proceeding subsequently to Chefoo (know known as Yantai) in the northern Shantung province of China.

During the Russo-Japanese War, Greeks were present in strategic areas like  Liao-Yag and Port Arthur, engaged significantly in supplying provisions to the Russian army. Noteworthy figures among them included Nikos Kavadias’s father, who operated a robust trading office in Harbin, dealing extensively in various goods and serving as a supplier to the Tsarist forces. Nikos Kavadias was born in Harbin, China in 1910. His father, Charilaos, had Russian citizenship and was the director of an import-export business. His mother, Dorothea, was of Kefalonian origin.

The years leading up to 1920 witnessed the settlement of several Ιonian families in Shanghai, engaging in diverse trades such as alcohol and nut importation. Additionally, Kefalonian shipbrokers, sailors, and shipowners further enriched the burgeoning commercial landscape. The establishment of trade connections with Korea and Manchuria by the Inglesi brothers from Samos marked a significant contribution to this growing network.

Gerasimos Antypas, hailing from Kefalonia, Greece, made significant contributions to Harbin’s landscape as the proprietor of the Antypas vodka factory. His legacy was carried forward by his son-in-law Spyros Metaxas  (born in 1897 in Corfu), who took over the distillery before eventually immigrating to Sydney, Australia. Spiros Luke Metaxas, with a background in Greece and England, served in the Greek Army and held various administrative roles, notably as the Managing Director of the Vodka Distillery factory ‘D.G. Antipas’ in Harbin, China in 1930-1945. 

The upheavals of the mid-20th century drove Greeks China residents to seek refuge in Japan or Australia. The migration of individuals such as Themistocles Vakakis to Melbourne in 1948, Spiros Metaxas to Australia in 1940s, and the subsequent settlement of Byron Theofanis in Tokyo and later Yokohama, Japan, significantly shaped the diasporic Greek presence in these regions.

This migration narrative, deeply rooted in entrepreneurship, trade, and cultural exchange, elucidates the historical significance of Greek immigrants in Harbin and their subsequent influence in shaping diverse global communities.