The Chinese town of Hunchun has been at the heart of Northeast Asian cooperation and development plans since the early 1990s, but in a region where maritime connections are essential, Hunchun lacks direct sea access. I explore how the sea has remained a powerful animating force behind Chinese visions for Hunchun’s future. After providing an ethnographic account of the contemporary place of the sea in local discourses of Hunchun’s identity, I draw on archival material to analyze the politico-linguistic history of maritime affairs in this part of China and beyond. I examine how the notion yang (ocean/foreign) transformed from being a label of foreign interventions in China to serving as a metaphor for domestic economic progress. The sea is both a distant dream and a source of concrete developmental potential for Hunchun today. It is also an optic through which to observe the town’s future.