Harbin, once a sleepy Manchu fishing village, was transformed into a city when the Russians decided to make it their rail junction for the China Eastern Railway, which was an extension of the Transiberian Railway. Thousands of Russians settled here, and was further strengthened by “White Russian” refugees fleeing the Russian Revolution. At one point before the WWII, there were 300,000 Russians and other Europeans in the city, forming half its population. Harbin became a cosmopolitan city full of European and Russian architecture of the type popular in the belle époque era between WWI and WWII, and hence the nickname “Paris of the East”. This, as many commented, was probably the largest community of Europeans living under “native law” (i.e., Chinese law) in an era where Europeans tended to have extraterritorial rights everywhere they lived.
This unusual era came to an end during WWII, and most of the Russians departed for other parts of the world. Harbin became solely Chinese and provincial. Its stylish buildings turned into warehouses and factories, and most became dilapidated and some even destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Even the magnificent St Sophia Russian Orthodox Cathedral was turned into a warehouse and was surrounded on all sides by tall ugly housing blocks.
Harbin, too, has been transformed by China’s march towards capitalism in the last two decades. Shopping malls are everywhere in central Harbin and the old graceful European buildings are now supermarkets, luxury boutiques, restaurants and cafes. The ugly housing blocks around St Sophia have been demolished and a square created in front of it, complete with 19th century European classical architecture, fountains and pillars with motifs of knights, angels and nymphs – all features that never even existed during the city’s “European days”. The area now resembles a Parisian or Viennese square transplanted into the northeast frontierlands of China. Many buildings, for better or worse, have been renovated but transformed into uses that might not be appreciated by their original owners. For instance, I found a synagogue turned into a youth hostel with a pizza chain shop with bright neon lights. A Tartar mosque with fantastical Arabica motifs and domes is now an ethnic Korean school.
Tourism in Harbin is all about playing up the city’s Russian heritage. The city’s main tourist area is full of Russian souvenir stores. In fact, the prime area at Stalin Park (wow – what a name!) along the Sungari River has a 100m stretch of numerous Russian shops, side by side, with bizarre names such as Google Russian Shop or Yahoo Russian Shop. Some bear some pseudo-Russian names with obvious English misspellings. These shops all claim that they sell made-in-Russian products, such as the matryoshka dolls, wallets, cigarettes, 3-in-one coffee packs, necklaces, watches, etc.
A casual look by anyone familiar with things Russian and even simple English would tear apart such pretensions. The dolls, for instance, whether of traditional Russian design of ordinary people and famous political figures such as Putin, Obama and even Obama, have unusually Chinese-like faces. I won’t be surprised these were made in China. The wallets, necklaces and watches all bear Chinglish names and words instead of Russian. The coffee packs were made or packed in Germany and Malaysia meant for the Russian market, as the English words revealed, although they bore larger Russian brand names and descriptions. When I told a sales girl my observation, she stared with me with disbelief. Tourism in Harbin, or indeed any part of China, is overwhelmingly domestic, and most of these tourists could not read anything but Chinese, and have little appreciation of cultural subtleties that would have exposed such fraud.
Faking seems to be a Chinese pastime of sorts. A popular street food stall selling roast chestnuts proclaimed itself a renowned Singapore chain with international franchises. But hey hey, I have never heard of it. Chestnuts are hardly a popular Singapore snack. This reminded me of an encounter with another self-proclaimed Singapore chain in Henan, this one selling baked duck.
I also visited the Heilongjiang Ethnicities Museum now located at a Confucian Temple built in 1930 by the famous warlord Zhang Xueyou. In its dusty display panels were hunting tools of the Oroqens, Ewenki shaman dress and the legendary fish skin coats of the Hezhen tribe.
I had considered visiting two out-of-town sites – the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base of the 731 Division and the mausoleum-museum of the Jin Dynasty – but was too tired. The former was where the Japanese conducted biological experiment on Chinese, Korean and Russian prisoners and the latter a tribute to the long-gone 10th century nomadic kingdom which destroyed the Northern Song Dynasty by capturing two of its emperors and imprisoning them at a site near modern Harbin.
Tomorrow, I will set off for Changchun, capital of Jilin Province.