Most people are attracted to visit Harbin these days because of the annual International Ice & Snow Sculpture Festival, and I am of no exception. It’s a typical tourist experience: after queuing for 40 minutes in -25C, we slid down from a 50 metre high ice slide, a replica of the Great Wall of China, made of ice. It is a bit cheesy, fun, but above all a thrilling experience.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s well worth coming to see the ice festival. However, this is not what really impressed me about the city. When we visited the New Synagague of Harbin and discovered its fascinating Russian link, it struck me that Harbin is different from elsewhere in China. At the beginning of the 20th century, over 20,000 Russian Jews migrated to Harbin primarily because of the China Eastern Railway construction which began in 1898.
It was an extraordinary time. The Russians, Europeans, Koreans and Chinese (both Manchu and Han people) were living together in a place which was only first discovered as a fishing village in 1898. The old photos of Harbin shown at St Sophia Cathedra give us a sense of the urban landscape of the city, which was originally designed by the Russians. It is a shame though the picture captions are in Chinese only. In the heart of Harbin, St Sophia is the oldest Orthodox church in Northeast of China. Elsewhere in China, it might feel slightly out of place, but not here.
There were Jewish synagogues, Orthodox churches, Turkish mosques, Confucius temples and Tao temples spreading across the city skyline. At one point, Russian art schools, Western orchestras and even ballet schools were set up to meet the increasingly multicultural demand.
Industrial manufactures and trade businesses were quickly established here and quickly expanded internationally. One of the Harbin Business Tycoon is L.S. Skidelski, the great grandfather of Lord Robert Skidelski (a member of the House of Lords) who was also born in Harbin in 1939. To date you can still sense the lavish lifestyle from the old pictures of the black tie leaving party organised for the Skidelski family at the newly built Modern Hotel in Harbin.
So where are they now? We are told that almost all of the Harbin Russians or the Harbinets as they refer to themselves had left China by the mid-1960s, though it wasn’t clearly explained at the exhibition. We come across several Russian themed restaurants in the city, but I wonder if the locals can imagine all the glamour that this place once enjoyed?
Because of the cold weather in Harbin you need to wear lots of layers to keep warm. To understand the city you also need to uncover it layer by layer. On the one hand I suspect everywhere in the world is becoming more and more homogenised. It’s overwhelming to see the capitalist consumer society here. People are rushing to gold jewellery shops before the Chinese New Year and Coca Cola has a snow carved ice bear in the middle of the walking street to welcome international visitors.
On the other hand to say the world is flat is untrue in this sense. Every time I visit a new place here, I’m keen to find out the story behind the place: a beginning, a middle and an end. Harbin certainly captures me by it’s rise and fall. I was lucky. During our short stay I got a fleeting glimpse of how new things take shape from old; how the old persists and returns.
As we leaving the city, we were told by the taxi driver that a new Harbin railway station just opened last month (the old railway station was part of the China Eastern Railway construction, built by the Russians). It puts a smile on my face. There is no end to the story – it’s only the beginning of another exciting cycle.
Top tips to understand the multicultural history of Harbin, visit
Old photo of Harbin Exhibition @ St Sophia Cathedra
88 Toulong Street, Daoli
Jews in Harbin Exhibition @ New Synagogue
162 Jingwei Street, Daoli