In late Qing Dynasty, trains, an advanced means of transportation at that time, connected northeastern China with far-distant Europe. The rumbling train brought an array of Western gifts to a city in the region, such as literature, religions, technicians, doctors, and emigrants. Along with good things were also tears, bloodshed and sacrifices. The name of the city is Harbin.
Saint Sophia Cathedral surrounded by the beautiful winter snow.
Connecting East and West
In 1896, the Russian Tsar directed the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway that traversed half of Europe from Moscow to Vladivostok. The stretch of railroad that extended through northeast Chinese territory was called the Chinese Eastern Railway.
On June 9, 1898, the first wave of railway construction workers arrived from Vladivostok at a Chinese place called Tianjia Shaoguo Tun, which literally means a small village famous for a distillery run by a family surnamed Tian. Later the Russians named this date the birthday of the city of Harbin, and thus began the building of a modern city.
Among the stories about Harbin that must be told, in addition to the magnificent historical framework of the Chinese Eastern Railway, is the story of the Russian expatriates that immigrated to areas along the railroad, among which was a large number of Jews. At the dawn of the 19th century, Harbin was the largest gathering place of Jewish emigrants in the Far East, reaching as many as 20,000 at its height.
Jewish migrants began to set up shops in the flourishing downtown area of Harbin and perhaps were instrumental in breaking through the static and isolated living conditions that existed between the Russian colonists and local Chinese. Later during the most severe storm of anti-Semitism in World War II, Harbin was a sanctuary for Jews, who made many noteworthy contributions to the development of the city.
A row of snowmen standing along the banks of the Songhua River, Daoli District, Harbin City.
A must see for anyone who comes to Harbin is Central Avenue stretching from the Flood Control Memorial Tower along the bank of the Songhua River in the north to the Xinyang Plaza in the south. Central Avenue was originally a settlement for Chinese people planned by the Russian Chinese East Railway Administration, and thus called “China Avenue.” Later, the name was changed to Central Avenue. Along this well-known 1,000 meter long avenue with over 100 years of history are beautiful square stone pavements, with unique buildings on both sides. Those buildings, counting as many as 70, were built with major Western-styled architecture including Baroque, renaissance, eclecticism, and art nouveau.
Among the old buildings along Central Avenue, the most popular is the Modern Hotel with art nouveau architectural style. The legendary century-old hotel is quite famous for the stories portrayed in the TV series Gunshots at the Modern Hotel, which is nationally well-known as the modern popsicle. The Huameixi Restaurant is also considered by local Harbin residents as an authentic Russian restaurant. Almost 100 years ago, the restaurant was a small Russian cake and pastry shop located in a street corner. With time, it grew into what is now one of the most famous restaurants in Harbin. All these old Harbin restaurants are witness to the development of Harbin over the last century and have become landmarks of the city. Each of them had a similar founder – a traveling Jewish merchant.
With the inflow of Russians into Harbin, came also not only Western architecture, but also Western attire and cuisine. On the menus and dinner tables of Harbin today are choices like red Chinese sausage, ukleba (Russian bread), Subo soup (a Russian soup) and kwas chlebowy (a Russian fermented drink). These all demonstrate the typical influence of Russian food and drink on the lives of locals.
The Chinese love of fashion in Harbin is also connected with the early introduction of Western clothing including business suits, formal dress, and female dresses from Russia.
Within just a few decades, the trends brought into Harbin from expatriates made a big impact on lifestyles across northeast China.
The Central Avenue of Harbin is lined with lush green trees.
Iconic Cathedral Landmarks
After the Russo-Japanese War came to an end in 1905, there were feelings of unrest among the Russian troops that remained in Harbin, and the apprehensive soldiers needed some emotional consolation. To pacify these homesick soldiers, two years after the end of the war, Russian military authorities ordered the construction of a simple church for those soldiers who believed in Eastern Orthodoxy. After more than two decades of construction, the largest Eastern Orthodox Church in the Far East was finally completed in 1932. It was named the Saint Sophia Cathedral.
The architecture style of the Saint Sophia Cathedral was a typical Byzantine style, having a dark green onion-shaped dome and an elegant bell tower archway over the wings. The overall structure is a mixture of brick and wood, the walls are made of red brick, and the exquisite tile carvings exhibit great ingenuity. Of course, any description of the cathedral would not be complete without mentioning the pigeons which gather on the green roof. These little guardians of the church are quite friendly to people, and will swoop down and eat food out of your hand when offered.
Saint Sophia Cathedral once served as a warehouse for Harbin’s No.1 Department Store, but now functions as an architectural art gallery, no longer performing the religious function of a church.
To the south of Saint Sophia Cathedral on Jihong Street is a dilapidated old church hidden in the shadows of an alley. The church is called the Holy Iveron Icon Orthodox Church. It was originally a Russian military church. Unlike the well-preserved Saint Sophia Cathedral, this one was damaged as time went by. Now, it quietly stands erect next to the orphanage beside it in the alley. Its graceful curves, fine brick carvings, and colorful mosaics at the gates of the orphanage still reveal its past architectural glories.
Dongdazhi Street stretching out from Museum Square is reverent and serene, as it is home to most of Harbin’s religious buildings. Some of them are still used for religious purposes today. As Russian emigrants left, the number of Eastern Orthodox believers greatly diminished in Harbin. Once the city had many Eastern Orthodox churches, but now the Harbin Notre Dame cathedral is the only one left on Dongdazhi Street, which continues to conduct Eastern Orthodox religious services. The Orthodox Saint Alekseyev Church on the nearby Shike Street was converted into a Catholic church in the 1980s. Then there is the Harbin Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, a Polish Catholic church, which faces a protestant German Lutheran church.
At the end of Dongdazhi Street stands the Harbin Jile Temple, which was built during the 1920s. Elderly residents in Harbin believe that the temple stands to keep the traditional faith of Chinese people.
Miniature Paris of the East
Nestled in a rather quiet corner of the first intersection of Central Avenue is a secluded faded yellow mansion whose walls are covered in vines. A few small chairs are arranged in front of the building, hidden under the vines against a backdrop of dark green plaques, doors, and window frames that create a thoughtful mood. The window is decorated with Russian utensils, and the plaque reads, “Russia Coffee & Food” in yellow. With the shop’s simple but dignified display of old furniture, old photos, and old cameras, one cannot help but feel nostalgic for the past.
Further down, Garden Street is home to a number of foreign consulates in Harbin. It once served as the living area for employees of the Chinese Eastern Railway. For this reason, many Russian-styled dwellings can be found here. Because most houses at that time had gardens, the street was fittingly dubbed Garden Street.
Harbin is quite a convenient city for traveling on foot. Only by walking slowly and taking in all the details of the architecture and environment, can travelers get to hear piano melodies and angelic songs filtering out of the coffee shops and churches. Historically speaking, Harbin is quite young. This fact does much to reflect the inclusive spirit of the city, welcoming visitors from around the world, sharing with them all aspects of life and making Harbin what it is today.
Whether or not Harbin is a “Miniature Paris of the East” is not of vital importance, because it has created a unique reputation of its own. It is a quaint old musical city, a city that will forever have the enchanting title of “Summer Ice City.”
XU YANG is a freelance writer.