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STEEPED in history and heavily shaped by foreign influences, the cities of Harbin, Shenyang and Changchun illustrate the eclectic blend of old and new, East and West, in northeast China.


A Cheng

The capital of Heilongjiang Province is a romantic city infused with exotic flavors. At the start of the 20th century, Westerners referred to Harbin as the "Oriental Moscow" and the "Little Paris of the Far East."

It is not difficult to understand the origins of such a mixed culture: foreigners driven from their countries by war built Harbin in the style of their homeland.

Harbin is a city that has changed hands many times. The native home of the Sushen and Jurchen people, it later became the birthplace of two dynasties: the Jin (1115-1234) and the Qing (1644-1911).

For thousands of years the city was home to more than 30 ethnic minorities such as the Manchu, Daur, Oroqen, Xibe and Ewenki. However, it was mainly the massive influx of foreigners in the last 100 years that has given Harbin its eclectic character.

Architectural showcase

When I was very young, my entire family took an old-fashioned train to Harbin. Our first encounter with the city was at the old Harbin Train Station, which was replaced by a European-style building a few years later.

People today still refer to the old train station as the "old station" and "old ticketing house." Since its completion in 1904, the old train station was more than just a gateway to this city; the landmark also marked the place where the Russian "Art Nouveau" style of architecture gained its foothold in Harbin.

The old Harbin Train Station was built in the Romantic style - a rare sight in China. But not in Harbin. Other Romantic-style buildings include the Harbin Railway Hospital built in 1900, the Moscow Shopping Mall built in 1906, the Commercial School House, the Telephone Bureau, the Governor's Office, the Saint Nicholas Cathedral built in 1898, the Church of the Annunciation at Nangang Central Square, the Alekseyev Church and the Saint Sophia Cathedral. These are all the legacy of the Art Nouveau movement.

The pedestrian-only Central Avenue is an "architectural museum" with an impressive mix of building styles. This is where one can find the Russian-style Huamei Restaurant, the French-style Modern Hotel, and the Baroque-inspired Education Bookstore and Jiangyan Primary School.

At the turn of the 20th century, the city was a meeting place for expatriates from more than 20 countries. A dozen countries had set up consulates here, and Harbin was also dubbed "a city of flags" for the many flags that fluttered high above the city.

The Central Avenue developed in 1898 is the epitome of Harbin's contemporary history. Back then, the people living on this street were mostly Chinese, and so when city authorities wanted to consolidate the Chinese population from places scattered around the city into one area, Central Avenue emerged as an obvious choice. It became the Chinese quarter of the city and was renamed Chinese Avenue in 1900.

The same policy was also applied to other nationalities, as evident in these designated residences: Mongolia (Xiqidao) Street, Balkan (Bashan) Street, Belgium (Bile) Street, Romania (Lujia) Street, Warsaw (Anping) Street, Cossack (Gaoyi) Street and Korea (Xibadao) Street.

Shrewd foreign settlers were quick to realize that the street was prime real estate and many rushed to buy land and erect buildings on Chinese Avenue. Soon the "Chinese" name was strongly opposed by the foreigners who had invested and set up shop, and so in July 1928 the street was renamed Central Avenue.

Many European-style buildings line Central Avenue. Every evening, folk musicians and singers perform by the colorful lights of Central Avenue. This has been the custom for a hundred years. During World War II, the foreign artists in Harbin organized and performed countless classical songs and musicals - this cultivated generations of singers, conductors, composers and musicians.

Almost all Harbin residents grew up surrounded by the sound of music. Today the famous Harbin Summer Music Festival has become a mainstay in this city. This is indeed a city of melody.

Kingdom of churches

To me, a city without the tolling of bells is a city without soul. I was perhaps influenced by my childhood memories of Harbin. At that time, there were so many churches in the city that people called it a "kingdom of churches." When the bells started tolling, many foreigners would stop and make the sign of the cross.

Harbin was a refuge for many foreigners during wartime. In July 1907 there were 23,000 Russians in Harbin; during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) there were 89,000; and by the Russian Civil War (1917-1923) the number was 155,000. These figures do not include foreigners from other countries, including France, Britain, the United States, Germany, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, India, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia.

In 1920, slightly more than half of the city's population were foreigners. The churches provided a much needed spiritual abode for those refugees of war.

The St Sophia Cathedral is the largest church in this kingdom of churches. Originally a military church, it was built to serve the Fourth Infantry Division from Siberia. One Russian tea merchant donated 60,000 rubles to build the wooden structure, and it was completed in March 1907.

Back then the church was located on Shuidao Street (present-day Zhaolin Street) instead of its present site in the district of Daoli: in 1912, the same tea merchant again offered money to move the church to its present site - and to rebuild it with brick and stone. At 53 meters in height, the St Sophia Cathedral is the largest remaining church in Harbin and the largest church in the Far East. It can accommodate 2,000 people for mass.

This church is quite different from its previous incarnation: The old church was influenced by the Gothic style, but the new one is built in Byzantine style. St Sophia Cathedral has since been restored, and today it stands at the site of the Harbin Building Museum.

The Jewish community in Harbin used to gather and socialize on Tongjiang Street. The most striking building on this street was a synagogue built in 1918.

This masterpiece with an imposing facade is also the largest synagogue in the Northeast. When Jews left the city, all activities in the synagogue also came to a halt. Today it is a museum that details the history of Jews in Harbin.

Due to the persecution of Jews during World Wars I and II, many Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe moved to Harbin. At one time Harbin was home to the largest Jewish community in northeast Asia. In those days, Jews were present in every corner and every trade in the city.

Today one can still find former residences of Jews, disused synagogues, as well as offices of Jewish trading firms, banks, factories, schools, hospitals, libraries, publishing houses and inns. One could almost imagine the Jews were the driving force of the city.

In the provincial archives of Heilongjiang, there are 1,400 dossiers on the Jewish community. Most of these are written in Yiddish and Russian, while a few are written in English and Japanese. These dossiers represent a valuable record of the history of Jews in Harbin.

Harbin at the turn of the 20th century was very similar to the German city of Frankfurt by the Rhine River. Although Harbin was not a big city at that time, the air was permeated with foreign flavors: Western gentleman taking a rest on a street bench, foreign ladies buying flowers from the florist round the corner, Swiss and Jewish settlers reading the papers in a news kiosk and Russian performers entertaining passers-by with an accordion.


Ma Qiufen

Shenyang has been inhabited for more than 7,000 years and has been a city for more than 2,300 years. The capital of Liaoning Province was established as a city as early as 195 BC during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). In the dynasties that followed, it was ravaged by war, and no trace of the earliest city remains today.

Shenyang was resurrected by a nomadic people from the north, the Khitans. After the fall of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the Khitans established the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) and built a wall of earth around Shenzhou (today's Shenyang). The Liao were later defeated by another nomadic people from the north, the Jurchens, who founded the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and made Shenzhou a key military base.

However, the fortification could not withstand the onslaught of the Mongols led by Kublai Khan, who reduced the city to burning rubble. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that followed, the Mongols built a new city on the site and renamed it Shenyang. A century later the city fell to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which started massive fortification of Shenyang in 1388.

In 1621, the Manchu leader Nurhaci captured Shenyang; four years later he renamed the city Shengjing and made it capital of the Later Jin Dynasty (later renamed the Qing Dynasty). Shengjing remained the capital of the Later Jin Dynasty until 1644.

Today Shenyang is a major industrial base in northeast China. At the start of the 20th century, foreign companies were quick to tap into the riches of the northeast, and in just a few years foreign factories producing tobacco, candy and textiles sprouted in Shenyang.

Many home-grown industries also arose during this initial period of industrialization. Shenyang was home to many firsts in China, such as its first minting machine and its first defense industries. However, all these fell into the hands of Japanese troops, who invaded the northeast after the Mukden Incident of 1931, also known as the September 18 Incident.

By the end of World War II, the industries of Shenyang were left in ruins, but the city quickly bounced back. Today it is a major hub for aerospace, heavy equipment and automotive industries in the northeast.


Jin Renshun

The history of Changchun, Jilin Province, dates back as far as the Neolithic Age: Archeologists have found evidence of human settlements in the area around 40,000 years ago.

During the Liao Dynasty (907-1125) the city was attacked by the Khitans, and in 1115 it fell to the Jurchen leader Wanyan Aguda (who founded the Jin Dynasty, 1115-1234) after a month-long siege. Changchun was an important city for much of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but it was destroyed by war toward the end of the dynasty.

It was only in 1800 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that Changchun was designated as a town placed under the command of generals in Jilin Province. In 1907 city walls were built, and the city began to assume the form that we know today.

After the Mukden (today's Shenyang) Incident of 1931, when a section of a Japanese-owned railway was blown up, the Japanese hastily created a puppet state, Manchukuo, with Changchun as its capital.

In planning the city, the Japanese borrowed many ideas from the 19th century transformation of Paris, and the garden city movement led by Sir Ebenezer Howard of Britain.

The roads of Changchun were laid out in radial, ring- and grid-like patterns, and green spaces were set up at major junctions. The Japanese established in Changchun a comprehensive flush toilet system, piped gas for heating and underground electric cables - a first for an Asian city.

Today Changchun is still one of the greenest cities in China, and one can smell the freshness of the woods in the busy city.

Changchun's film industry has its roots in the Japanese occupation. One of its brightest stars was actress Li Xianglan (Yoshiko Otaka). With the Japanese surrender in 1945, the studio was renamed Northeast Film Studio, and in 1955 its name was changed to Changchun Film Studio.

Films from Changchun - such as "Bridge" (1949) and "Liu Sanjie" (1960) - played an important role in entertaining China before television made its way into many homes.

Today the city hosts the biennial Changchun Film Festival, which showcases the best films from East Asia.

Changchun is also the cradle of China's automobile industry. China FAW (First Automotive Works) Group Corp based in Changchun produced the country's first car, the Hongqi (Red Flag) luxury sedan that was presented to Chairman Mao Zedong in 1958.

The Hongqi became the limousine of the political elite, but many since have opted to ride in a China-made Audi. FAW has joint ventures with Audi, Volkswagen and other foreign partners to produce their vehicles in China.

The capital of Jilin Province is also a center for higher education. Known as China's "university city," Changchun has the highest number of universities in relation to its population in China.


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