Chinese city preserves its Russian past

HARBIN (China) • When he first arrived in the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin in 1984 to attend university, Mr Bu Chong was stunned to see an imposing, European- style building on campus with tall columns, arched doors and elaborate reliefs.

"I'm from the countryside and I'd never seen anything like this," he said.

For Ms Gao Hong, a local businesswoman, such structures are not at all surprising. They were standard features of the Harbin she knew as a child, a city constructed in the late 19th century as a Far Eastern outpost of imperial Russia, a base for the Chinese Eastern Railway in what was once known as Manchuria.

But the two have witnessed something in common: old buildings being demolished for roads and cookie-cutter, high-rise blocks.

Distressed by the destruction, the duo and other local residents have banded together to preserve what remains of Harbin's Russian architecture, battered as it has been by waves of war, revolution and, now, urban redevelopment.

One of their causes is the Jihong Bridge, built in the 1920s by Russian engineers and classified in 2013 as an "immovable cultural relic" by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, which means any changes must be cleared by the central government.

Last year, when the Harbin city government decided that the bridge would have to be removed to make room for a high-speed rail line, it met with strong resistance from local residents.

Mr Bu, now an architecture professor at his alma mater, the Harbin Institute of Technology, drafted a letter last summer, signed by many professors and students, urging the city government to preserve the bridge.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage weighed in too, rejecting the initial plan to dismantle the bridge and move it to a new site.

Under the plan that was finally approved, the bridge will be kept, but on a longer and higher span to accommodate the new rail line.

This was not the first time Ms Gao faced the possible destruction of a city landmark. In 2014, she started writing about the remaining older structures on WeChat, a social messaging platform.

An online discussion group formed. It now has about 100 members, many of them local architects, artists and scholars who sometimes meet to consider what actions they can take to preserve Harbin's distinctive architecture and culture.

The making of Harbin is like no other Chinese city. In 1898, Russian engineers and workers from Russia and China came to build the Chinese Eastern Railway.

They were soon followed by Russian Jews fleeing persecution, and then aristocrats driven out by the Bolshevik Revolution and White Russian troops seeking refuge after defeat in civil war.

By the 1920s, more than 100,000 Russians had settled in Harbin, along with thousands more representing at least 50 nationalities.

The Chinese were also drawn to Harbin, first to help build the railway and later for business.

Borrowing designs from foreign neighbours, many built stone houses with European exteriors and Chinese-style interior courtyards - a style local residents commonly call "Chinese baroque".

The first major remaking of Harbin occurred soon after the communists came to power. The central government made Harbin an industrial base and built large factories and Soviet-style apartment blocks.

Then, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, about 80 per cent of the city's roughly 50 synagogues and churches were demolished.

It is only in recent years that the local government, realising that the unique architecture could attract tourists, began renovating some of the surviving older buildings.

Now, the city takes pride in Saint Sophia Cathedral, which has been preserved as a museum, and the Russian buildings along Central Boulevard.

But to local preservationists, those efforts have come too late and, in some cases, are ill-conceived.

In the Lao Daowai neighbourhood, the city government has evicted the residents, torn down the old houses, replaced them with buildings that mimic an old style and rented them out to commercial enterprises.

The project has been met with scorn from local preservationists who said it is absurd that the government is tearing down authentic architecture and building imitations.

"It's a failure because it's fake," said Mr Hu Hong, an architect who is passionate about heritage issues.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese city preserves its Russian past'. Print Edition | Subscribe