Over the weekend, I took a tour to Harbin. Harbin is in what used to be Manchuria, in the north of China. In recent years it has become famous for a spectacular ice and snow festival with replicas and statues made of ice, but it has an equally fascinating place in history.
China was quite weak from the late 19th century, and the great powers essentially carved the country up into "special interest" zones. Manchuria was close to both Russia and Japan, and as a resource rich area, was fought over by all three powers in the late 1800s to early 1900s. When I was in graduate school, I wrote my master's thesis about the relations among Japan, the U.S. and China during the 1920's, a time when Japan was consolidating control over Manchuria and a lucrative railroad that ran through this area. Later, Japan annexed the area and formed a puppet state called Manchukuo, putting the last emperor of China, Puyi, as the titular head. Harbin was the site of some horrific Japanese war crimes reminiscent of Nazi Germany in their cruelty and dehumanization--we toured the secret "germ warfare" laboratory and compound masterminded by the Japanese equivalent of Mengele, Shiro Ishii. There, Chinese prisoners from around the country were transported for live human experiments including vivisection, and most perished. The Japanese bombed the site, called block 731, but did not destroy it completely. Local villagers came forward with artifacts from the site, and the Chinese government was able to piece together the story of this atrocity from their accounts and evidence.
During the period leading up to 1920 after the Bolshevik Revolution, many Russians including a large population of Jews fled their war torn country and settled in Harbin--in fact, in 1925 fully a third of the population of Harbin was Russian. The Russian influence can still be seen with restaurants and the famous St. Sophia's church (above). There are also synagogues, though none are supposedly functioning. Some German Jews also relocated to the city during the 1930s, and some further relocated to Kobe, Japan, where they received refuge during the war.
The ice festival is of more recent origin, and is really spectacular--especially the night show. Every year there is a different theme, and this year it is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, so there are replicas of famous Chinese buildings including a rendition of the Great Wall and the Great Hall of the People. Another park, called Sun Island, has sculptures made not only by Chinese, but international ice sculptors as well. Ice is brought from the frozen Songhua River in early December, and sculptors work around the clock until several thousand structures and statues are completed in late December. The ice festival officially opens in early January for local residents, and an onslaught of tourists ensues until late February, when the ice begins to thaw. The structures are then disassembled (the smaller ones are allowed to melt in place) and ice is returned to the river.
Harbin is also home to hundreds of Siberia tigers, a conservation effort designed to blunt China's poor image in harvesting these animals for their bones which are an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. The TIger Park also houses Bengal tigers (also an endangered species), ligers (a cross between a female tiger and a male lion), jaguars, white or snow tigers, and a few lions.