I have always been fascinated by Harbin, the capital of China’s most north-easterly province, Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River). Built as part of the first Trans-Siberian railway more than a century ago, it formed a major hub on the strip of land the Russian tsar had prised from the Chinese Qing Dynasty, the last dynasty of China. The strip of land was for the railway, since it cut a straight path to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. For the time being, it saved the big loop north that would otherwise have been required.
So Harbin was built by the Russians, to serve as a major point along the far eastern route of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The city has Russian names in its core, quite a bit of Cyrillic appearing here and there and not a few Russian Orthodox churches. Yet not many Russians are in town these days, unless one goes into one of the seedy dance bars. Soon after its construction, Harbin and the railway line became the site of almost continuous war and occupation. The railway had made the Japanese belligerently nervous, for the Russians could now ship a large number of soldiers at ‘high’ speed (18 km per hour at first) across Siberia. So the Japanese attacked in what became the Russo-Japanese War in the early twentieth century, soundly defeating the Russian fleet and army. It was one of the factors that led to the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Within a few years, the Japanese carried on their belligerence and invaded the area they called ‘Manchuria’. But they found themselves facing the formidable foe of the Chinese communist People’s Liberation Army, which united with other forces (including Koreans) and began an insurgency in the area against the Japanese occupation. Eventually, the Russian Red Army appeared, fresh from taking Berlin and a trek across Siberia to join forces with the locals. They drove out the Japanese and forced their surrender at the end of the Second World War. Harbin was a major focus of all these wars.
At last, I had managed to get myself to this fascinating city. I marvelled at the tall, strong Dongbei (north-eastern) people, was moved by the museum dedicated to the anti-Japanese resistance and war, examined the old buildings established in the last days of the Russian autocracy, was struck by the curious effect of Russian Orthodox Churches in a Chinese city, and tried to translate between the Chinese and Russian signs.
Many were the shops selling traditional Russian items. But they were staffed by Chinese people and those purchasing the items were also Chinese. My guess was that the products themselves had also been made in China.
But I longed to visit Guogeli Dajie (Gogol Street), so my hosts took me there after a typical Dongbei meal of dumplings and ‘bing’, a type of wrap or roll that you construct from various items spread out on a large plate. Strolling along the cobbles, we happened upon none other than the Gogol bookshop.
Recently refurbished, it is Russian-themed with dark timbers, boasting luxurious armchairs which invite you to sit for a while and read. It rises from the street on a number of floors, full of books in Chinese and some foreign languages (Russian and English included). Throughout, it has old pictures of Harbin and its churches. It too was full of only Chinese people.
After perusing a number of books and all the pictures, we heard a child’s voice through a microphone. She was almost lost in a massive chair in the centre of the shop, reading a book to all of us. It turned out to be the beginning of a public reading hour. I was told that during the hour, anyone could read a book of choice for 5-10 minutes.
Soon enough, a shop attendant came up to me and asked if I also would read a book. I shook my head, saying that I could not read enough Chinese to do so. ‘But you can read one in English’, I was told. I went upstairs and found a children’s book called Make Way for Ducklings. It was written in 1941, but I thought it appropriate for a grandfather to read to the children present. When my time came, I sat in the big leather chair under the bright lights and began reading.
The story concerns a mother and father duck, who were seeking a place to have some chicks and raise them in Boston. They eventually found such a place, only to realise that it was a pond in the middle of town and far too noisy and dangerous. So the drake set out to find a quieter place, which he located while the chicks were born. As they set off to the new place – a quiet island in the middle of a larger pond – they encountered the streets and traffic of a large city. At that moment a policeman came to their aid and held up everything so they could make their way safely to the new home. By this time, it dawned on me that I had read this story before, at a much earlier time – 1989 or 1990 in Montreal. Having borrowed it from the local library, I had read it to my two older children when they were little.
Now, some 25 years later and a grandfather, I was reading the same book in English to a Chinese audience in a Russia-themed bookshop in the north-eastern city of Harbin. Not quite what I had ever imagined.