Fast-Fading Memories of Harbin’s Migrant History

Fast-Fading Memories of Harbin’s Migrant History
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
What you need to know

A stream of Russian refugees once made the far-flung northeastern city their home, but now only a handful of descendants remain to tell their stories.

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Northeastern Chinese commonly refer to Russians as laomaozi, or “old hairies.” Despite the term’s racial overtones, it is not meant as a derogatory slur among people not exactly sensitive to notions of political correctness. Rather, the word reflects the curiosity that the early northeasterners experienced when they first laid eyes on migrant Russians’ unusually thick hair. Similarly, children of mixed Chinese and Russian heritage are sometimes called ermaozi, “second hairies,” while an alternative local name for sunflower seeds — a now-common snack throughout China that was brought over by the Russians — is maoke, meaning “things old hairies snack on.”

The construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway saw the arrival of a wave of Russian immigrants in northeastern China. At first, most were rail workers and their families, but later, merchants who had caught wind of the enormous commercial potential raced to open stores in the northeast. By 1917, Russian immigrants made up more than a quarter of residents in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province.

After the October Revolution occurred the same year, Harbin saw an influx of White Russians — mainly landowners, wealthy businessmen, former military officers, and aristocrats — who had fled their home country fearing persecution by the newly established Soviet government. The vast majority of these Russians left Northeast China in the 1950s for North America, Japan, and Australia. In the 1980s, during China’s reform and opening-up period, some of these immigrants and their descendants returned to visit their former homes.

In a mountain valley east of Mianduhe, a town administered by the city of Yakeshi in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, lies a graveyard for Russian immigrants. An Eastern Orthodox church once stood near the local train station, where Russian residents would hold funeral services to bury their deceased. The main structure of the church is still standing but is now locked away inside the railway’s electricity complex and closed to the public.

After the initial wave of Russians left, the church no longer served any religious purpose. The Japanese used it as a military installation until the end of World War II, and the building later spent a short period as a warehouse and then as a dormitory for employees of a nearby factory. Today, no artifacts from those times remain inside the church. All that’s left is the building’s stone frame and domed roof, rising conspicuously above the one-story structures surrounding it.

Another nearby town, Boketu, was home to the Chinese Eastern Railway’s first major station. Boketu also hosts a site known as maotun, or “hairy village,” which used to be a Russian graveyard. According to residents, Boketu was once a prosperous town and a gathering place for Russian immigrants. Until the early 1920s, it was also a key military location controlled by a Russian garrison charged with protecting the Chinese stretch of the railway. Uphill from the train station is the site of the old army headquarters, a fortified stone structure that stands imposingly in stark contrast to the drab residential buildings around it.

After the Communists reunified China in 1949, the Russians departed Boketu in droves, leaving behind only a few mixed-race children who had been born there. Most of these children have long since passed away; the old Russian graveyard was eventually converted into a farm, and today, no relics from the site’s past can be found.

Once in a while, however, descendants of those early immigrants visit the town in the hope that their family graveyards, hidden deeper within the mountains, might still be intact. Some of these Russians come alone, others with their families. Taxi drivers drop them off by the side of the road, and they head into the mountains on foot. Locals say they don’t talk much on the return trip, possibly overcome with emotion after discovering their family’s graves, or perhaps disappointed at not having found anything.

In addition to the Russians, ethnic minorities with their origins in Russia also left their mark in the northeast. The Tatars — an officially recognized ethnic group in China — are one of the most populous and influential ethnicities in Harbin. Next door to the old Jewish synagogue off Harbin’s Zhongyang Street stands a tall building decorated with red and white stripes. From the outside, the structure appears to be a fusion of Byzantine and Arabic architectural styles, while its lofty dome indicates that it is a mosque. Known as the Tatar Mosque, the building was constructed earlier than both the synagogue beside it and Harbin’s famed Saint Sophia Cathedral.

Most of the Tatar Muslims who came from Russia to Harbin were soldiers transferred to China to help defend the Chinese Eastern Railway. After the October Revolution, the families of many of these soldiers moved to Harbin permanently, established their own neighborhood, and began printing Tatar-language newspapers, opening schools, and conducting religious activities. By the mid-’30s, Harbin was a center of leadership for Tatars living all around East Asia. The Tatars gradually departed from Harbin after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and the Tatar Mosque was rented out for use as a factory.

Today, there are still a rare few descendants of these Tatars living in Harbin. An elderly man by the name of Shakejin said that his mother, Akeqiulin, had served as the last guardian of the Tatar Mosque. In the 1990s, Akeqiulin contacted the American Tatar Association, reached out to China’s Administration of Religious Affairs, and eventually succeeded in reclaiming the deed to the mosque, which she turned over to the Harbin Islamic Association.

The Tatar Mosque is now closed to the public while it undergoes repairs. Day-to-day management is handled by an elderly man named Mr. Ding, who explained to me that Tatar officials and intellectuals from inland China occasionally come to visit the mosque. The Russian Republic of Tatarstan has also inquired about the state of repairs on the mosque. Mr. Ding, however, is pessimistic about the building’s preservation.

Harbin’s migrant population has historically had a complicated relationship with the city. To the Russians, the city first became a home away from home and later constituted a last bastion of freedom as their countrymen fled in exile from their tumultuous homeland. Chinese residents, however, remember the splendid culture that thrived once their fair-skinned new neighbors arrived. Harbin once rivaled New York as a city that welcomed immigrants from across the world and allowed them to dream of better lives in China.

Now, 100 years later, we know that those dreams weren’t meant to flourish forever in Harbin. All that’s left of them is a few old buildings, a rusty railway, and the fading memories of the descendants who return in search of the past.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.