A Northern Chinese Rail Hub’s Legacy of Russian Architecture

2017-11-16 01:20:15

This article is the final part in a series on the Chinese Eastern Railway, a historic train line in China’s far northeast. Parts one, two, and three can be found here.

In the cities dotting the route of the Chinese Eastern Railway, the Russians built a large number of residential buildings and dormitories for train employees. Beginning in 1949, when they departed, some of these buildings were claimed by the Chinese government and continued to serve as railway facilities. Others became dwellings for Chinese employees or their families. Now, more than a century later, some of these buildings are still inhabited.

Qiqihar, a major city in northeastern China, was the administrative center of Heilongjiang while Harbin was under Russian control. It was not until 1954 that Harbin replaced Qiqihar as the provincial capital. Fularji, in the southwestern part of the city, is Qiqihar’s main industrial district, while Ang’angxi, a district in the southeast, sprang up during the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway.

As the railway took shape during the early 20th century, the Russians planned for lines to pass through the area around Qiqihar but did not want to come too close to the city, where Qing Dynasty troops were stationed. They thus selected a spot some distance from Qiqihar’s city center and constructed Ang’angxi Station.

Since its construction, this station has been a major transport hub through which every train running from Beijing to Moscow must pass. Consequently, it has not been shielded from history: At one point near the end of World War II, the Soviet army engaged the retreating Japanese forces in a vicious firefight near the station. To this day, there is a memorial garden in Ang’angxi commemorating the Soviet soldiers who gave their lives in battle. Later, Chairman Mao stopped at Ang’angxi for a more prosaic reason: He was delayed while traveling to the Soviet Union.

District officials dream of bringing tourists to town via the historic railway, but to date their efforts have met with limited success.

Ang’angxi’s much-publicized “Russian Street” is not nearly as prosperous as government propaganda materials would lead one to believe. District officials dream of bringing tourists to town via the historic railway, but to date their efforts have met with limited success, and the city center has clearly seen better days.

An elderly man living in one of the houses scattered near the station explained to me that the homes were abandoned when the Russians left. After the Communist Party reunified China in 1949, they were assigned to train employees and their families as residences. Back then, you’d be lucky to live in a place like this. The Russian houses used high-quality wood from the boreal forests to the north, making them sufficiently resilient against the region’s bitter winters. They also boasted architectural flourishes like cellars, attics, and porches.

In the late 1990s, as China’s reform and opening-up policies brought prosperity to the northeast, Ang’angxi underwent a real estate boom. A new city center was built opposite the train station, residents moved in to newfangled high-rises with heaters, running water, and electricity, and the old Russian-built homes lost their comparative appeal. More and more old houses have begun to fall into disrepair, as today’s construction workers no longer know how to maintain or renovate such old-fashioned buildings. By now, said the elderly resident, anyone with the ability to do so had moved into a new high-rise development far from the station.

Because the Ang’angxi government has classified the old Russian residences as “protected structures,” selling them is prohibited. But local businesspeople have simply purchased nearby plots of land and built new, Russian-style buildings that they advertise as originals. Construction workers I met in town told me that these imitation structures are deliberately “aged” to appear even more genuine than the originals, and it’s actually cheaper to construct new buildings using modern materials than it would be to maintain the old ones.

The fate of other Russian-built landmarks brings to light the local government’s easygoing attitude toward protecting architectural heritage. There was once an Eastern Orthodox church in Ang’angxi: the Church of the Apostles, which somehow survived the Cultural Revolution by being converted into a grain shop. Its steeple was destroyed in the process, but the church’s exterior emerged unscathed, still in excellent condition. However, in 1991, the rest of the structure was demolished to make way for new developments.

The town once maintained a tomb for Russian nuns, but according to an agreement between China and the Soviet Union stating that only the tombs of Soviet Red Army martyrs had to be protected, the graves of other Russians across northeastern China fell into various states of neglect. Later, as the government attempted to court the tourism economy, a few of the old structures were gradually restored and protected. Many, however, were completely rebuilt in the old Soviet style.

Zhalantun’s financial capabilities are limited, and some of the day-to-day repairs must be covered by the residents themselves.

In comparison with the slightly desolate atmosphere in Ang’angxi, the old buildings in the much larger historic center of Zhalantun, a city outside of Qiqihar just across the provincial border in Inner Mongolia, are positively brimming with life. The buildings are located in a neighborhood quite far from Zhalantun’s newly constructed downtown area, but thanks to the neighborhood’s proximity to two popular landmarks — Suspension Bridge Park and the Six Nations Hotel — it has not been left behind by the city’s breakneck development.

City officials consider this neighborhood the focal point of Zhalantun’s tourist culture, and as such the government has invested heavily in it. However, its financial capabilities are limited, and some of the day-to-day repairs must be covered by the residents themselves. Today, many residents are concerned: As the structures continue to age, will they be obliged to pay the rising repair costs too?

All along the Chinese Eastern Railway, there remain hundreds of century-old Russian residential buildings, most of which are still in daily use. Despite official protections, issues with funding and labor mean that the daily maintenance of the structures is still far from ideal.

Almost none of today’s residents remember life under Russian rule. To them, their houses are dwellings with little cultural relevance: What worries them most is whether their aging homes — and they themselves — will make it through the next frigid winter unscathed.

Translator: Brian Bies; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: An exterior view of an old building in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province, May 24, 2017. Courtesy of Ma Te)