The Harbin section of the Chinese Eastern Railway was built 1898-1902.
It seems not. In 1896 China gave permission for the railway to be built and for Russia to control a strip of land along both sides of the long railway. In a very short time, some 70,000 Russians and other citizens had moved to Harbin – railway workers, engineers, architects, shop keepers, teachers and road builders. By 1910, they had built a fully functioning, lovely European city de novo. Those who did well built themselves lovely villas and art nouveau apartment houses.
European architecture, Zhongyang Dajie (High St) in Harbin's old quarter
Saint Sophia Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1907.
Because of its rich cultural life and ornate, European-inspired architecture, this Paris of the Orient became the City of Music.
Among the people who flocked to Harbin, Russian Jews arrived in their thousands. It is difficult to tell if they arrived because the Russian authorities were encouraging shop keepers, doctors and small business owners to move to Harbin, and so Jews were likely to be recruited. Or if the horrific pogroms in Eastern Europe forced young Jewish families, in particular, to look abroad for safely. What is certain is that in Harbin, Jewish citizens enjoyed all the economic, political and residential rights unavailable in Czarist Russia. And of course these rights were guaranteed (to all citizens) when the Soviet Union acquired the railroad zone later on.
Jewish cemetery and model of Old Synagogue, 1909
Jews in Harbin were furriers, bakers, shopkeepers, café owners, teachers and musicians, timber mill owners and factory workers. They built a moderate sized prayer centre, Old Synagogue, in 1909. This Synagogue was reopened in June 2014 after 12 months of renovations. The women’s gallery on the second floor, the men’s prayer hall and rabbi’s bimah platform have all been restored, complete with elaborate decorations that combine Jewish and Chinese symbols. It is now a concert theatre.
When the community became bigger after the Russian Revolution, they built a larger prayer centre, New Synagogue, in 1921 (now a museum). The community also built its own school, hospital, music centre, sports organisation and welfare facilities.
By the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Harbin started to look like a safe haven for about 150,000 refugees, largely White Russians, making the city the largest Russian community outside the Soviet Union. And the Jewish community grew and grew. Between 1918 and 1930, 20 Jewish newspapers and periodicals were published in Harbin, mostly written in Russian. Russian was the shared language for all ex-pats, as well as for their Chinese business associates and employees.
I don’t know much about Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in Sept 1931. But I do know that the Chinese army were forced to retreat from Harbin after bombing from Japanese aircraft. In 1935, the Soviet Union sold the Chinese Eastern Railway to the Japanese, which resulted in the first exodus of Russian emigres from Manchuria, in general and Harbin, in particular. Many ex-pat Russians went back to the Soviet Union, or to Shanghai.
New Synagogue, 1921, now a Jewish museum
Today Harbin's population is 10 million people, making it China's 8th largest city. Yet despite two generations (1896-1946) of Russian culture and development, nothing remains except the European architecture. Visit Harbin's old quarter today, near the Songhua River, and you will find many intact baroque and byzantine buildings that were constructed by the Russians.
Useful reading includes: Passage Through China: the Jewish communities of Harbin, Tientsin and Shanghai, written by Irene Eber. This catalogue accompanied the 1986 exhibition held in Tel Aviv’s Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. And The Jews in China by China Inter-continental Press in 2005. This book provides an extensive, mainly photographic record, with one chapter on Harbin.