Many tourists go to Harbin in winter for its famous ice festival. We were there last summer during our multi-city train journey from Hong Kong to Beijing. Being able to walk around in moderate weather was more attractive than freezing our butts off in sub-zero temperatures.
We stayed in the Songbei district 松北区, the city’s new central business district (CBD). Songbei literally means “north of Song,” a reference to its position north of the Songhua River 松花江 which runs across the city. Harbin’s historical old centre lies south of the tributary.
Economic development in Harbin, like most cities in China’s “Rust Belt,” has fallen behind the fast-growing coastal cities in recent decades. In 2004, Harbin officials won approval to build a new city centre north of the Songhua River. This would transform the largely agricultural area into the city’s new commercial and government centre.
One of the most ambitious CBD projects in China, Songbei is roughly the size of New York City and spans 740 square kilometres. The development of Songbei has been touted to revive the fortune of the Heilongjiang provincial capital, heralding a real estate boom.
City officials declared that Songbei will be the “Pudong of the north,” after Shanghai’s financial and economic centre. To kick things off, the offices of the city and Heilongjiang provincial government were relocated from Harbin’s old quarter to Songbei, driving up land and property prices.
Today, Songbei comprises high-rise residential and office towers, luxury hotels and villas, shopping and entertainment developments, and industrial parks. When we were there, it was striking how new and grand everything looked. It was hard to imagine that this area used to be farmland some 15 years ago.
Our hotel was on the riverfront overlooking a busy ten-lane highway (松北大道). AB wanted to photograph the sunset from the highway, so we spent half an hour next to an endless stream of traffic. I occupied myself with photographing people crossing the river on foot and panning shots of motorcyclists.
After the sun had set, AB suggested we check out a neighbourhood visible from the hotel. To get there, we first had to cross eight lanes of traffic at a roundabout. The Singaporean in me looked left and right for some form of legit pedestrian crossing. There was none. I wished hard that no wannabe race car driver would come zipping round the corner before following AB across. I was grouchy about having to risk bodily injury to explore some bland high-rise development. Plus hunger was setting in. Which meant that I was getting “hangry” – the state of mind when one is both hungry and angry.
We walked along a dimly-lit road for several minutes. Lights started to come on in the nondescript towers that lined the road. There was nary a person walking on the pavement. As I trudged along, the few eateries that we passed did not look promising.
Everyday life after dark
We made a right turn into a smaller street and suddenly came upon an open-air night market. It was the liveliest place we had seen in the past hour, excluding the highway with its peak hour traffic. The makeshift market was set on an undeveloped plot of land sandwiched between blocks of residential towers. Some vendors were unloading fresh produce from the back of their trucks while others displayed household items for sale on the sandy ground.
I was quick to zoom in on the food stalls. Those in the middle were for takeaway orders including grilled eggs, roasted peanuts, and sausages. There was a row of eateries with clear plastic sheets for walls and naked light bulbs hanging from heavy-duty canvas. Inside, there were tables where one could sit and have a hot meal. Fascinated by these temporary restaurants, my hunger took a backseat as I discreetly photographed my surroundings with my Fujifilm X-100.
We decided that the market was probably our best dining option for the evening. However I had my doubts about the hygiene. We settled on a jiaozi shop – after all, the dumplings should be safe to eat after being plunged into boiling water for several minutes.
When we entered the jiaozi shack, we attracted further curious glances because of AB. He was the only non-Chinese at the market. We sat an empty table and a woman came to take our order. When I asked if we could order a half-portion of dumplings, she laughed and said that surely the two of us could finish 30 pieces. I looked at the guy next to me who was in the midst of polishing two plates of jiaozi and decided that she was probably right.
Most of the customers looked like they had come here after work or school for a quick dinner. Several of the men looked like they worked in construction judging by their tanned complexions and hearty appetites. Our jiaozi arrived, all 30 pieces piled onto a plate that had been slipped into a clear plastic bag so that no washing needed to be done afterwards.
At 10 RMB (approximately US$1.50) for 30 dumplings, this was to be our cheapest dinner during this trip. For comparison, this is about one-sixth the price that one would pay in a coffeeshop in Singapore. In the days that followed, we kept using our 30-dumplings-for-10-RMB meal as a cost benchmark, imagining how many more jiaozi we could have had instead of whatever we were eating.
We took a new path back to the hotel, passing more residential blocks that looked less gloomy after our hearty meal. AB suggested that we cut through a private housing complex to get to a big road on the other side. I was doubtful if we would make it but went along anyway.
Many residents, young and old, were enjoying the cool evening in a central square. Teens were on rollerblades while children ran around, all in the vicinity of an electric tower. In another area were middle-aged men and women dancing in pairs to Chinese folk songs. Everyone looked relaxed and happy. Was it because it was a Friday, the end of a work week or because such balmy cool evenings were precious in this northerly city that usually freezes over in winter?
When we got to the opposite end of the housing complex, there was a concrete wall. But someone had smashed a hole in the wall so that people could move freely between their homes and the major road outside!
We returned to the hotel in good spirit albeit a little covered in dust and sand. It was interesting to see how some local residents in the CBD would wind down at the end of a work day.