An Elegy for an Effigy

Before we get to the meat of this post, an update on my goings on.  I had two great athletic accomplishments last week!  The first was that I did a press-up handstand for the first time in my life (and second, and third etc.) which is a move I’ve been wanted to get since senior year of college.  For reference, that’s going from a crane position, leaning forward, and then pressing up to your handstand.  I have yet to hold it for an extended period of time, but it seems I’ve finally got the relevant muscles adequately developed.  Secondly, I swam a continuous mile in under 30 minutes (28:12 to be exact) which was way faster than I would have expected. Woohoo!  Also submitted the rough drafts of my two articles.  Woohoo! And a fellowship app. Woohoo! I have another post that should be up in a few days, but apart from that I’m winding down so expect more random stuff that I just want to talk about.

Now that that little self-congratulatory ego boost is done with, this is a piece I’ve been wanting to write for about a year now, but have been saving til the eve of my departure to allow myself full perspective on the matter.  I also am reticent to post it, because I’m unsure of my ability to instill in you, the reader, the emotions that I feel as I write it.  To quote an awkward yet insightful rap line though, “the greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint; the greats were great cus they paint a lot.”  And if I want to do Harbin justice in the book, I’ve got to put in the practice.  So please, enjoy my Elegy for Daowai.

Daowai, outside the tracks that breathed life and new purpose into Harbin, a Chinese enclave already a century old, wrapped in trappings imported from across the iron road.  To me it represents the soul of Harbin, its residents and buildings enduring the ravages of time and weather together. Flourishing, in spite of the corruption, drugs, gangs, and general debauchery that first the Qing, then the Republicans, then the Japanese allowed to run rampant, Daowai played host to countless divine performances, and gave birth to some of Harbin’s greatest minds.

One might mistake it for a Russian neighborhood, with two-story yellow and white pseudo- (or sino-) baroque buildings lining the length of Zhengyang Street, were it not for the thick coating of Chinese signs below the green-trimmed windows and the red new year’s decorations flanking each doorway.  Only these betrayed the local flavor and racial homogeny of the neighborhood.

The baroque facades grow decadent where streets meet, putting on their best attire to impress the next block down, rising to meet each other like opposing waves before crashing sharply downwards to create a flat no man’s land.  Unlike the stretches of hell between trenches in the First World War however, here the name implies no stillness, as carts, cars, and animals, human and other, bustled east to west and back again with the sun.

Behind the European exterior, down the side streets where the red brick becomes more prevalent and the buildings shorter, lie the entrances to the courtyards.  An odd adaptation of the octagonal courtyard homes down south, these buildings housed twice as many families with half as many walls.  These were also a far removal from the opulent courtyard homes of Beijing, so diligent in observing the tenets of fengshui. No, in these courtyards, with brick matching the pasted decorations in spots not blackened by coal smoke and contrasting with the pearly snow, the poor Chinese of Harbin made their homes.

As if the above weren’t enough, before its twentieth birthday, Daowai played headquarters to a plague epidemic and its vanquisher, Wu Liande, who birthed modern Chinese medicine and turned back the rodent-born ravage with a blazing inferno.  The phrase goes, “for the people, food could just as well Heaven.” So when plague and poverty threatened earthly existence, Daowai’s people could always look to a slice of man-made, or man-baked, Heaven.  Today as before, countless delicacies from cakes to buns to expertly braised pork belly tantalize outsiders deep into Daowai’s many alleys.

The aromas wafting out of Lao Ding Feng, the dusty, moist, comforting smell of fresh bread, the sweet, seductive scent of endless varieties of cakes tug just inside the nostrils and at the base of the brains of passersby.  Rose, green plum, mandarin orange, red date, honey, dried berries, seeds and nuts, all these treasures are as valuable as the gems they resemble, hiding in crumbly crusts that easily fall away before eager mouths.  Lao Ding Feng holds all of these and more inside a building whose bright pink baroque exterior more than resembles a gaudy cake fit for Marie Antoinettex.

Next door, and inside many other doors in Daowai, are shaomai.  The dumplings, Halal to a one in this area of the city, sit in tray upon tray, emitting gentle steam from their crinkled tops, filled with tender dollops of lamb or beef that leave opaque circles of fat on the mustard and vinegar slurry when dipped. The succulent lamb paired with fiery mustard that clears your mind with a whiff, and scours your sinuses with a taste, ranks near the top of the list of reasons I return here.

Now though, as I walk its storied streets, the beautiful baroque edifices crumble behind walls of red brick and grey concrete, erected to expel the residents and hide these blotches on Harbin’s face, foreshadowing their eventual evaporation from the environment.  Streets once bustling with every type of food desirable lie empty save for a few survivalists.  Meanwhile verdant strands already gain ground as nature strives to reclaim its domain. When I visit, drawn by a masochistic compulsion to see the thing I love even as it withers away, I wonder how this dilapidated district evokes such a reaction in me.  I am not from here, I did not speak its language until six years prior, and I do not have to live here now, free to come and gawk as its residents remain in homes a century old.  A braver Jakob would ask Daowai’s people how they feel about the destruction and reconstruction that swallow up what makes their home unique, but I am not he.  Perhaps they are happy to herald the progress, and dream of modern conveniences.  Whether timidity or a reluctance to intrude is to blame, that question remains unanswered for me.

Daowai is not my home, so why does its disappearance evoke such melancholy in my chest? Perhaps my aversion to injustice that comes with growing up in the Bay Area flares at the sight of Chinese Daowai sitting so neglected, while Russian-made Central Street has become Harbin’s pride and joy.  Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I cannot help but feel that had the government shown the same love to Daowai it does to Central Street with its many stores that attract shoppers in droves, Harbin’s heritage would be more complete, and its people’s lives better.  It’s almost as if Harbin sees Daowai as a blemish to be hidden, whereas I love it and see it as just an integral a part of Harbin’s history.

Here’s some shots to accompany my musings. From this

To this

When it could be this


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