Harbin is generally a quiet place. In the winter it’s too cold for construction, so unlike Hong Kong daily life is not accompanied by the relentless background din of pile driving and pneumatic drills. If building work needs to be done a giant padded quilt is suspended over the activity. I observed a couple of guys mixing cement but have no idea of the outcome of their labours, whether they succeeded or not in building the dream or filling in the cracks.
In Learning from Las Vegas Venturi, Brown and Izenour suggest that “today programs can change during the course of construction” and this is definitely relevant for China where the architectural tropes used by developers are often purely signs to indicate cultural and economic aspiration and achievement. The drive from Harbin airport to the city is accompanied by seemingly endless and unoccupied roadside developments representing new lifestyles under construction, partially hidden by awnings advertising the lives that will be lived here. The beautiful, European inspired, aspiring prince and princess types whose wealth is reflected in their eclectic tastes.
The ice sculptures that entice visitors to this city of freezing temperatures are transient, architecturally eclectic, lit by multi-coloured electric light, coated in advertising symbols and will all melt in the spring. They echo, in their limited life-spans and referential style, the relentless pace of change in China and are like so many simulacra both gorgeous and at the same time devoid of the substance of the dream.
It’s also a lot of fun by the way…
Like everywhere else in China people dance in the streets, even at minus twenty degrees centigrade and on top of this there are ice slides, spinning tops for hire, skating rinks, horse-drawn carriages, Russian dolls, Stalin ashtrays, ice hockey pitches, snowboard wind surfing…ubiquitous delicious food.
Delicious food at Big Fish Restaurant, fish and vegetable hot pot, toasty warm inside the groovy retro interior and yummy food.
Leung Po Shan describes Hong Kong artist Ivy Ma’s photographic series, Perception of Phenomenal Soundlessness as capturing a sense of individual dislocation, the profound loss of sense of self that accompanies a journey away from home, often an essential part of moving from childhood to adulthood, nonetheless experienced through muted pain.
The connection to place is deeply rooted in who we are but the temporal and emotional expressions of our psychological contingency are more strongly defined by the people we love. Another reason why China feels familiar, the families fractured through economic necessity, children living abroad or working away from home, are all around us, in film, in literature and in the flesh.