Harbin is a city of contradictions.
Bookstores peddle dog-eared copies of Tolstoy alongside the latest Kindle e-reader; construction cranes sit next to onion-domed Orthodox churches; and sprawling office complexes share the skyline with ornate baroque buildings from the 1920s.
Walking through the streets of this northeastern Chinese city—known for its long, harsh winters and Russian heritage—feels like walking through a place caught between its bygone past and an uncertain future, a city compelled but not quite willing to move on.
Lucia Food and Coffee, a Russian restaurant nestled on a side street of Central Avenue, the city’s main drag, exemplifies this contradiction—a place that’s situated in a booming tourist area but remains stubbornly in the past.
Its decor draws from Harbin’s belle époque—a small room filled with gilded mirrors, black-and-white photographs, and a Stravinsky concerto playing on a pair of worn speakers.
The person responsible for Lucia’s meticulously curated interiors is its polymathic owner, Misha Hu, who’s also a professional architect, trained violinist, avid illustrator, sculptor of busts, writer of novels and, most importantly, Harbin native.
Business is slow when I visit one January evening. But business here is always slow, and that’s perfectly fine for Hu. He started the restaurant in the early 2000s with a simple aspiration: to preserve Harbin’s Sino-Russian heritage.
The glory days
Born to a Chinese father and Russian mother, Hu knows this history intimately. The city’s heritage is written into his complexion, identity, and own family’s history.
His mother was one of 100,000 Russians who had settled in Harbin by the early 1920s. Her mother was a White Russian—a supporter of the czar—fleeing persecution from the Bolshevik Revolution, and her father was an engineer for the new Chinese Eastern Railway.
Hu’s father was a Chinese translator for Russia’s Red Army during World War II. He worked in a small but bustling town called Yimianpo, a couple hours north of Harbin, where he met and married Hu’s mother.
They moved to Harbin, where they raised Hu and his younger brother in a lively, two-story house with three other families—two Polish and one Russian. They were the only mixed family.
“Those were Harbin’s glory days,” Hu says wistfully.
Harbin was in its prime from the 1920s up until Hu’s childhood in the 1950s. The city was a cosmopolitan center and Sino-Russian trade hub, home to European immigrants that came seeking refuge and jobs on railway construction projects.
They brought classical music to the city, founding orchestras and ballets. Orthodox Christians prayed alongside Jews, and Western bakeries co-existed alongside Chinese noodle stalls.
But it was all short-lived. Like many others in China, Hu’s life was upturned by the Cultural Revolution.
Mao Zedong ordered the country’s youth to rusticate, and Hu, an urbane 16-year-old high schooler, was sent to a rural part of Heilongjiang province to harvest corn. Amid the anti-Western zeal, his father was accused of being a Russian spy and jailed. His mother was ostracized by the community.
“We couldn’t speak about our own history. We had to keep it under wraps.”
While working in the fields, Hu received a telegram that his father had passed away in prison. By the time he returned home, his father’s body was already cremated. His younger brother, then 11, had signed the permission form for his cremation because his mother was too grief-stricken, Hu says.
She passed away from illness a few years later, and Hu’s younger brother died soon after at age 29, following a long battle with depression.
With his family gone and childhood home demolished during the Cultural Revolution, Hu buried his past and moved on. For years, he stayed silent about his family’s tortured past.
“We couldn’t speak about our own history,” Hu says. “We had to keep it under wraps.”
Hu eventually found work in construction, and in 1987, he moved to Japan, where he studied architecture, started his own company, and raised a family.
But the past had a way of catching up to him. When the deputy mayor of Harbin visited Japan in 1996 to recruit students and potential employees to work on buildings in the city, they suggested that Hu come back and apply his architectural talents back home.
He decided to return, but the Harbin he found was unrecognizable from the city he had left.
Once a base for heavy industry, it was now a declining “rustbelt city,” left behind in China’s transition from a state-run to market economy. Factories were shutting down, workers were being laid off, and young people were leaving in droves.
“I thought that Harbin needed me.”
“I thought that Harbin needed me,” Hu says, “to build beautiful houses. That’s all I want to do—build a few beautiful houses, like the ones from my youth.”
His first project was an exhibition center for possessions scavenged from Harbin’s remaining Russian residents (less than 20 at this point) to document and commemorate their stories.
The center made no money, so he turned it into a restaurant, the present-day Lucia. He liked how the three syllables had a nice ring to it, in both Russian and Chinese.
Other than the Lucia, Hu also worked on a house commissioned by the local government and a stone building in the city center.
Both projects, though, ended bitterly. Misha wanted to preserve the colors and details of his youth. The government wanted something more modern.
Trapped in the past
In recent years, the Harbin government’s own attitude toward its mixed heritage has flipped. Instead of hiding its Russian history—as it did during the Cultural Revolution—it’s begun aggressively promoting it as a tourist draw.
Central Avenue is now dotted with souvenir shops and Russian restaurants offering the same brand of commoditized nostalgia: kitschy memorabilia and waiters in polyester bowties.
Meanwhile, the city has developed a new area north of the Songhua River with office buildings, luxury hotels, and a sleek, new opera house with undulating curves made of glass and aluminum.
“Dog crap,” Hu says, when I ask for his opinion of the new opera house. “It looks like a pile of dog crap.”
Hu’s jadedness is emblematic of a generation of northeastern Chinese who grew up during the height of Harbin’s economic splendor and cosmopolitanism, only to have their youth stripped away in the lost years of the Cultural Revolution.
Today, formerly industrial cities like Harbin are languishing in the shadow of rapidly-growing megalopolises like Beijing and Shanghai. Individuals like Hu feel left behind in China’s breakneck growth—and thus clutch onto the past even more tightly.
Hu continues to serve food at the corner of Central Avenue, hoping that curious passersby might step into Lucia and take interest in his story and the city’s Sino-Russian past. In his spare time, he’s writing a collection of short stories based on 1920s Harbin and hosts regular salons for like-minded conservationists and nostalgics.
When the food arrives—a steaming bowl of vegetable borscht, a dish of fried potatoes and sautéed mushrooms, and a plate of klini, thin crepes wrapped around salmon caviar—Hu makes sure to point out, “All the food we serve at the restaurant were dishes my mother used to make for me as a child.”
“To be honest,” he says, “I don’t know how much Harbin needs me. But I’ll stay here. This is my life’s work, and all I want to do is preserve the beauty of the past.”