I watched two young lads, who had been in the same carriage
as me, struggling off the train with their ubiquitous giant pink-and-blue-striped “laundry” bags. I followed
them through the tunnel that connects the platform to the outside world, at the end of which was a scrum of people jostling
to squeeze through the ticket barrier. I didn’t fancy joining the melee, and thankfully neither did they.
They waited until the queue had subsided
before surrendering their tickets without even glancing at the uniformed collector. Nothing could divert their attention from what lay beyond the barrier. But they weren’t looking for friends or relations, because no one was there to greet them. The taller, who was also the thinner, wore a scruffy brown coat that was too
small and trousers that were too long.
He took out a crumpled piece of paper
from his coat pocket and read it to his friend.
was several yards behind them, but I could at least make out some of the words, “construction site.” After conferring, the smaller who was also the chubbier of the two pointed
to the bus stop in front of them, and they hurried on as quickly as their heavy bags would allow. They had the air as well as the travel bags of waidi ren – people from outside of the city – in search of a new job. No one really has any idea what the number is, not even the government, but these two migrants are just two more drops
in a swirling ocean of perhaps more than 150 million people working outside of their hukou area – the place of registration which is indelibly printed on everyone’s soul, as well as
on their identity card.
The vast majority of the four million or
so people who live in Haerbin today are first or second generation descendents of economic migrants. Indeed most of the people who have transformed this once-small-town into the biggest city in
Manchuria would have got off their trains here. In 1908,
five years after the station opened, only around thirty-six thousand people lived in the town.
In the five years that followed, an additional 32,000 people – including
17,500 Russians – arrived here. The incredible population growth rate is brought
to light by the 1913 census, which shows that only 11½ per cent of the total population were actually born in Harbin. It also shows that a majority of the 68,500 residents were Russian, and
only a third of the population were Chinese.
In the 1910s and roaring 20s Harbin was,
in fact, a cultural melting pot: the Russians and Chinese combined with more than 50 other nationalities to create a place
that was variously described as the “Little Paris of the Orient”, “Little Moscow”, and “The
Worst of all American Chicagos”.