Reading a children’s story in the Gogol bookshop in Harbin, China

I have always been fascinated by Harbin, the capital of China’s most north-easterly province, Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River). Built as part of the first Trans-Siberian railway, it formed a major hub on the strip of land the Russians were allowed to use through northern China. The reason was that it cut a straight path to Vladivostok, without the big loop north. So the city has Russian names in its core, quite a bit of Cyrillic and not a few Russian Orthodox churches. Not many Russians these days, unless one goes into one of the seedy dance bars. Anyway, the Japanese became belligerently nervous with the new railway line, for the Russians could now ship large number of soldiers at high speed (18 km per hour at first) across Siberia. So the Japanese invaded and called the area ‘Manchuria’. Soon enough, the communists in China, with allies from other groups and quite a number of Koreans, began an insurgency in the area against the Japanese occupation. Eventually, the Russian Red Army appeared, fresh from taking Berlin and a trek across Siberia to join forces with the locals. They drove out the Japanese and forced their surrender at the end of the Second World War. The museum about all of this was pretty amazing.

Late one evening, a group of us were walking along Guogeli (Gogol Street) and happened upon the Gogol bookshop. Recently refurbished, it is Russian-themed but full of only Chinese people. After pondering a number of books and pictures, we heard a child’s voice reading a book through a microphone. It was the beginning of a public reading hour, when anyone could read a book of choice for 5-10 minutes. I was asked if I would like to read a book. I shook my head, saying that I could not read enough Chinese to do so. ‘But you can read one in English’, I was told.

So I went upstairs and found a children’s book called Make Way for Ducklings. It was written in 1941, but I thought it appropriate for a grandfather to read to the children present. So I sat in the big leather chair and began reading. Only then did I realise that I had read it before: in 1989 or 1990 in Montreal, to two of my children when they were little.

I never quite imagined I would be reading a children’s book in a Russia-themed bookshop in the north-eastern Chinese city of Harbin.

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