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Harbin Dining

Maelstrom | Jan 19, 2008 07:20 PM

Karen - great post! I have been to Harbin a few times recently, and you captured most of the best part of the place. I loved your writeup and laughed at how true it is. I have heard that there is a bootleg Chinese-English translator computer program that is in wide use here but which serves up some absolutely bizarre translation choices, which is where you get terms like "lobscouse" instead of "soups." There are more examples of that than you could list on the web, and for some reason they never get old. Chowhounders should go read your post even if they aren't going to Harbin. It's very entertaining.

One last restaurant recommendation you didn't mention in your writeup is the "Xiang Cun Da Yuan" (Countryside Village Big Garden) at No 13 Tai Shun street, which is a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant where the waiters all wear Red Guard uniforms and the entertainment is Cultural Revolution-era singing and dancing (at high volume). The food, as a standalone aspect, is unremarkable - except that they specialize in the types of dishes that were characteristic of Cultural Revolution days in northeast China to further the goal of allowing older Chinese to reminisce. Any visitor to Harbin should get as much "di san xian" (three treasures) as they can - a simple vegetable dish of green peppers, potatoes and eggplant, it's delicious and ubiquitous in the north.

Here's what I wrote in my blog about Xiang Cun Da Yuan about a year ago:

"The historian who talked with me about the Cultural Revolution (short summary: the whole thing was the national manifestation of a power struggle among a handful of top leaders) suggested that if I wanted a taste of what that period was like, we should head off that night to a new restaurant that opened up in Harbin called the "Village and Hamlet Great Garden." The name was an allusion to one of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution speeches, and the whole place was done up to look exactly like things looked in the late 1960s. The staff wore army uniforms and Reg Guard armbands and greeted you with shouts of "welcome to our socialist paradise, comrade" when you arrived. The food was "inspired" by the revolution, though thankfully not faithful to it - unless old pork bone soup, mountains of cabbage and the occasional potato is your idea of a good meal.

The place was deafeningly loud, too loud to talk, full of tourists of a certain age. There was entertainment, a stage on which the uniformed staff performed all the old propaganda songs and dances. Most of the people in the restaurant knew the words and sung along. One old guy sat alone at a table, not eating anything, sipping his drink and nodding his head at the music. Now and then he'd get an impossibly sad look on his face. There was another guy in a big group of drunk businessmen who was obviously fascinated that foreigners were in this restaurant. He hovered around our table long enough that I finally stood up and agreed to drink a toast with him. He immediately dragged me into the private room he and his colleagues had commandeered, and we drank another toast. He spoke a bit of English, and wanted to use it. He explained that he had been a patriotic and hardworking Red Guard during the cultural revolution, and was now a division director at Microsoft in Shanghai. We both quite appreciated the irony of that. The Microsoft guy might have been the drunkest guy in the restaurant. Soon after his revelation to me he rushed the stage, joined a line of dancing Red Guards, snatched one of their Mao caps, and started bellowing the words to the song.

Then he demanded they sing "Su Xiu, Mei Di" which translates roughly as "Revisionist Soviets and Enemy Americans" and dedicated it to our table; I think he was going for irony again, but as we all know, irony works less and less well the farther west you go from New York, and by the time you get to China it's pretty much always a disastrous choice. Half the restaurant looked like they wanted to crawl under their tables in embarrassment, but we figured we'd laugh it off. What were we going to do, leave in a huff?"

I recommend this place. It's touristy, sure, but aimed at other Chinese, which makes the whole thing fascinating, like a cultural/anthropological experiment. An awesome diversion in Harbin, better than watching them throw live goats and sheep out the window of your SUV to the tigers at the park. . . . the subject of another Harbin post at another time.

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