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A popular ice cream bar tells a story of China's history with Russia


As the weather warms up in much of the U.S., spare a thought for one of China's coldest areas, the northeastern city of Harbin, China's biggest provincial capital near Russia. During the dead of winter, the temperature can drop to around -20 Fahrenheit, and that's when our correspondent John Ruwitch went in search of a taste of history on Harbin's freezing streets.


JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: It's about 15 degrees below freezing, and a group of men have cleared a patch of snow off the frozen Songhua River in the city of Harbin. The translucent ice looks like it's about three feet thick. That ringing noise, that's a type of heavy whistling top called a tuo luo. And the cracking sound, those are whips used to make them spin on the slick ice.

ZHANG YU: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: It's a kind of exercise, says 44-year-old Zhang Yu. He finishes a cigarette as his friend whips his top nearby to keep it spinning.

YU: (Through interpreter) It's all snow-and-ice related here. We do things like skiing, tuo luo, ice-swimming.

RUWITCH: Indeed, Harbin is known for being cold. It's home to the world's biggest ice festival. And in winter, the mercury here regularly drops to -20 Fahrenheit, so you'd think something warm like tea or cocoa might be the refreshment of choice on its frigid streets. But, no. Downtown, it's a particular kind of ice cream bar in the freezing cold. People line up outside for them, like 24-year-old Zhang Xinyu.

ZHANG XINYU: For me, it's just kind of like a habit. For me personally, I just like to eat something cold during the winter that makes me feel good because, like - make me feel like I'm in my hometown.

RUWITCH: These ice cream bars, they're part of the story of his hometown and a link to its past.

DAN BEN-CANAAN: Harbin was established by the Russians, by, actually, the czar, Nikolai, in 1898.

RUWITCH: The Russians - Dan Ben-Canaan is a scholar of Harbin's history who lives in town. He says the Russians built Harbin as a work headquarters along a new train line to expand the empire, and Russian Jews, who were discriminated against back home, were allowed to settle there. Soon, they were fueling its growth, and following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, the community added a key member.

BEN-CANAAN: Many Jewish soldiers decided to stay in Harbin, not to go back to the empire. Among them was Joseph Kaspe.

RUWITCH: Joseph Kaspe arrived poor, but in short order - and mysteriously - he had made millions.

BEN-CANAAN: Gossip spread around that he made his money by selling jewels from the crown of the wife of the czar.

RUWITCH: However he made his money, he used it to build the Moderne Hotel, a three-story renaissance-style building that was one of the most luxurious hotels in China and a hub of cultural activity in the Northeast. It was frequented by grandees and performers, like the Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin.


FEODOR CHALIAPIN: (Singing in Russian).

BEN-CANAAN: Among the things, they had also a bakery and a yogurt. You can buy now the ice cream, which became a commodity all over China.

RUWITCH: Nobody seems to know exactly when Kaspe got the idea to sell ice cream in frigid Harbin or why, but he did. It's called madie’er ice cream - madie'er being a rough transliteration of the word modern, as in the name of his hotel.

XU HONGYING: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Bundled up against the arctic air, Xu Hongying is visiting from southern China, and the ice cream bars in the freezing cold are a novelty. It's so cold, though, that on her first attempt at a lick, the popsicle stuck to her tongue. She says it's good, though - cream flavored, the original.

HONGYING: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Joseph Kaspe's story had a bitter ending. His eldest son, Semion, was kidnapped and killed by Russian fascists working for the occupying Japanese in 1933. Dan Ben-Canaan says they were trying to force him to hand over the hotel. Kaspe never recovered. He was shipped off to Paris, leaving his business empire behind. When the Communists took over China in the late 1940s, the Moderne Hotel was nationalized.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: And they've kept the ice cream bars going - a sweet salute to the history of an imperial outpost and a Russian-Jewish soldier who left his mark.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: In a narrow, streetside shopfront at the hotel, Geng Zhijun is selling madie'er ice cream bars for about 75 cents a pop.

GENG ZHIJUN: (Through interpreter) When everyone on the street is eating one and you see them, you just want one yourself.

RUWITCH: Even if it's approaching -20 out.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Harbin, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.