Soup With the Devil in Harbin

A strange panic gripped me from the moment I got off the train. Here we were, the 4 of us, willingly subjecting ourselves to the brutal, freezer-burned logic of Harbin.

It was cold and the train was early. I’ve been riding trains in China since 2003 and I have never been early before. It was 7 am and I was scared.What hellish portent is this, what fresh hell has us getting here early? Nothing good could possibly be happening.

I was worried that Nick and Marco could see the fear in my eyes. With Edoardo, there was nothing to worry about. Edoardo lived here and knows all too well the spiky-ice tinged touch of the beast that insistently pulls you down. He was also very afraid.

I lived in Harbin from 2004 to 2005. Mostly I drank, studied Chinese and tried to avoid the beastial violence. I watched a bartender crack open a Canadian’s head with a bottle of vodka and a pack of Sino-Russian whores beat the piss out of a mildly deranged British girl.

So let’s get something straight. If you choose to live in Harbin and stay for longer then it takes to learn Chinese passably, there is something seriously wrong with you. Maybe you are running away from something terrible or maybe you love to sin, but living in Harbin is an exercise in letting the beast consume you. Hell, maybe that’s a good thing. Sometimes the beast’s claws are inviting enough and Christ knows I’ve felt his tickle.

Harbin is the only place in China that is growing downwards. Everywhere else in China you’re struck by the buildings reaching ever taller, ever higher. But in Harbin, the best way for the locals to engage in their favorite orgy–rent seeking and corruption–has been to build a “subway.” Well they’ve been building it for years and the only evidence of progress are giant craters in the Earth that are literally money pits. At night maybe they suck your soul down to someplace deeper and darker.

We went to Harbin to play a show and we did play a show. Sort of. The gig was held in this strange Russo-Chinese disco complex called Box Town, which is basically a Harbin version of Epcot Center, with SIN replacing culture as its Raison d’être. Box Town included a disco prosaically named Box, a fake Irish Pub called Dox and a concert venue called Rox. All that’s missing is a gay bar called Cox. I’m sure they’ll get to it.

Not There’s show went down at Rox, which was more like a big festering concrete bunker than a venue. It was strewn with all sorts of garbage and tables were set up akimbo. There were very few amplifiers. There were no working monitors. I have no idea what we sounded like and I don’t really care. It was beautiful playing unheard notes into the post-apocalyptic void. At least we weren’t torn to shreds by an angry mob, which is always a possibility in Harbin.

There were other bands on the bill, each of them featuring at least one foreigner. Each band represented a specific style that was popular whenever the resident foreign expert moved to Harbin. There was a jam band. There was a Good Charlotte Style Band. There was also a blues band where every solo was preempted by a band member yelling solo.

The music and people in Harbin are frozen, like DNA in Jurassic Park, in Amber. You are what you bring with you. There is no progression and nothing improves. There is only a continues reiteration of your past, echoing in a vast, cold-grey chamber. For the guy that looked like Good Charlotte, I’m sure Good Charlotte are still the coolest thing in the world.

In Harbin we drank soup with the beast. Where the beast lives, there is no culture, only fake Russian trifles and the crumbling remains of the state-sponsored economy. There is no higher ground, only the past dragging you further and further down.

I’m glad we brought a very long spoon.



Filed under China, Not There

5 responses to “Soup With the Devil in Harbin

  1. we are taking jamie woon there in November. based on this, they will rip him to shreds….

  2. He might have to work pretty hard to win over the crowd. Alan who runs Box is a nice guy and he will probably have MACE

  3. Nicholas Richards

    I would add that the club smelled like sour Kewpie mayonnaise

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