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Harbin talks of rebuilding church
By Li Fangchao (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-09-05 06:06

HARBIN: In the centre of Harbin, capital of Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, a giant turtle-like creature made of concrete and glass has stood since 1997.

But resident Hu Hong said he hopes the day will come when he can once again admire one of the most important Orthodox churches in Harbin.

"One day, I hope to see a new St. Nicholas Church standing at its original place," said the 54-year-old architect. "People who have seen it would be amazed by its intricacy and exotic beauty."

St. Nicholas Church, a wood structure built with three onion-shaped domes, was demolished in 1966 when the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) began.

For years, nothing was built to fill the void of more than 100 metres in diameter, before the strange shell structure replaced it.

In his childhood, Hu's Russian mother took him once a week to the church, which was only a three-minute walk from their home.

The heart-warming memory has since been rooted in his heart, he said.

The St. Nicholas Church, called by local residents as "Lama Tai," was built in 1900 by the order of Tsar Nicholas II and named after him.

Like a stone thrown into the tranquil pond, Hu's suggestion of rebuilding the church triggered a heated wave of debate among many architects and historians. It has also led to the city's plans to consult the public about the idea.

But some feared that resurrecting the church would bring an onslaught of traffic from mass tourism as well as trigger painful memories of colonialism.

To date, the spot has been an important transportation centre leading to the railway station.

"A landmark architecture should be erected at the central place of the city, and I think the church can represent the city's history and style," Hu said.

Many local residents also share Hu's dream.

Bi Yaozu said many people born in the 1950s owed much of their beautiful memories growing up in the city to the church.

"I have a photo taken with the church standing in the background. I showed the picture proudly to many people over the years," Bi said.

"But now, when I walk out of the railway station, I am even not willing to look at the direction of the church," he said.

But Li Chunxin, an architecture professor from Harbin Institute of Technology, disagreed with the idea of rebuilding the church because of the dense underground business areas at the location.

"Once the church is rebuilt, crowds of tourists who take photos in front of it would paralyze the traffic in this area," he said.

Li Xingsheng, a researcher from the city's Culture and History Research Centre, considered the idea of rebuilding the church as an "evocation" of colonialism.

"The St. Nicholas Church is a symbol of the Tsarist colonialism and rebuilding it means recognizing it," he said.

Du Yuxin, mayor of Harbin, asked the city's Urban Planning Bureau to come up with a plan to address the issue that would include a wide range of opinions.

(China Daily 09/05/2005 page3)

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