Harbin’s flagship ice and snow event shares city’s success
Jiang Kedong still remembers his teacher's words when he was punished for talking during class. "Can you make money by talking?" the teacher asked angrily.
Now he is able to answer that question. This winter, he became a celebrity in China, dubbed "Brother Left and Right" as host of the performances at Harbin Ice-Snow World, a landmark theme park in the capital of Heilongjiang Province. Since it opened for the new winter season on Dec. 18, 2023, the park in China's northernmost province has received more than 2 million visitors.
"People are coming not for me, but for my hometown," said the 38-year-old man. While talking with Xinhua, he walked past the park's main sculpture in the shape of a tower, which was brightly illuminated for the evening. Against this backdrop, he raised his arms and right foot to make the gesture of a soaring eagle.
"She has always been so beautiful," he said, pointing to the sculpture as an example of the city's visual riches. "Now more people are beginning to see her beauty."
With this words, he highlighted the growing appeal of Harbin, which has gained prominence since beginning of this year as a top winter destination in China.
Ice and snow have always been an important part in the childhood memories of people from northeast China. "In the winter, we played with spinning tops and sledges, and ate frozen pears and baked sweet potatoes," Jiang said with great enthusiasm.
Like many children growing up in what was once a major industrial heartland, Jiang's parents were both workers. As a boy, he used to shuttle between school and home alone. Sometimes after school, he would go skating in the parks, accompanied by the freezing wind, the sound of pigeon whistles and the joyful laughter of children.
He described Harbin as a "fashionable city" in that era. "I remember seeing many foreign people in downtown Harbin at the age of eight or nine," he recalled. That was in the early 1990s, not long after the start of China's reform and opening up. At that time, there were not many foreign people in China, even in Beijing.
However, northeast China, an old industrial base formerly known as China's "eldest son", later became a "rust belt" because of the difficulties it encountered in terms of transformation and development. In 1998, Jiang's mother was laid off.
Jiang became an auto production worker in 2006. But his factory didn't prosper, so he had several part-time jobs, including as a drummer for a wedding band.
The development of science and technology saw live performances replaced by digital music files at weddings. Jiang's drumming career ended, but this experience had connected him with the wedding industry.
In 2011, he resigned from the factory to become a wedding host. It was at a wedding that he met the person in charge of performances at the Harbin Ice-Snow World, who invited him to the extravaganza. "They might feel that my voice suits the theme park," said Jiang, whose voice was a bit coarse but imbued with passion.
This chance meeting marked the beginning of Jiang's association with Ice-Snow World, which he had never visited before 2012.
The theme park grew from the former Harbin Ice Lantern Festival, which started in 1963. It was said that the earliest ice lanterns were made by cutting a hole in the middle of an ice cube and placing a candle inside. In December 1999, Harbin built Ice-Snow World to mark the millennium.
"My first impression of the park 12 years ago was 'Wow, it's so big!'," said Jiang. "In the following years, I witnessed it becoming even bigger, and the use of science and technology was also improving."
Over the years, Jiang has enjoyed growing success. In 2019, he saw the number of people following him on social media soar from 50,000 to 600,000. At the time, there were too many visitors at the site. For fear that they would fall and cause a stampede, during the interactive session he would shout: "Left foot, right foot!" This earned him the nickname "Brother Left and Right".
However, he has also faced some bleak moments, with the COVID-19 epidemic a major cause of disruption.
"Now, there are more visitors in a single day than the total number during the three years of COVID restrictions," he said.
In 2021, the Harbin Ice-Snow World opened for only 19 days. Sometimes his audience consisted of just a couple of people.
"At last, with no visitors, the park closed," he said.
However, he didn't give up completely, swapping instead to live-streaming from the park. "There were so many spectacular ice sculptures. It would be a pity if no one saw them," said Jiang.
During the hardest times, he made a living by driving a taxi, selling ice cream or even working as a migrant laborer in southern China. "My dad once said to me: 'You don't keep working hard because of hope, but rather, because you work hard, you have a chance of seeing hope.' Every difficult moment comes to an end," he said.
"There are ups and downs; it's the law of nature," he added philosophically. "As long as you work hard, you will be appreciated one day."
His thoughtful comments apply not only to his life, but also to Harbin.
Since the beginning of 2024, Harbin has gained prominence as a top winter destination. According to research by Tongcheng, a major online travel agency, the city is ranked as the most popular destination for the 2024 Spring Festival holiday.
Jiang was happy to learn that his hometown had finally come into the spotlight.
He has also found himself in the spotlight recently.
To date his account on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, has garnered 3.37 million followers, a big increase from the 570,000 of December last year, shortly after Ice-Snow World opened its gates for the winter.
During his interview with Xinhua, Jiang received several phone calls. Apart from his work between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. every day in the park, he is also busy dealing with all sorts of rehearsals, meetings, interviews and video filming. He is now recognized as a "spokesman" for the city.
His friends are busy too. "Those who can drive offer free rides to tourists, restaurant owners provide hot water for them on cold days, and those who work as hosts help visitors to learn more about this city in various ways," he said.
He hopes that the increased exposure of Harbin this winter will help more people understand the "ice city".
Harbin boasts a rich culture beyond ice and snow, and has been named the "city of music" by UNESCO, he said. "The Russian-style buildings, the music you hear on the thoroughfares, as well as the warm-hearted local people, are all so attractive to visitors."
Jiang is optimistic about Harbin's future, and his own destiny is tied to that of his hometown.
"Ten years from now, or even longer, if Ice-Snow World is still here, I will be here too."
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