— Harbin (Харбин) ~ 1924-1925 / 1929

[November 8, 1924 – July 27, 1925]

«As headquarters of the Chinese Eastern Railway – Tsarist Russia’s last imperial project – in the early 1900s, Harbin was transformed from a small fishing village on the Sungari river in north China into a major economic hub. It was a magnet for indigenous Chinese workers from the south, as well as entrepreneurs, adventurers and minorities from across the Tsarist Empire. Though holding a common citizenship, this latter group was multi-national and multi-ethnic. Importantly, the hierarchies that operated within the Empire proper were rapidly eroded in pursuit of economic opportunity and modernisation.

«The aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war that followed brought a massive wave of immigration to the CER Zone, the last remaining Russian enclave outside the Soviet Union. In the absence of clear political authority and defined citizenship in the Zone in the interregnum between Tsarist and Soviet rule in the Russian Empire, the identity of Russians there became strongly focused on locality – they became “Harbintsy”. This largely continued in the brief period of joint Sino-Soviet control.

«Harbin was at its peak in the mid 1920s, with a rich Russian cultural life, offset by a unique cosmopolitan flavour and the interplay of ethnic, religious and cultural communities. The emergence of a Harbin identity was most aptly demonstrated in the experience of the Jews, who were able to be both Russian, in their economic, political and cultural practices, and Jewish, in their communal and religious. 

«The Japanese occupation of Manchuria from the early 1930s turned this Russian world upside down. Arbitrary arrests and intimidation aimed at driving out the Soviets, the polarisation of the Russian community between “reds” and “whites”, economic decline and the rise of anti- Semitism prompted the first major exodus of Russians from the CER zone. Some went to the Soviet Union; others to the international settlements of Shanghai, Tientsin and beyond.»
[Source: Mara Moustafine]

Harbin is the capital of Heilung Kiang (Heilongjiang) Province, in North Manchuria. In the late 1800s and very early 1900s, many Russians came to work on the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) and they built up the town in the style of the cities they left behind.

Harbin at night

Harbin at night Click to enlarge

There were wide streets full of shops, banks, restaurants, and hotels, with all the wording and advertising in Cyrillic. Kitaiskaya Ulitsa (it means Chinese Street in Russian) was the main street, a beautifully long (1.4km) boulevard which looked much like Moscow’s Arbat. It was in the district known as Pristan (пристань ~ the Wharf) and, like today, was the showcase of Harbin. Originally, the street was used by carts which transported railway supplies. In May 1924, Kitaiskaya Ulitsa (also known as Central Street later) was paved with cobble stones, made according to a Russian engineer’s design.


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The city had a Russian school system, as well as publishers of Russian language newspapers and journals and, with such a large Russian community, had a total of twenty three churches.

St Sophia Church

St Sophia Cathedral (Click to enlarge)

St Nicolas Church

St Nicolas Cathedral (Click to enlarge)

In 1899 St Nicolas, one of the most beautiful churches in the city, was consecrated. This cathedral was built in the old Russian style – made entirely of wood and put together without any nails.

Regrettably, St Nicolas was destroyed in a day by the Red Guard cadres during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, as were most of the other churches in the city 🙁

The city was known by foreigners as «Oriental Moscow», «Little Paris of the Far East» and «Chinese St Petersburg»!

However, from about 1920, the number of Russians swelled as people fled the horrors of the Russian Revolution. More than 100,000 White Russians arrived in Harbin and made it the largest Russian enclave outside of the USSR. The refugees came from all walks of life – aristocrats, military men and their families, artists, performers, as well as unskilled peasants who didn’t want to live under Bolshevik rule.

The foreshore of the Sanguri (Songhua) River

The foreshore of the Sanguri (Songhua) River (Click to enlarge)

Kharbin as it tended to be transliterated by Russians, became known as Belyi Kharbin, or “White Harbin”, to the Soviets, who depicted it as the refuge of the reactionary and royalist White Guard and its sympathisers.

The weather was extreme. Hot summers and sunny but bitterly cold winters, temperatures which regularly went down to -24C. However it was wonderful for the sailors there – they could sail on the Sungari during the summer and in winter, when the river froze over, they’d get their iceboats out and have races, flying across the ice.

Iceboats on the frozen Sungari River

Iceboats on the frozen Sungari River (Click to enlarge)

For those people who needed to travel from one side of the river to the other, there were sleds called «push-pulls» (толкай-толкай) for hire. These sleds were made of wood and had two metal runners on either side and a high bench seat for two passengers.

Most people would be rugged up in thick fur coats to protect themselves from the cold and when they sat on the bench seat, they’d also be covered with thick rugs to protect them from the freezing wind.

A "push pull" with a passenger

A “push-pull” with a passenger (Click to enlarge)

The «gondolier» would then stand behind them holding a long pole which had a hook at the end. He’d use that to push the sled across the frozen water and, from years of practice, the sled would slide smoothly across the ice at great speed, taking the passengers to their destination.

A "push pull" by an ice statue on the Songhua

A “push-pull” by an ice statue on the Songhua

Harbin’s nickname was «The Ice City» amongst the Chinese and back in the 17th Century, local peasants and fishermen used to make ice lanterns as jack lights during the winter months.

In those days they were made by pouring water into a bucket, which was then left out in the open. Before the water froze completely, the ice was removed from the bucket and a hole was made at the top. The water was poured out, leaving an empty ice cube, so to speak. A candle would be placed inside, making it into a windproofed lantern.

This proved to be so popular that more and more lanterns were made to put outside people’s houses or to give children. Then the idea expanded to making amazing ice sculptures, a practice which is still going on in this day and age.

George’s brother, Leva (whom I never knew), fled Russia before his mother and siblings and got a job working for the China Eastern Railway. When his mother and her two younger kids managed to get out of Russia in 1924, they ended up with Leva.

God knows I have confused times and dates these days when asked about things which happened in the past and I’m 15 years younger than he was when I asked him to write his “autobiography”.

I have tried to research where Maria Pio-Ulski and her children would have gone after fleeing Vladivostok, if not to Harbin, but – not speaking Russian and not having any documents to give me clues – I haven’t been able to find out anything.

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By this time George was 14 years old and he persuaded his mother that it would be much better for him to pursue his love of music rather than going to school.

During that time there were a lot of Russians who came to Harbin rather than remaining in an increasingly “Red” Russia and Harbin was getting a reputation as a fine cultural centre, complete with opera house, artists and theatrical performers so I’m sure his mother had all her fears allayed of what bad things might happen to her youngest son’s desire to follow his heart.

Through friends, George Pio-Ulski was introduced to professional musicians and that was the beginning of his musical career!

I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been for a fourteen year old to think about starting a career as a musician, especially a classical one! He must have gone through a lot of teeth gritting to get established as an adult rather than a teenager and to start earning money. God knows how he did it, but he did!

Train Station at Harbin

Train Station at Harbin (Click to enlarge)

In November 1924 George got his first job playing for two weeks at the Kursaal (Курзал). The only mention of a Kursaal that I could find was a restaurant at Chalantun (Чжаланьтунь), CER’s station in the foothills of the Khingan Range (Хинганский Хребет). The town, a stop on the railway was known as a fisherman’s delight as the Yalu river, a wonderfully clear body of water teeming with trout, flowed past the town.

As Chalantun was 469 kilometres away from Harbin, I guess he would travelled up there by train, perhaps with the rest of the orchestra, and stayed there for the two weeks he was employed.

In early December, he played at the Commercial Club for 9 days then played for a week at the Peking Restaurant.  I couldn’t find anything about either those two places, unfortunately 🙁

On December 18, George played at the Alazan, a Caucasian cellar restaurant situated on Kitaiskaya Street (as were all the good restaurants I believe), for four days, then went back to the Peking Restaurant, playing there from December 23, 1924 till May 4, 1925.

George and Valia with their mother in 1925 (Click to enlarge)

Ad for the Hotel Moderne

Ad for the Hotel Moderne (Click to enlarge)

On May 5, he played at the Daryal, for 3 weeks and and then worked at the Hotel Astoria for 3 days, until June 1. Again, I couldn’t find anything about these places in my research.

The two other places he played at were Buff, owned by Andrei Ivanovich Ševinský and situated at 127 Kitaiskaya Street and then the Roof Garden.

I’m feel sure that the Roof Garden was at the Hotel Moderne. The place had a cinema, a billiard room, a bar, a barber shop, a restaurant and cafe!

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He managed to save enough money to get a flat and then got his mother and sister, Valya, to leave wherever they were living to join him in Harbin.

At about the same time, he met Werner Krey, who was in the engineering business. Werner helped George with his music studies and once he was introduced to Valya, the two started dating and they eventually ended up marrying.

In July 1925 George had an offer to work at Maxim’s in Mukden so he packed up his suitcase and left Harbin for new pastures 😀

View of Harbin

View of Harbin (Click to enlarge)

The centre of Harbin

The centre of Harbin (Click to enlarge)







[January 8, 1929 – September 8, 1929]

After three and a half years away in Mukden and Peking, George returned to Harbin and this time he played at Gidulyan, a very popular place on Kitaiskaya Street with the restaurant in the cellar.  Shashlyk was said to be the dish that was a favourite with diners 🙂

This is an employment contract which the owner of the Gidulyan gave to George…

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)


From what a Russian speaking friend told me, the contract was from M P DeGulyan for the period May 1 to September 1, 1929, as a pianist.. Salary was $225 a month. Hours were from 8pm to 2am daily, and dinner was included.  I wonder if George had shashlyk every night!  LOL 😀

After eight months there, George moved back to Peking, this time with his mother and stepfather, for another three years.

For more information about Harbin during the days when the Pio-Ulskis were there, this is a good article to read … FLEEING REVOLUTION: How White Russians, Academics and others found an unlikely path to freedom.




Pictures of Harbin pre-WWII and photos & documents of George when he was in Harbin

*NB – when you click on the album, the screen will show the top of this page. Please just scroll down to see the pictures.


Videos showing scenes of Harbin pre-WWII …

Harbin, China 1890-1930s 1 of 2 哈尔滨

Harbin, China 1890-1930s 2 of 2 哈尔滨




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