It is about time to highlight another region in this blog. After Pu’er in China’s southernmost province Yunnan, I am taking you to the opposite in this blog, to Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, which shares a large border with Russia’s Siberia.
What Harbin has in common with Pu’er is that it is not a purely ethnic Chinese city. The name Harbin already betrays that it is not Chinese. A number of stories about the name’s original meaning; one is that it means ‘place to hang fishing nets to dry’ in Manchu, the language of the people with the same name. The Manchus were once a powerful nation, and the emperors of the last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty (1622-1912) were Manchus, not Chinese.
Moscow of the orient
After the Russian Revolution, a large number of Russians fled to Manchuria, with Harbin as their unofficial capital. It gave Harbin its nickname ‘Moscow of the East’. A number of Russian buildings still survive, like the orthodox cathedral. Moreover, some Russian words entered the local dialect. The most famous one is lieba, from the Russian chljeb ‘bread’. It refers to a large round bread baked with beer yeast. This type of bread has become the symbol of Harbin cuisine.
Watch this video for more information about the Russian influence on Harbin cuisine.
When the Japanese invaded Manchuria, they more or less let the Russians live there in peace, while the Russians accepted Japanese rule; they had no choice. In fact, for a short period, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and several national minorities (in particular Manchus and Mongolians) lived in a peaceful coexistence in Harbin. This ethnic diversity has created an equally diverse local cuisine. Besides the afore mentioned bread, dairy products also became part of the diet of Harbin people, long before Chinese elsewhere started to appreciate the white gold. The potato, the typical staple of Western cuisine, has also grown roots in this city.
The consumption of coffee is also increasing rapidly in Harbin. Insiders report that there were more than 400 coffee shops in the city at the end of 2015, consuming about 60 mt of coffee beans per year. The Russian Coffee brand Lebo noticed this trend and undoubtedly also cashing in on Harbin’s Russian past, opened its first coffee shop in China in that city in 2021.
Harbin Beer (better known as Hapi in China) is one of the top beer brands in China, though currently owned by Anheuser-Busch. The Harbin municipal government and Harbin Cultural Tourism Group are co-hosting the 2016 China-Harbin International Beer Festival, which will run from June 30th to July 17th at the Harbin Frozen World in Songbei district. There will be 11 beer tents, 16 food exhibition areas and four cultural exhibition areas. The total area of the beer festival is 600 thousand square meters
Heilongjiang is one of the prime agricultural regions of China. The chernozem soil in Harbin, called “black earth” (Heilongjiang literally means: ‘Black Dragon River’) is one of the most nutrient rich in all of China, making it valuable for cultivating food crops. According to the municipal statistics of 2013, Harbin alone was good for more than 2% of the national grain output, 1% of the meat and 4% of dairy products.
A recent survey comparing the GDP of major Chinese cities with that of nations, revealed that the economy of Harbin can be roughly compared to that of Bulgaria.
Heilongjiang is one of the major grain-producing areas in China, ensuring food security for the country. The grain output of the province reached 67.6 billion kgs in 2014, leading the country’s provinces since 2011 and accounting for one-tenth of the national total.
In recent years, the province has pushed forward agricultural modernization, promoted the green food industry and established marketing platforms for Internet Plus agriculture.
A sophisticated Internet Plus marketing platform has been established for rice products in the province. Heilongjiang rice is of high quality but used to sell poorly.
The following table shows the development of the total turnover of the Harbin food industry during the past few years.
The processing of agricultural produce was still the most prominent activity in the Harbin food industry in 2013, as is shown in the following breakdown.
|Processing of primary produce
(tobacco is part of the food industry in Chinese statistics)
Wondersun Dairy Industry Co., Ltd.
Wondersun is part of Heilongjiang’s biggest Agricultural State Owned Enterprise called Beidahuang Group. The company is ranked as fifth among China’s dairy enterprises and holds 7 subsidiary companies and 41 factories. Wondersun’s liquid milk ranks among the top ten in the country and was assessed as one of China’s most valuable brands in 2003. The company has formed a strong sales network that covers the whole country. Wang Jinghai, president of Wondersun, believes Heilongjiang is ideal for raising cows and producing dairy. The company is expected to sell products worth RMB 50 mln in 2015 through e-commerce channels and has set a sales goal of RMB 300 mln next year.
Heilongjiang Dairy Group Co., Ltd.
Heilongjiang Dairy Group was established in 2004, and the companies registered capital is 213 million RMB. It is one of the key national enterprises in the agricultural industry in China. The main shareholder is the Haerbin HIT group with 10 other small shareholders. The company has four brands, and the brand Longdan and Jinxing have a high reputation in the entire country.
Beidahuang has 16 agriculture branch companies and Haolianghe Fertilizer Company. It is also the parent of Beidahuang Grains Co., Ltd., and Harbin Longken Malt Co., Ltd.. The company owns 624,000 hectares of land. The main crops are rice, soybeans, corns, wheat and brewing barley, supplemented with crops cash crops like red beans, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, lucerne, medicinal herbs and flax. Haolianghe Fertilizer Co., Ltd. has an annual production of 200,000 mt of carbamide and other fertilizer products. Beidahuang Grains Co., Ltd. has an annual production of 1.4 million tons of refined rice and 100,000 mt of other byproducts. The yearly malt output of Harbin Longken Malt Co., Ltd. is 200,000 mt.
Harbin as gateway to China
Harbin has been on the radar of foreign investors from the beginning of China’s economic reforms.
Nestlé was one of the first Western multinationals to invest in China, with a joint venture for the production of infant formulae in Acheng, a suburb of Harbin in the 1980’s. This subsidiary of Nestlé has withstood all turbulent developments of China since then.
Another multinational, McCain, started a potato processing venture in Harbin in 2005. The venture included a 7.5 ton/hour plant and two associated potato storage facilities. McCain Foods has been preparing for its expansion in China for a long time before it finally chose Harbin. The company stated that Heilongjiang Province produces the largest output of potatoes yearly. With its unique geological position adjacent to Russia, Harbin may prove an ideal investment location for companies who want to tap the Far East market, he said. The company decided to double its capacity in 2012.
Other foreign investors in Harbin include a yeast plant of Burns Philp. That makes sense, as bread has been part of the local cuisine for a long time. Even thought lieba is a kind of sourdough, yeast bread was easily adopted as a quicker alternative for the traditional Russian style bread. I myself have organized a number of baking seminars, when I was promoting yeast and bread improvers of Gist-brocades (now part of DSM) in China.
China has reacted quickly to cash in on the opportunities created by the trade war between Russia and the EU/US. This will be an extra large boost to the importance of Harbin as China’s northernmost foreign trade hub for food and agricultural products. Harbin’s ‘Russian’ background will certainly facilitate this development. The China Harbin International Economic and Trade Fair was renamed into Sino-Russian Expo in 2014.
The World Dairy Expo & Summit will be organised again in Harbin, april 21 – 24, 2016. The 2015 edition attracted 15,728 visitors from all over the world.
Organic and green food
Heilongjiang is China’s primary region for organic agriculture and Harbin is again a centre for this industry.
The municipal government has build a large modern food storage and distribution system for organic produce. The system includes a food logistics centre with an annual handling capacity of more than 1 mln mt, three distribution centres with a combined annual handling capacity of 1.5 mln mt and 11 grain depots each with a storage capacity of 200 000 mt.
McDonald’s sources the rice it uses on the mainland from Harbin. The city grows some of China’s top-quality rice. It has more than 600,000 hectares of paddy field producing 3.25 mln mt of rice a year as well as some 200,000 hectares of soybeans, none of it genetically engineered. It is not necessarily organic rice, but at least is produced according to China’s ‘green’ specifications.
Harbin also has annual corn output of more than 10 mln mt. The hybrid breed contains three times more protein than common breeds.
In addition to farming, the city government also invests in livestock breeding and processing. It has nearly 500,000 cows, 3 mln beef cattle and 11 mln pigs, and produces 880,000 mt of meat, 365,000 mt of eggs and 1.5 mln mt of milk a year.
The first flagship store for green food from Heilongjiang opened in Hong Kong in February 2014 offering more than 200 products. Of the 64 suppliers, 27 were based in Harbin.
Harbin is an interesting alternative to for international investors in the Chinese food and beverage industry. On top of the advantages introduced above, the people of China’s Northeast are known as easygoing and honest. The good people of Harbin are outstanding hosts, entertaining their guests with supersize dishes of fish and meat, to be washed down with lots of baijiu, traditional Chinese spirits.
It may take a little longer to negotiate a deal. They take their time to get to know you and do not feel the urge to put on a business-like act when dealing with foreigners, as you often see in other parts of China. However, once the believe they have figured you out and the impression is positive, you are in.
Mulan – a food production centre in ‘greater Harbin’
The county of Mulan, in Harbin’s northeast, is an important site on the Silk Road Economic Belt. Its connection with Harbin has been strengthened by the completion of the Mulan-Songhuajiang Bridge.
Mulan has a population of 280,000 and covers an area of 3600 square meters. It administers six towns and eighty-six villages. There are thirty reservoirs along the Songhua River in the county and the forest coverage rate is nearly 50%. Mulan has been awarded various titles, such as “National Ecological Agricultural County”, “National Green Rice Production Base” and “National Rural Tourism Demonstration County”.
Mulan is also known for its, rice, coffee and beer. Located in the black soil area of northeast China, it enjoys distinct seasons, adequate sunlight and moderate rainfall, which contributes to the excellent quality of its crops. Hundreds of kinds of precious herbs grow in the 670,000 hectare forest and the abundant grassland feeds flocks and herds. With the improvement of agricultural infrastructure, Mulan has seen remarkable progress, especially in rice and red meat processing.
With the support of related policies and modern agriculture reform in Heilongjiang, the county has seized all opportunities to construct a grain production base, developing grain processing efficiency and funding a green food industry. It built an 8-square-meter agricultural production park to bring together various agriculture projects for cooperation.
In August, 2014, the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) Grain Processing Technology Institute (Harbin) settled in the industrial park, the first national organization instituted by CAAS in Heilongjiang. It focuses on grain processing, product innovation and inspection services. This move inaugurates a new cooperation method between national research groups and local food industries.
In future, Mulan plans to expand the market to Russia, North Korea and Japan with the help of the Heilongjiang Silk Road Belt and, in three to five years, become the leading food research centre of Northeast Asia. That development would improve Heilongjiang’s influence in the area. The government intends to pay more attention to ecological protection and sustainable development under emerging circumstances to create a better Mulan.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.