The season of Lesser Heat is about to enter the Season of Great Heat. The Plum Rains of June have offered no relief, even though they seem to have arrived twice this year and stayed twice as long. You sweat. You simmer. You would give anything to cool yourself with something soothing.
Ha’erbin, in Heilongjiang Province, was once home to a large population of Russian Jews who left the city with a profound cultural and architectural legacy. Joseph Kaspe, a Russian jeweller with French citizenship, built the Hotel Moderne on Ha’erbin’s main street. It became the largest and most luxurious hotel in the city with its grand ballroom, cinema, dining rooms and suites.
As a sideline, Kaspe had a bakery café on the ground floor selling bread and milk ices.
Kaspe’s fortunes rose and fell, emblematic of the upheavals of Ha’erbin in the last century. The city fell to the Japanese in 1931 and was overrun with White Russians escaping the Bolshevik Revolution, among them were many anti-semitic crime lords. In 1933, in what became known as the ‘Kaspe affair’, Kaspe’s son was kidnapped and ransomed by Russian fascists. Simon Kaspe was a talented pianist who had trained at the Paris Conservatory and was visiting his parents in Ha’erbin when he was kidnapped.
Urged by the French consul not to pay the $100,000 ransom, Joseph Kaspe received his son’s severed earlobe after a month but was again urged not to pay. Simon Kaspe was starved and tortured over three long months before eventually being murdered by his captors. His father never recovered, and left for Paris where he died just a few years later.
Kaspe’s kidnapping and murder had a profound effect on Ha’erbin’s Russian community. Seventy per cent fled the city soon after and the city was never the same again.
And the Hotel Moderne? Under the Japanese it retained its original name. From 1946, under the communists, it became the Harbin Hotel, then the Harbin City Revolutionary Committee Second Guesthouse, then the Anti-Revisionist Hotel. In 1993, history turned full circle and it once again became the Modern Hotel, known in Chinese as madie’er bingguan 马迭尔宾馆. The building still stands today on Zhongyang Dajie.
It’s hard to imagine a simple milk icecream so intrinsically tied to the history of one of China’s great cities. But there you have it – street food, if you delve deeply enough, always has a great story behind it.
Modern (madie’er) ice creams can now be found in large Chinese cities, sold exactly the same way as they were from the ground floor of the Modern in the early 1900s. Stacked in a box, simple and unadorned.
Modern 1906 Ice creams
Madieer Bingqilin 马迭尔冰淇淋
Shanghai Huangpu District