A Big Wall Falls in China to Make Room for Mickey
For decades, locals in this frigid outpost south of Siberia shaved and chipped and hacked away at big blocks of ice to create China’s most popular wintertime tourist attraction.
Rising among the barren trees, the sculptures of the Harbin Ice Lantern Festival took the shapes of iconic Chinese monuments: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, sacred Buddhist mountains.
They took those shapes, that is, until this winter, when in sauntered Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh.
What is perhaps the world’s most famous ice festival has become another of the world’s Disney theme parks, with a Disney licensing company taking over operations from the local Communist government. It is the first time a private company has run the ice festival.
Snow White has replaced snow dragons. Children wander through the frozen hallways of Aladdin’s Castle instead of a Qing dynasty palace. “It’s a Small World” plays in one corner of the park. (What better theme music for globalization?)
“It was too stodgy,” Qi Juwei, 51, the organizer of this year’s event, said of the old festival. “You can’t keep putting the same light in the same block of ice.”
Mr. Qi is a native of Harbin who immigrated to Japan in the 1990s. (His legal Japanese name is Saito Miyori.) At age 12, he stood here in Zhaolin Park and marveled at an ice replica of the Yellow Crane Tower, an ancient pagoda. A few years ago, as vice president of Rendez-Vous, a Shanghai-based company that licenses Disney products in Asia, he gazed across the park and imagined workers stacking blocks of ice to build Cinderella’s castle, Mickey’s house and a Pirates of the Caribbean frigate.
Unlike at Hong Kong Disneyland, the Walt Disney Company does not actually operate the ice festival, although it did look over the sculpture designs “to make sure they are in line with the Disney brand guidelines,” Tiffany Huang, a company spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message.
Local officials gave permission for the licensing company, along with a separate company that Mr. Qi helped found, to take over the festival for a fee.
The local tradition of making ice lanterns dates from the Qing dynasty, when peasants and fishermen dumped frozen blocks of ice from small buckets and stuck candles inside. Mr. Qi remembers making the lanterns every winter as a child and carrying them around. Few people in Harbin make the lanterns anymore.
“The winters were so much colder than they are now, so the lanterns would last all winter,” Mr. Qi said.
The first ice lantern festival was held in Zhaolin Park in 1963. It became an annual tradition, with sculptures eventually supplanting lanterns, though the festival halted for several years during the Cultural Revolution. The event was so popular that it inspired two larger copycat ice and snow festivals on the outskirts of town.
The one in Zhaolin Park is now in its 35th season, and it is a far cry from the days of candles flickering in ice lanterns. The Cinderella castle has an escalator running up and an ice slide running down. The entire park glows pink and blue and yellow from neon tubes in the sculptures. A Ferris wheel dominates the skyline.
The Disney sculptures were created over a two-week period. Workers began hauling chunks of ice out of the Songhua River on Dec. 6. At the start, when the ice is thinner, the blocks weigh more than 850 pounds. As the ice thickens during the winter, the blocks can weigh up to twice that.
A ticket costs $15, almost double what it was last year. That is expensive by Chinese standards, but the festival is still a big draw, with an average of 3,000 attendees per day. On a recent night, when temperatures dipped below minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, thousands of people streamed in.
“This is beautiful,” said Li Jing, 22, a university student wearing fake cat ears who posed for a photo beneath a picture of Tigger on an ice wall. “It brings my childhood memories back. I watched a lot of cartoons when I was young, like Winnie the Pooh.”
Mr. Qi has preserved one trademark feature of the festival. The annual ice sculpture contest was still held, with 30 sculptures by teams from 12 countries, and none had anything to do with Disney. Mongolian artists created a giant lizard with a glistening tongue, while a Japanese team presented a doe and a baby deer leaping in midair. (No, it is not Bambi.)
That section of the park, though, draws few people.
“The Disney part is for small children,” said Huang Jinghua, 48, a woman from Hong Kong who was staring at the lizard. “This part is for adults. I like the handcrafting and the techniques and the effect of the sculptures being lit from behind.”
People coming to see more Chinese-themed sculptures now have to go to one of the two festivals north of the city, both run by the government or a state-owned enterprise. The older of the two was founded 15 years ago and has giant snow sculptures — a central piece this year is a replica of the Olympic stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. The other festival, The World of Ice and Snow, is only 10 years old, but has become the biggest and most popular of the three.
The same size as Tiananmen Square, it is several times larger than the one in Zhaolin Park. It took 12,500 people to create the sculptures. It has soaring ice cathedrals with flashing lights, a gargantuan snow Buddha and an outdoor skating musical with an actor dressed as Uncle Sam.
Liu Ruiqiang, the festival’s chief executive, said the presence of Disney at the older festival was no threat to his business.
“Their size is too small,” he said. “One of my constructions is bigger than their entire park.”
But the appeal of Disney was not lost on Mr. Liu. Even in his park, tourists posed for photographs next to workers in costumes that bore more than a passing resemblance to Mickey Mouse and Tigger. Asked whether they were Disney characters, Mr. Liu quickly said he had invented them himself.