Blog – Kirkenes: The company town that became a Chinatown for five days

Chinese signage was erected in the town of Kirkenes, Norway before the beginning of the fifteenth-annual Barents Spektakel, whose theme this year was “The World’s Northernmost Chinatown”. (Mia Bennett)
The town of Kirkenes, Norway is a little northern melting pot. It sits at the on the country’s Arctic edge, where the granite coast slides into the sea and the forest spills over the Russian and Finnish borders. The street signs, written in Norwegian and Russian, reflect the mixed heritage of this iron ore mining town. The ornate logograms of the Chinese language hadn’t graced storefronts and awnings, however, until just a few weeks ago.

In the lead-up to the fifteenth-annual Barents Spektakel, whose theme this year was “The World’s Northernmost Chinatown,” Kirkenes erected Chinese signage around town. The public library (bibliotek in Norwegian, библиотека in Russian) announced, “Welcome!” in Chinese (欢迎) and a sign at the florist announced that the buds were almost in bloom. Even the local newspaper, Sør-Varanger Avis, temporarily had a Chinese name.

Chinese signage was installed on Kirkenes’ public library in Norway. (Mia Bennett)

As I wrote last November, the festival organizers, Pikene på Broen, chose the Oriental theme to reflect the increasing visibility of Asia, specifically China, in Kirkenes and the Arctic. Over the past half decade, the number of tourists coming from countries like China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong has skyrocketed, with most coming in search of the northern lights. For the Japanese in particular, conceiving under the aurora is believed to produce a lucky newborn. Asian investment and activities have also funneled into natural resource and infrastructure development across the north from Alaska to Russia.

To represent these new dynamics, the festival erected a temporary Chinatown-style gate, in front of which was a little market called “Polar Silk Road.” Russians from across the border, benefiting from their ability to travel to Norway visa-free, sold hand-knitted items like socks and scarves – things actually made in Russia rather than China.

“You’re all gonna be rich!”
The panel discussion, “You’re all gonna be rich!” at Barents Spektakel 2019. (Mia Bennett)

Many in Kirkenes hope to cash in on this new influx of wealth, but some are wary of the consequences. For the past century, the town’s fortunes have risen and fallen in step with the price of iron, its bread and butter. The Sydvaranger mine operated from 1906 to 1996 before shutting down due to low profits. It was later purchased by an Australian company, which briefly operated the mine from 2009 to 2015 before pulling out.

During a panel discussion called, “You’re All Gonna Be Rich!” organized as part of the festival, one panelist expressed, “If the Chinese has bought Sydvaranger and not the Australians, I think they would have carried on.” The more long-term attitude towards investing held by Chinese companies may thus provide more stability to single-industry towns like Kirkenes than Western companies motivated by short-term profits. For mining towns used to volatility, the fact that China may be here to stay in the Arctic could be a good thing.

The panel discussion also revealed how China’s apparent polar permanency appears threatening in other aspects, however. Speaking of Asian tourists, another panelist described, “It’s a kind of feeling that they are occupying the cities in the North.” The Norwegian recounted complaints that Chinese tourists who come by bus stock up on cheap groceries at the two stores on the Finnish sign of the border before entering Norway, the land of sticker-shock. (To be fair, Norwegians engage in a similar behavior when they stock up on duty-free alcohol before arriving back home.)

In contrast, an individual working in the tourism industry expressed a more positive attitude towards the new arrivals.

“The guys from Asia are so happy – they’re very easy to please,” he noted. Just how the restaurant on board the Hurtigruten ferry now occasionally cooks Indian food for Indian tourists, his operation, which among other activities, offers King Crab fishing tours, now caters to Asian tastes. He described, “They don’t ask for alcohol. They ask for hot water. So now we heat up the hot water. We know that.”

Born and raised in north Norway, the tourism operator continued:

When I was growing up, Kirkenes was a mining town and it was dangerous just to look across the border to Russia. Now, I think it’s quite nice to see a lot of people in the streets.

The view over Kirkenes’ quiet harbor. (Mia Bennett)

Another panelist also appeared grateful for the added hustle and bustle in town and criticized the way in which tourists, especially from Asia, were instantly marked as an “occupying” force.

“As soon as the tourists come, it’s “footprint,” she remarked. “You’re not hearing about footprints with mining, with oil ponds on lakes, or with salmon,” she wryly observed (and this just a day after the Norwegian government gave the green light to Nussir, a controversial copper mine in the Arctic).

The odd thing about both the festival and tourism in Kirkenes, however, was that Asian tourists appeared to have a remarkably light footprint. Despite the festival’s focus on China, the neon street signs, and the numerous events featuring Chinese artists and performers, Chinese tourists were hard to find in the streets. Two obvious reasons for this were that first, Chinese New Year, a peak period for travel, had just passed. Second, hotels were fully booked for the festival, eliminating space for Asian tour groups.

A third reason is that Chinese tourists travel on very tight schedules and in organized groups. A typical itinerary will have the tourists arrive by bus in Kirkenes in time for dinner, just before the Hurtigruten ferry leaves the next day. That might explain why I didn’t spot too many Chinese tourists wandering around Kirkenes. They were either eating supper or had already turned into bed (or were maybe on an northern lights jaunt). The Chinese were experiencing a parallel Arctic, it seemed – but this alternate universe was still paying the bills for many locals now and hopefully in the future, as the title of the panel, “You’re All Gonna Be Rich!” suggested.

A Chinese family about to sit down to a dinner of two fresh King Crabs at the Thon Hotel in Kirkenes, Norway. (Mia Bennett)
“Asia is our livelihood”

In a small warehouse that served as one of the festival venues, DJs spun 90s-style industrial rave music while a pop-up kitchen served “hot and numbing Sichuan noodles.” I got to chatting with a young bearded fellow who worked at the Snowhotel, a fifteen minute drive south of Kirkenes. Over throbbing drums, he yelled, “Asia is our livelihood.” Tourists from China, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore come in droves, largely, as has become gospel now, to see the northern lights.

One of the other young men in the group who also works part time at the Snow Hotel has another job taking tourists on King Crab fishing trips. These are real moneymakers and the tour guides enjoy the trips out, too, he said. But this guide complained that compared to Europeans, “Asians just want to eat,” he said. “It kind of becomes like a McDonald’s.” He claimed that they were less inclined to savor the journey out and back by snowmobile and instead only appreciated the tasty catch at the end.

Despite this change in the tourist experience, both he and his friend remained thrilled at the increasing numbers of tourists from Asia and were happy to welcome them to northern Norway. They admitted that without this new influx of visitors, they might not have a job. Ironically, their paychecks also depend critically on one additional non-native species: the King Crabs for which Kirkenes is famous were introduced from the Bering Sea to the waters off Murmansk by the Soviets.

A king crab in a tank at the Thon Hotel in Kirkenes. (Mia Bennett)
Strangers in a strange land

To overcome possible Western perceptions that Asian culture is inherently “alien,” Barents Spektakel featured a number of Asian artists like Chinese science fiction authors and Macanese puppeteers. Chinese sci-fi has exploded recently thanks to author Cixin Liu’s award-winning, widely translated Dark Forest trilogy. During one panel at the festival, Xia Jia, author of The Demon-Enslaving Flask and professor of Chinese literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University, discussed writing about “invisible groups” like delivery people and life in rapidly modernizing and urbanizing China.

XIa Jia speaks at Barents Spektakel 2019. (Mia Bennett)

“China has lots of experience dealing with ‘aliens,’” the physicist-turned-artist observed. She described the country’s nineteenth-century encounter with Westerners, who then were the clearly invading force, and its attempt to understand Western technologies. Today, China stands a good chance of being the first country to make contact with extraterrestrial beings thanks to its construction of the world’s largest radio dish, built specifically to listen for signs of life from space.

I corresponded with Xia further over email and asked her if the Arctic had any “off-world” qualities to her. “Yes!” she replied. “As I mentioned in other venues, science fiction for me is primarily a crossing-boundary adventure. The Arctic is a bit like an alien place at the end of my familiar world.”

Her impression of the Arctic before visiting Kirkenes, the first place she has visited in the polar regions, was based on abstract impressions of beautiful scenery, organic food, and tasteful design gathered from films and tourist brochures.

“It’s my first time to travel to such a northern place in winter, so all the experience there are totally new and surprising (first time to see such heavy snow, first time to chase the northern light, first time to taste reindeer and whale steak, etc.,” she wrote.

For the sci-fi author and many other visitors from Asia to the Arctic, then, it is the north that is alien, while Asia – the world’s most populated continent – represents the familiar and the known. In its temporary identity as the World’s Northernmost Chinatown, Kirkenes may have briefly represented the new normal.

As increasing numbers of Chinese tourists journey northwards, I asked Xia if she had tips for her compatriots.

“Don’t panic,” she advised. “Do prepare some warm pastes and instant noodles if you travel in winter.”

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Related links from around the North:

Canada: Northern Canadian territory’s tourism on pace for another record-setting year, say tourism officials, CBC News

Finland: In Santa’s hometown, are tourism and a railway threatening Sámi culture?, Cryopolitics Blog

Greenland: Controversy over Greenland airports shows China still unwelcome in the Arctic, Cryopolitics Blog

Iceland: Arctic tourism in the age of Instagram, Eye on the Arctic special report

Norway: When a town in Arctic Norway transforms into “the world’s northernmost Chinatown”, Cryopolitics Blog

Russia: Svalbard town phasing out coal to become gateway for Russia’s Arctic tourism, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Growing number of Swedes choose train travel over flying to reduce pollution, Radio Sweden

United States: When the ice melts, what will happen to Arctic tourism?, Cryopolitics Blog

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

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