Hong Kong palace melts into the mists of history

Hong Kong's Legislative Council building is doomed. Months before China regains sovereignty, this symbol of Hong Kong's fragile democracy is going to start shrinking before people's eyes. By the time the first spring flowers appear, the colonial monument will be no more than a puddle on the ground. In Harbin, that is.

In this far north-eastern Chinese city it will not be a case of dissolving parliament, but of simply letting it melt. For the showpiece this year at Harbin's annual ice-sculpture festival is the Hong Kong exhibit, complete with huge frozen replica of the dome-roofed council, a floating sea-food restaurant, and the Bank of China spire. There is even an icy version of a bustling downtown street. But visitors here are bundled up against the cold, rather then expiring from the humidity. Every night, thousands of visiting Chinese jostle to take photographs next to a countdown clock which is ticking away the days to 30 June when Hong Kong reverts to China.

Situated 250 miles from Russia, with temperatures falling to -30C for some months of the year, Harbin depends on the ice fair to attract tourists.

The festival was launched in 1963, but three years later it was halted by the Cultural Revolution. It was only when Maoism gave way to reform that ice festivals again became politically correct.

This year, some 20,000 square cubic metres of ice were cut from the city's frozen Songhua river and 4,000 workers toiled for three weeks to build the fantasy park. The tallest ice buildings top 60 feet, and the Hong Kong exhibition is just one of 10 themed gardens. The festival is due to finish on 21 February, the first full moon of the Chinese New Year.

For the uninitiated, it can come as a surprise that the ice sculptures are not glistening white. Instead, bores are drilled through the ice and brightly coloured lights placed inside. When night falls, a switch lights up a fairyland of "ice lanterns".

Hong Kong-related sculptures have done well this year. A Swiss team won the international section, with an exhibit called "Return to Prosperity", about the transfer of sovereignty. And Harbin's own sculptors took the domestic prize for "The 1997 Swan Comes Back" depicting - you can guess - Hong Kong.

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