It doesn't take long for Li Shuxiao, a scholar of Harbin history at the provincial Academy of Social Sciences and an expert on the city's Russian community, to steer our conversation about local history in a more alcoholic direction. 'Hapi,' he says, referring to Harbin Beer as all locals do (putting together the first two characters of the words Harbin and pijiu), 'is the epitome of Harbin's history.' And quite possibly the beer with the best name on the planet. But the happiness doesn't end there, nor does it end with the following piece of English poetry, found on a bottle of Harbin Pure Draft: 'Harbin Beer since 1900, is the source of/ Chinese beer industry/ It's soaked by Chinese old culture/ It has not only the very good taste, but also the/ Old history and rich background, it's pop old brand in China.' It was this poetry of the pijiu, this drunken Hapi haiku, that inspired a phone call to the brewer. I soon find myself crossing the Hapi factory floor with Yu Xueren, of the beer company's PR department, and agreeing with Professor Li: Hapi is Harbin. It's a special place, whose story can be told through its hometown brewery. 'We're really thankful to the Russians,' Yu says. 'They brought beer to China and they brought it to Harbin.' In 1896, the Russians won the right to build a railway from Vladivostok to Dalian via Harbin, and thus began the transformation of what was a tiny collection of fishing villages. 'So few people have heard of Harbin,' laments Professor Li. 'But it was the first place China met the rest of the world.' Li spent 10 years working in the Harbin library researching a year-by-year account of the city's history, a book that was published in 2000. Hearing of his efforts, the brewery commissioned the professor to uncover its own history: a story that follows that of the city's past as surely as a glass being emptied of Hapi follows a cry of 'ganbei!' Opened by a Russian businessman in 1900 - three years before Germans opened the Tsingtao brewery - the fortunes of the home of Hapi mirrored the city's internationalisation. It passed through Czech, Japanese and Soviet hands before the Chinese took over in 1950. It was another 45 years before the brewery opened to the outside world. In 1995, a Hong Kong company bought shares in Harbin Brewery. In the summer of 2004, American brewers SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch (makers of Budweiser) engaged in a bidding war for a stake in the company, with Anheuser-Busch eventually purchasing a 29 per cent shareholding. Thanks to recent renovations and protective measures, much of Harbin is a living memorial to its international heyday. By the 1930s, the city had a Russian population that numbered 200,000, residents from 30 countries and 16 consulates. If it wasn't for the Mando-pop blasting from the shops lining the cobble-stoned Zhongyang Lu, a street out of bounds to vehicles, you might think you were in Europe. Pastel-coloured buildings with cake-icing trimmings and large patios line the strip, and no matter how low the temperature drops, locals congregate here to shop, cruise and hang out. Throughout the city are other architectural reminders of the Harbin of yore, including a surprisingly large number of churches, from decaying European- and Russian-style landmarks to new buildings that seem ripped from the American heartland. The most prominent, however, is not home to any congregation: Sophia Church now houses the Museum of Russian Art and Architecture. Harbin's European religious legacy isn't restricted to Christians: 'At its peak,' says Professor Li, 'one-tenth of the Russian population were Jews.' Harbin's link with the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe hasn't received as much attention as Shanghai's, but, especially for Russians fleeing the Revolution, it was more significant. Professor Li heads the Jewish Research Centre and, he says, in June 2004, the city government pledged nearly US$2.5 million for the restoration of three buildings with links to the former Jewish population: the Old Synagogue, the New Synagogue and the Jewish school. Meanwhile, a decaying reminder of the presence of Japan's military, the Unit 731 Museum, can be found 30km outside of town, in Pingfang. It was here - and in other similar camps - that local citizens were subjected to a variety of horrific chemical and biological weapons-related medical experiments between 1936 and 1945. Even now they are not the most welcome of nationalities in Harbin, but a Japanese presence has slowly returned. The Mount Fuji Restaurant is proof. Japanese owned and operated, the small restaurant does a brisk trade in sushi and tempura. The Chinese may profess animosity towards their erstwhile invaders but the textbook a Chinese waiter is using to brush up on his Japanese suggests attitudes are changing. Every city, even one in which houses of worship abound, needs its dens of debauchery. It's not a long walk down Guogeli Lu from the enormous Guogeli Catholic church to Huanghe Lu, Harbin's nightlife district. 'It's more of a Russian bar street,' says one local, quickly correcting himself: 'A Russian-style street. Done by Chinese.' In the winter, you can skate, ski, scoff cheesecake and get hammered, all within spitting distance of Huanghe Lu's centre. According to Yu, 'Drinking prowess is part of Harbiners' character.' But don't expect to find beer halls and oompah music on every block; most beer-guzzling is done in the city's restaurants and outside family-run stores. This doesn't seem to affect the populace's predilection for beer, however; Harbiners put away 450,000 tonnes of the stuff each year - 270,000 tonnes of which is Hapi. But this is a recent phenomenon. Until 1978, only foreigners and high-ranking officials consumed beer. Thirty-three-year-old Yu remembers when beer was available from local restaurants for takeout - in bring-your-own plastic bags - and only drunk on special occasions. 'It wasn't so long ago,' he says, 'that people stopped calling beer 'horse p**s' or 'the yellow stuff that makes you full'.' Getting there: Dragonair ( www.dragonair.com ) flies from Hong Kong to Harbin.