About 400 km north of the Arctic Circle, fireworks lit up the evening sky of Kirkenes, Norway’s Barents Port, or “World’s Northernmost Chinatown” in the five days from Wednesday.

The fireworks marked the start of a five-day festival the 2019 Barents Spektakel with the theme “World’s Northernmost Chinatown,” meant to highlight “golden age of China,” according to the organisers. They said in the event’s introduction;

“As receding sea ice opens shipping routes to the north, and unimaginable levels of global investment Revitalise ancient overland trade routes, the time is right to welcome China to Kirkenes and create a future of prosperity and cooperation,”

“World’s Northernmost Chinatown”

A gateway with decorations in the ancient Chinese style has been erected in the pedestrian zone, lending an exotic touch to the small Norwegian Arctic town, and high on its door header is a tablet reading “World’s Northernmost Chinatown” in Chinese.

Chinese shop signs, light boxes, red Chinese knots and other elements of the Chinese culture permeate streets around the town square of Kirkenes, which is the central town in the Sor-Varanger municipality in northeastern Norway.

Mayor Rune Rafaelsen Norway
Photo: Mayor Rune Rafaelsen Norway

The Barents Spektakel is an annual multicultural event in Kirkenes, which is about 15 km west of the border with Russia and 50 km northeast of the border with Finland.

The idea of a Chinese theme came up naturally as the local ties with China have been deepening over the years, Sor-Varanger Mayor Rune Rafaelsen.

“It’s very natural that it came up because in the last three or four years lots of tourists from Asia, especially from China, have arrived and also Kirkenes has become a friendly town with (northeastern Chinese city) Harbin,” Rafaelsen said.

“Also in Kirkenes we have Chinese ships coming and we have companies that are working in China. So for us as a border town, it’s very natural to develop this connection to China,” he said.

Locals flocked to the town square on Wednesday evening for a colourful opening ceremony featuring performances by artists from Russia, China, Norway and other countries.

A show told a story of Aunt Maria fur coat and her children in a one-way journey along the Polar Silk Road, coming from the mystical Far East to settle in World’s Northernmost Chinatown. The characters “merge old folklore with rhythms of the present and unfamiliar tunes from the possible future,” said the show’s introduction.

Addressing the opening ceremony, Chinese Ambassador to Norway Wang Min said this year’s event highlights a friendship that crosses borders and nations while showcasing cultural diversity and inclusiveness.

“Kirkenes set up the World’s Northernmost Chinatown and has built a bridge,” Wang said.

In the five days of the Barents Spektakel this year, artists, experts and the local community are expected to contribute to the discussions about a future Kirkenes being a focal point on the Polar Silk Road.

Rafaelsen anticipates a bright future for the town that is the first Western port for ships coming on the Northern Sea Route from the East.

“Norway has always been a country that has developed shipping and also it’s what is happening in China. I think we have a good future regarding cooperation,” he said.

A year ago, China published a white paper on its Arctic policy, envisioning a Polar Silk Road to extend the Belt and Road Initiative it proposed in 2013.

The initiative, by building the overland Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, is intended to promote the connectivity of policy, infrastructure, trade, investment and people in areas involved to seek common development and prosperity.