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Chinese ice workers carve frozen fantasies at National Harbor

OXON HILL, Md. – Li Jiayan was chiseling an ice angel in a massive refrigerated tent at National Harbor. It was 9 degrees. And he was feeling fine.

“We’re used to it,” said Li, a retired art teacher wearing snow boots he brought from home in China’s industrial northeast.

Back in Harbin, where temperatures can dip to 20 below, farmers pull frozen slabs from the Songhua River and carvers like Li turn them into 15-story towers that make visitors to the city’s famed outdoor ice festival look like Lilliputians.

Here beside the Potomac, Li, the head carver, and three dozen co-workers put in 12-hour days for a month.

Working with 2 million pounds of clear and colored ice trucked in from Ohio, they have crafted a frigid Christmas-scape complete with slides, a black-belted Santa, a clear panda nestled on an ice shelf and a crystalline baby Jesus.

Li’s angel – and accompanying “Elizabeth, will you marry me?” sculpture – were custom made for a just-departed White House worker planning to propose in the space the next day.

What drew the Chinese crews to the Gaylord National resort in suburban Maryland – and similar gigs in Orlando, Dallas and Nashville – was a mix of aspiration, adventure and cold cash. They are the international carnies of the frozen-wonderland industry, fueled by Yunyan brand cigarettes, dumplings rolled in an office trailer and an occasional splash of fiery “white alcohol.”

By spending a few months in the United States, then doing a similar carving stint in a warm Chinese city seeking to experience Harbin’s icy aesthetic, some of the workers earn enough in six months to cover a full year’s expenses.

Zhou Yubin, who’s been in the United States six times for ice duty, wielded a broad blade to scrape a jade-green dragon into shape.

Back in Harbin, he built a 20-foot ice replica of Tibet’s grand Potala Palace, part of a vast constellation of glowing riverside creations, from towering Buddhas and pagodas to Disney-esque castles and Russian onion domes. For the exhibition here, which runs through New Year’s Day, Zhou crafted a toy factory.

Although the U.S. version is a shrunken-down stand-in for creations back home, coaxing life from stacks of 300-plus-pound ice blocks remains a source of pride. “I made this!” he said.

The imported artisans generate a degree of awe among colleagues who share the 15,000-square-foot tent, which is insulated with foam walls and outfitted with chillers.

With piped-in bagpipes and Christmas carols wafting past a multicultural cast of smiling, hand-holding ice-children, Marciano Benjamin marveled at the workers, what they wrought – and what they can withstand.

“It’s like being in Alaska,” said Benjamin, a native of Jamaica who lives in Lanham, Maryland, and was trying to fight off the freeze with three shirts, two parkas and a blue scarf. It was his first of seven 30-minute shifts that day guiding customers through the Gaylord’s “ICE! Christmas Around the World” exhibit.

Benjamin has been in the cold for just a few weeks. Most of the Chinese workers have been at it for years. “They’re out of this world. Yeah, man. It’s creative,” he said. “It’s good work.”

The bulk of the workers returned home when the exhibition opened before Thanksgiving. A crew of nine, most of them living two to a room in the resort hotel, will stay through the last visitor.

They spend their days fixing the dings left behind by the masses and working on demonstration projects in the aptly named Frostbite Factory. Direct hits of cold air from the coolers can also dull some of the shapes, which need to be remade and replaced.

One of head carver Li’s students was perched on a yellow ladder freezing a red bow back on a wreath using a slurry of buzz-sawed ice and water.

Since graduating from college two years ago, Sun Yuqi has been teaching students how to work from blueprints. His ice-sculpting experience was mostly in school contests. The trip to America, his first, has been an eye-opener, offering a chance to pick up ideas from project designers and experienced hands.

“You can learn the older generation’s techniques,” Sun said. “I’ve never done something with such flair, and with such scope.”

He has also explored a bit of Washington, D.C., which left him with a first impression that might make locals blush. “The construction is beautiful, the roads are wide, it’s like a park!” he said. “Americans are so warm.”

It has not all been rosy. There’s been some quiet grumbling about the food in the employee cafeteria. “Not accustomed” is Li’s polite Chinese euphemism for his reaction to the Western fare.

“They’ll starve if you tell them they have to eat pizza,” said Gavin Sorensen, a producer for International Special Attractions, the Los Angeles- and Shanghai-based firm that brings in the workers. The carvers slide in the occasional pig’s foot to make the Italian nights go down easier.

And they remain somewhat isolated from the outside world, cut off in part by a language barrier.

Li, who sculpts for love more than money, also ventured to Washington. But he didn’t think to stop at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which has a special resonance for some visitors from China. Li hadn’t heard that the monument was chiseled by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin.

For another field trip, Li took a five-hour winter stroll from National Harbor and through Alexandria, Virginia, to visit a shop filled with old and antique cameras. He remembered it from an earlier trip. But it was gone.

Others jaunts were more successful. On a recent afternoon off, Li headed to the Potomac Mills Costco in a black-and-yellow ROTC “Start Strong” baseball cap. His fellow ice workers, in their own “Orlando” and other souvenir caps, loaded the cart with hundreds of dollars of fish-oil capsules, calcium tablets and L’il Critters Gummy Vites for parents, wives and children at home.

Hou Youbin, who worked as an electrician in a state-owned train factory for 26 years before getting into the ice business in 1998, walked around the outlets in a new black parka with the tags still dangling. “It is American?” he asked. It was a U.S. brand – Gerry – but it was made in China.

He does some carving in China, but here he watched Li, who he called a master, and the others make art from the blocks he stacked with a forklift. “When you create something, at the very least you feel good about that,” Hou said. And “if everybody thinks it’s fantastic” once your sculpture emerges, “it makes your heart happy.”

Visiting the ice exhibit isn’t cheap – general admission is $36 for adults and $29 for kids 4 to 12. But some walked out moved.

The starry Nativity scene, glowing with lights embedded in clear ice, serves as a quiet finale.

“That’s what it was all about, and it was just beautiful,” said Lois Wallin, a retired teacher visiting from New Jersey.

Mike Tamburri of Falls Church, Virginia, walked away a better man.

The former White House security officer had been to the ice box for his first date with Elizabeth Kenney two years ago. This time, he led her to a backroom not far from the manger to find photos of themselves and a love letter hanging in installments. The last one read: “and the question is . . .”

The heart-shaped proposal Li carved was behind a red curtain. Tamburri dropped to his knee to repeat the question, just to make sure nothing was lost in translation.

It wasn’t.

Kenney teared up, then told him she couldn’t cry or her tears would freeze.