Esther and Paul Agran look over Harbin's rather dowdy Xinyang Square, see the mud and the snarled traffic, then count the buildings from the corner. "One, two, three -- that's it!" says Esther, 80. "That's the building where we had our wedding reception! It was a beautiful building. I think it rubbed off -- we've been together 56 years."

A half-century after most of the Jewish community fled Harbin, pushed out by an increasingly unfriendly Communist government wary of "imperialist capitalists," former residents are venturing back for a nostalgic look. Many were born and lived their early lives in this once-booming city in China's northeast.

Now, after years of not being welcomed, they are returning to a city that is eager to see them. Harbin recently announced a $3.2-million renovation of its main synagogue, and it is stepping up efforts to preserve other historically significant buildings and sprucing up the Jewish cemetery, Asia's largest.

For the Chinese, it's less a warm-and-fuzzy embrace of the old days than a fairly blatant bid to spur the struggling local economy. Last month, at an international conference on "Jewish History and Culture in Harbin" that was attended by nearly 100 former residents and their families, officials gushed about the "always smart" and "always good with money" Jews who might help return Harbin to its former glory.

"We haven't heard such compliments since the days of Moses," says Jack Liberman, 81, a Harbin native now living in San Diego. Liberman was on his first trip back since his family left China in 1948.

Although most people don't tend to associate Jews with China, Harbin was an enclave of relative tolerance in the first half of the 20th century, as chaos, war and revolution raged in a troubled world. Jews, mainly from Russia, came to see it as a sanctuary and a land of opportunity.

The first Jew reportedly arrived in Harbin around 1899, leading what would eventually be three waves of immigration, says Li Shuxiao, vice director of Jewish research at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences. The first group, in the early 20th century, came in search of opportunity after the opening of the Russia-China railroad. The second fled the 1917 Russian Revolution. A third sought to escape a Russia-China border conflict in 1929. The peak was around 1920, when the local Jewish population reached 20,000.

"Most Russian Jews came to China without money and worked hard," says Pan Guang, a history professor at the Institute of European and Asian Studies in Shanghai. "It paid off, and they became solidly middle-class."

Many of those now returning for a visit to Harbin, once known as the "little Paris of the East," recall a privileged life with Chinese and Russian maids, a whirl of social events and winters crossing the Songhua River on Russian telhai, sleds pushed by an attendant.

"It was 30 below zero," recalls Hannah Muller, who left China for Israel in 1949 and hadn't been back since. "It was wonderful. We were all wrapped up in bearskins."

Harbin wasn't always enthusiastic about having them come back. For much of the past decade, officials feared that the returnees would demand reparations for the factories, houses and personal effects that were expropriated after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. But relations picked up after those demands weren't made. Fifty-seven people reportedly still have property claims not covered by bilateral treaties, which, theoretically, they could pursue. But most of those in their seventies and eighties who have recently returned say they can't be bothered.

"What's past is past," says Harbin-born Bernard Darel, 75, an import-export businessman living in Tel Aviv whose family's button factory and apartment were taken over by the Communists in 1949. "It's a long time ago, a long way to Tipperary." For most of the prosperous returnees, who were bantering in Russian, English and Hebrew, the real draw was the chance to catch up with long-lost friends and relive memories of what many see as a golden era.

For Esther and Paul Agran, Harbin is more than a home town -- it's the birthplace of their lifelong romance. Esther was popular and good-looking, from a wealthy family that owned a cosmetics factory just behind the synagogue. "In school she was unreachable," Paul recalls. "I didn't think I had a chance."

One cold November day, however, she came to his uncle's fur shop, and their eyes met. In a few months, they were married in a gala wedding with 400 guests.

"She had great legs in those days," says Paul, 82, looking at a black-and-white photo. "Hey, she still has great legs today."

On one rainy evening during the group's week-long stay, Liberman weaves across Harbin's torn-up Tongjiang Street past head-high piles of sand and dirt and into a hulking, 70-year-old building housing a rail car manufacturer.

"What are you doing? This is a business!" a rattled security guard barks as Liberman leads a stream of visitors past him.

It is anything but that to the group of foreigners from Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and other faraway places. They try to ignore the chipped green paint and harsh lights as they remake the interior in their minds.

"This was our synagogue," Liberman says. "The men sat there. The women were up in the balcony there. The ark would have been up there, at the end and to the right," he says, referring to the place where the temple's Torah was kept. "It was a really beautiful place."

As he reminisces, Teddy Kaufman, an 80-year-old Harbin-born Israeli and an impetus to bringing the group together, walks by.

"Were these pictures originally here?" someone asks Kaufman, pointing at a dusty mural of bears cavorting in the wild. "There are no pictures in a synagogue," Kaufman responds emphatically, "especially none of bears."

Amid the grime and exposed wiring are hints of the building's former splendor. A once-grand chandelier still hangs in the entryway, its graceful cut-crystal arcs now brown with smoke and stains. Worked into the window grilles and chipped floor are images of the Star of David.

Harbin managed to prosper through much of the early 20th century under ever-changing authority. Czarist Russia, Nationalist China, imperial Japan, Soviet Russia and Communist China exerted control over this strategic, resource-rich area in the midst of the three countries. In general, most of the governments were relatively tolerant, even encouraging, of the Jewish enclave into the 1940s.

That changed after the Communists came to power.

"Rapid changes in China made it difficult to continue living here," says Xu Xin, a professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University. "There was a huge exodus through the early 1950s."

For David Udovitch, 84, it came down to soup and labor unions. The former owner of a paint factory in Harbin recalls returning home from work in 1953 and learning that a union representative had stopped by, looked in the family's soup pot and asked why they were eating meat when workers hadn't had any in months.

"That's when I knew it was time to leave," he says, standing near his mother's grave in the Jewish cemetery.

A few hundred Jews, mostly those too old to leave or lacking overseas sponsors, lingered for a decade, with the last one, an elderly woman, reportedly dying in the mid-1960s.

Many are in the graveyard, which was moved to the outskirts of town in 1958. For the local government, the cemetery and the memories it holds are a potential gold mine, starting with tourism, it hopes, then spreading to trade and investment.

Many who left formed social groups in their new homes to help one another. Over the years, most retained strong emotional ties to China even though their lives in Harbin were often quite insulated from Chinese society.

"We were kosher, so I never even tried Chinese food until I was 17," says Leana Leibovitch, 81, who looked for her old house but learned that it had been demolished after her 1948 departure for Australia. "Now, of course, I love it."

Kaufman, since the early 1970s the leader of the Tel Aviv-based Association of Former Residents of China, took the lead in arranging the rapprochement. When he approached Harbin's leaders in 1992 about building links, he recalls, they didn't even know what a synagogue was, let alone that there once were two of them in the city.

"For them, history started with the Communist revolution in 1949," he says. "They'd thrown away the pages" of history.

He got their attention on a return trip two years later by pointing out that Harbin lagged far behind Shanghai and Beijing, where foreigners were welcomed with more open arms and minds.

A trip to Israel by local officials a few years later -- and the promise of Israeli aid for reconstruction to keep Jewish history alive -- made them even more receptive.

Now the government is on board from the top of Heilongjiang province on down, with Gov. Zhang Zuoyi welcoming returnees with a call to invest and set up joint ventures.

"Sure, it's public relations. Everyone understands that," Kaufman says. "The mention of rich Jews isn't meant as an insult. Many people in Asia think all Jews are smart and rich -- and if you're rich, you must be a Jew."

Magnier was recently on assignment in Harbin. Lijin Yin in the Times's Beijing bureau contributed to this report.