How I found Beijing’s fantastic 798 art district
Pollution was bad in Beijing.
For two days straight the 2.5 PSI index exceeded 500+ keeping me locked up in my hotel room. It was awful! I already felt like Charlotte from “Lost in Translation”. Worst fight ever.
Much has been said about the constant pollution, but now as I was here, I could see it with my own eyes. And, I had to endure it. Being on business I had no chance whether I should stay in Beijing or not.
The state of Beijing’s air pollution has been widely reported in the foreign press equally exaggerated as Chinese officials understated it. Nevertheless, I kept my eyes glued to the air quality meter provided by the American government (http://aqicn.org/city/beijing/us-embassy/) just to be on the safe side.
Research supported by US government data has suggested that the air in Beijing is so polluted that breathing it does as much damage to the lungs as smoking 40 cigarettes a day and it was estimated that almost 2 out of three days in the last three years were at least in that unhealthy range.
So I was stuck in my hotel for the time being. The hotel was quite nice, despite being hidden far outside on Beijing’s 4th outer ring with not much around it except a high-end shopping mall which was too expensive even for my elaborate taste.
Growing increasingly restless, on one of the first blue-sky days I packed my backpack and air-mask and started walking. Being prepared is the best form of Risk Management.
Surrounded by the chaos or urban Beijing traffic, I quickly found myself targeted by myriads of bicycles, cars, taxis, buses and donkeys who all seemed to have commonly decided on an attack on my well-being.
Or maybe I was just not fast enough.
In a mega-city that plans to have 100 million inhabitants (incl. Heibei) soon, things need to move much quicker. Random fact : Beijing’s population has grown more than three times faster than all of China’s population between 1990 and 2015. In all urban areas pollution, traffic, population, and housing pressures become increasingly problematic beyond a certain size. If you still carry your bricks by Donkey, I guess that should not come as a real surprise.
The sidewalks were irregular patterns of shiny forefronts to newly erected beacons of economic progress, broken construction sites and disbanded derelict pathways with large holes only barely covered by bland planks of wood.
I walked past one of Beijing’s inner city slums near Jiangtai road. Stocky grim one-story buildings made out of the historical red bricks that might have defined Beijing’s urban look-and-feel from the time before the market capitalistic revolution. Since many illegally-built houses are operated without water and electricity, they quickly became a breeding ground for societal outcasts forgotten by a world that in the craze of economic progress.
Then the rain began. Cold and dark introducing a quick and uncomfortable end to my first foray into my urban excursion of Beijing. That night, I stopped my usual approach to randomly walk around to find something of interest to a more target-driven approach.
Of course, I could have chosen the usual tourist hounds presented on Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor. But then usually you just end up with all the other tourists from Sweden, the US, Australia, or in one of the several Hotel bars.
“I told myself spreading news was part of a traveller’s nature, but if I was being completely honest, I was just like everybody else: shit-scared of the great unknown. Desperate to take a little piece of home with me. “ Richard
You start quipping about the differences between your home country and Beijing only to wake up with a bad headache the next day.
Not this time, I thought. Not this time.
After waking up on Saturday, that’s when I knew I had to do something else. I pulled out the drop!in app which has been recently released and promises to become the ‘uber for events’ by aggregating relevant event information from several platforms for me. Get it here (it’s worth it) : (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/drop!in/id1038351294?mt=8). And it was true! This location-based app makes event finding on travel a breeze. I chose to drop!in to an Arts & Chill meetup at Time Zone 8 in the 798 art district, starting in 4 hrs only a few hundred meters away. Perfect!
Quickly I packed my back and started walking.
The 798 art district is located in north-east Beijing and is named after the 798 factory. Sometimes it is also referred to as Dashanzi Art District (DAD) as it sits in Beijing’s Dashanzi zone tucked between Jiuxianqiao Road to its west, Beijing-Baotou railway to its east, Jiangtai Road to its south and Jiuxianqiao Road North to its north.
798’s architectural style has a strong European feel to it featuring simple design and varied composition, following maybe the Bauhaus-style blueprint. It strongly reminded my of Manchester or give it a few years to Camden Market in London.
I experienced it as one of the hidden pearls of Beijing. Maybe even this holds true for all of Asia. 798 is one of the few places on is planet which are on the way to commercialization but it have not fully arrived just yet. I would maybe compare it to how I would imagine Haight/Ashbury in the early 1990’s before the tech boom set in thereby transforming the area. I guess this is called gentrification
Art is 798 and 798 is a work of art.
Art is everywhere! On the streets, in the rows of coffee-houses and restaurants. Attracted by the orderly and efficient design, convenient traffic and parking opportunities, and unique style of Bauhaus architecture, many art organizations and artists came and rented the vacant factory plants and transforming them into something much bigger. 798 has now evolved into the internationally relevant center of Beijing’s modern art scene where renowned Chinese artists like Ai Wei Wei or Jian Yousheng are exhibiting side by side with non-Chinese artists like Martin Flynn.
Gradually they formed a district. Gathering galleries, art studios, cultural companies, fashion shops etc. on the way. In addition, 798 is full of street-art with a wonderful flair to wander around. And of course I walked street after street, gallery after gallery. Breathing this amazing atmosphere of edgy and creative people. And I have no doubt in my mind, 798 is really a fantastic place to spend a Saturday.
Art is one of the most important factors transforming cultures. Research by the Federal Reserve Bank suggests that the Arts have a major impact on economic development through 5 dimensions. 1. Create a fast-growth, dynamic industry cluster. 2. Help mature industries become more competitive. 3. Provide the critical ingredients for innovative places. 4. Catalyze community revitalization. 5. Deliver a better-prepared workforce.
And I would definitely agree, Apple would have never developed the iPhone in the same way without a genius industrial designer. White-collar workers flock to urban areas to enjoy the vibrant entertainment culture through concerts or exhibitions becoming inspired and innovative along the way. Art augments urban living by giving it meaning and relevance.
And btw, don’t let me get started in the usage of round corners or drop shadows in website design. I guess it is not always ‘form follows function’ although it should be.
I continued to the end of the lane and arrived at Time Zone 8, a bookstore/cafe where I ordered a cappuccino and browsed through the art books waiting for the meetup to start. I was timeless.