I was recently introduced to District 798 in Beijing, a small hideaway paradise for art lovers or anyone wanting to escape the madness of tourist Beijing.
Established in 2002 it comprises of 50 year old, decommissioned military factory buildings boasting a unique architectural style. It began with artists and cultural organisations dividing up, renting out and remaking the factory spaces, gradually developing them into galleries, artists studios, design companies, restaurants and bars.
The area over the last few years according to the districts website, has evolved into a “cultural concept of interest to the arts community and normal folk alike”. I am sure this is true to some degree but while I was there it was not the buzzing art hub that I had imagined it to be. Before leaving London I had read up about it and hoped to visit, expecting a Soho or Shoreditch type place, something that had the arty feel of the Village in New York, or that gritty urban art feel you get when you walk around Berlin. It was none of these things! If District 798 was in any other country, this would be the ‘hip’ place to be and full of people. I got the feeling that this was a place struggling to survive to push itself on a community perhaps not quite ready for modern and conceptual art.
As I walked around in the sunshine I had expected buzzing streets of both Chinese and tourists but it was quite. A few people lingered in bars and restaurants but for a city the size of Beijing where every street has people milling about the District was quiet, too quiet. It was sad.
I asked our guided about the district but she was quite disinterested in the place, in fact she seemed quite annoyed that she was there and not doing sightseeing somewhere she had a script for. She was a young girl, early 20’s and uninterested in art. She expressed an opinion that the closed shops/ galleries were due to the fact people didn’t come here and rents were too high, that people couldn’t make enough money to stay there. If the young people of Beijing were not coming here then who were? Our host had a different opinion, she being in her late 30’s and has travelled was so excited to show it to us, to show the expansion of Chinese art and culture.
For me the visit highlighted a great deal about Beijing and its people, and art within the city. For westerners District 798 is something familiar, an interesting insight into Chinese art and culture, but for the people of Beijing it is something unfamiliar, something the every person is yet to discover.
District 798 is definitely worth a visit for anyone heading to Beijing. It is a fascinating part of the city, showing off its history, architecture and art, plus it has some cool bars and restaurants. Hopefully over time the District will develop as its artists hope and will become a stage for artists new and old to display their work to the world.