798 Art Zone: Beijing
Her dusky brown clogs and turned up navy chinos reminded me of the girls and boys back in the trending corners of London. The curious thing here though wasn’t her over-sized tortoiseshell framed sunglasses or undercut, it was the giant turquoise rabbit she was posing next to.
Before I travelled to Beijing for the second time, I’d mainly geared myself up for the food. In one adventurous evening, I’d sampled crispy scorpions, boiled chicken feet and deep fried salty tarantula. As it goes, I would happily scoff the scorpions again. You just have to get past that initial ‘my stomach wants to implode’ feeling. So after a few days of intrepid eating, I was ready for a new challenge to my expectations.
Thankfully, the next day I found myself agog as I tripped around the 798 Art Zone in the city’s Chaoyang District. This place was unexpected. The avenues and warehouses in this hive of contemporary culture were splattered with expression and freedom, firmly at odds with everything I had so far experienced in Beijing.
Created and constructed by East German personnel in the 1950’s, it began as a military resource centre with a number of huge, open factory spaces. Since the early 2000’s it has sucked in many artists, designers and cafes that would not be out of place in any of the upcoming neighbourhoods of Los Angeles or Oslo. The large open spaces and warehouse share an industrial nature that is ideal for showcasing this counter culture of Beijing and the street art could be traced straight from Shoreditch High Street.
The grid style avenues through the district are framed with open brick and iron joists, functionality that has morphed in to outlets of fervent imagination. The crowded galleries and busy pizza restaurants prove its popularity with locals and visitors too, while the sheer amount of area gives plenty of room to explore. If the humid fog of is particularly potent, you can take a seat in the zone’s centrally located cinema, with frequent art house showings.
As the sun set, I hailed a spluttering taxi outside the west gate. Crawling back through the city between the dim and forgettable glass towers, I had a yearning to be back at 798. The explosive variety was in contrast to the passive traditionalism that seemed to surround every other part of the city now. I’d also come away with a strong desire to own a dashing pair of clogs.