BEIJING — A gritty, moribund industrial zone of Beijing has come alive as China's premier center of contemporary art and culture, its galleries and restaurants drawing comparisons to bohemian districts in Paris, London and New York.
Just a few years ago, the area, known as Beijing 798, faced imminent demolition, and to the untrained eye, it seemed worthy of the wrecking ball. Huge overhead steam pipes connected a web of run-down factories that once comprised an East German-built munitions complex. Workers took smoking breaks in alleyways filled with stray dogs.
Rents were dirt cheap, however, and a number of contemporary artists set up studios. Soon, they began to proclaim the hidden beauty of the place — unique Bauhaus-style architecture, the kitsch factor of the Mao-era slogans on the walls, and huge spaces with skylights for artists to work. More artists moved in. They spattered the walls with graffiti. They rearranged workshops into galleries. A few clubs opened.
Rather quickly, Beijing 798 touched a chord among the city's avant-garde. In a capital where old courtyard homes and narrow lanes are giving way to high-rises at an astounding pace, hanging on to a retro industrial zone turned into a noble cause, a tussle between artists and city planners over the city's soul. Early last year, the artists finally won, and the area was formally designated a "creative quarter."
Today, some 120 art galleries dot Beijing 798, along with a smattering of high-end restaurants, coffee bars and bookshops. Young people flock there.
"They like the graffiti. They like the industry, the edge, the coffee high and seeing the performance works. It's the T-shirt and sneakers culture," said Robert Bernell, a Fort Worth, Texas, native who was one of the pioneers in setting up the district and owns an art bookshop and cafe there.
What's increasingly missing are the actual artists. With success have come rents so high that most can't afford to pay them. In 2004, as many as 100 artists called the district home. Only about 25 remain.
Still, Beijing 798 is one of the capital's cultural attractions and is likely to draw crowds among foreigners attending the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Eateries tucked in atmospheric lanes beckon. Huge poplar trees provide shade. Visitors who peek down one of the three streets and many alleys that comprise Beijing 798 might glimpse a giant iron statue of a headless figure in a Mao suit, or a new gallery with eye-catching works.
Even the district itself is a jewel saved from decay — the largest site of German modernist architecture in Asia. East Germany built it as a gift to China in the 1950s.
Of course, only the brave and the wealthy check the artworks' prices.
Contemporary Chinese art is drawing staggering sums. A painting by one artist, Wu Guanzhong, recently fetched $4.8 million at an auction in Beijing, more than twice the anticipated price.
Most contemporary Chinese art doesn't live up to that sort of hype, but after years of Chinese communist restrictions, pent-up energy has given Beijing 798 a special aura.
"Art work of real world class level is still not common," said Huang Rui, a painter and founder of the district. "But the enthusiasm and vigor here are world class."
Xu Yong, a photographer and owner of one of the first and biggest galleries in the district, said artists burn to express themselves.
"They want to change the way of life here," Xu said, and they are succeeding at pushing the limits of what is permissible. "The trend over the past several years is for greater freedom in artistic expression."
Artists still find boundaries. While there is no legal definition of art in China, censors quickly quash any attempt to poke fun at senior leaders or the ruling Communist Party. Themes of sex or violence are now largely permitted, although both government and property management officials look askance at anything too novel.
Huang, the painter, said he wishes authorities would set an explicit policy of permitting, and even subsidizing, artists and musicians "who are not in the mainstream."
Beijing 798's dizzy emergence into a rejuvenated art zone has been rapid.
"It looked like a ghost town when I visited in February 2003 for the first time. You couldn't see a single person on the street," recalled Satoshi Otake, the Japanese owner of a small coffee shop. "But my mom said she liked the old architecture, and she thought it would become an interesting place with a lot of people."
She was right. And the artists who flocked here soon felt a little overwhelmed.
"They had to put up signs saying, 'Do not disturb' because people would come at all times of day and night and want to see the artwork," said Bernell.
When it comes to the district's gentrification, opinions are split. Gallery owners say commercialization helps the artists — even as they move out — because their artwork is selling at ever-higher prices.
"It is not suitable for artists to work here anymore because there are too many things disturbing them now, like swarms of tourists, the noisy environment, increasing rent, etc.," said Liu Chaohua, a Taiwanese who opened the upscale New Age Gallery in April. "When they move out of 798, they are also making room for an international stage that provides opportunities for all Chinese artists."
The state-owned company that oversees the district, Seven Star, said in a statement that it believes commercial development can go hand in hand with efforts to foster creativity.
Founders of Beijing 798 seem less certain, however.
"There are businesses unrelated to the arts, such as bars and restaurants, that provide necessary services," said Xu. "But there are also businesses like a Nike shop."
(McClatchy special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)