Published: April 2009
By Jasper Becker
China is leaving Maoist sobriety behind, and its capital is leading the charge. Restaurants, galleries, and a new plan for the city center are transforming Beijing from Communist showcase to consumer paradise.
The first modern art exhibition I ever saw in Beijing was at the former house of a Ming-era court eunuch named Wang Zhen, who was known for being especially corrupt in a court famous for its corruption. After gaining the confidence of the young emperor, Zhu Qizhen, he took control of the government, executed his opponents, and encouraged the novice ruler to mount an attack on the Western Mongols in 1449, which led to the emperor's capture and Wang's own demise. After his death, his house, which comprised several structures linked by many courtyards, became the Buddhist Zhihua Temple. Some 400 years later, in 1988, one of the first unofficial art exhibitions to be held in the Old City since the Communists came to power took place there. A show of abstract ink washes, it was a sign of the experimental artistic enthusiasm that lay just beneath the surface.
Though the Old City dates back mostly to the Ming dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, its jumble of courtyards, palaces, and temples arrived in the 20th century largely intact. The Ming court, its eunuchs in particular, could lay claim to a high degree of refinement. And the harmonies of color and design that characterized the furniture, porcelain, and paintings of the period were present in Peking itself, which, despite being an imperial city of grandeur and majesty, was also a green, quiet place built to human scale.
No one would say that of today's Beijing. It is flashy and modern and designed to showcase the new China. Zhihua Temple is now surrounded by regulation apartment blocks, and the Old City bears little resemblance to what it was even 15 years ago, with its quaint, half-derelict houses and shady scholar's trees.
In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is being subjected to some of the most extensive urban re-engineering ever visited on an existing city. What exactly will emerge from the construction is unclear. While parallels could be drawn with Niemeyer's Brasília, Lutyens's New Delhi, or Haussmann's Paris, it is Germania, Albert Speer's projected remake of Berlin as the new capital of Hitler's Reich, that comes closest to what is being effected in China's capital. The comparison is not incidental: the man behind a central element of Beijing's new look is none other than Albert Speer Jr. An architect like his father, he has realized projects all over the world, but this is his most significant yet. His design, commissioned by the Chinese government, calls for a north-south axis 16 miles long that will connect the center of the city with the Olympic Village, the Forbidden City, and a new railroad station in the southern section of Beijing. And although Speer Jr. has repeatedly denied that his plans for Beijing in any way echo his father's unexecuted schema for Berlin, there are similarities. Speer's Berlin was to have been a nexus of monumental arches and grand boulevards, a capital to end all capitals. Speer Jr.'s blueprint for Beijing is equally monumental, the kind of large-scale urban concept possible only under a totalitarian regime. Speer told the New York Times that he saw this rethinking of the city center as "an opportunity to catapult Beijing into the 21st century." No doubt the government officials who commissioned the project agree.
That's because, long as it is, Speer's north-south axis—based, he says, on the Chinese character for middle—is just the beginning. All across the city, great avenues, sweeping ring roads, grandiose ministries and banks, massive stadiums, towers, and shopping emporiums are rising up. Most of it is, as one Beijing acquaintance put it, "brutal, simplistic, and built on a vast scale at breathtaking speed." And a number of the city's top architects make no attempt to hide the fact that they find much of the architecture dead ugly.
"The planning is a big mess, really," says Kai Cui, a well-known architect and vice president of the city's planning department. "There has been a spirit of, 'We want to cut off history.' And there has been a lot of greed behind what is being done."
UNESCO has bravely raised its voice against rapacious developers working hand in glove with local authorities to extract maximum profit. Of the 3,000 original hutongs, or narrow alleys, some of which date back to the days of Kublai Khan, a mere 25 are being preserved. Out of 1,000 temples, a few dozen will be left, isolated islands in a grid of eight-lane expressways, overlooked by giant glass-and-steel towers.
If Hitler embraced Speer's backward-looking Neoclassical vision of Berlin, China's leaders are in love with technology. They want to show that the future belongs to them. "They press us to do something technically, artistically challenging, the bigger the better," Kai says. Over the past few years, Beijing has been holding competitions to attract the best of contemporary architecture. Some of the results are quite exciting—and quite new for China. There is nothing remotely Chinese, or even Asian, about the National Grand Theater, Beijing's new opera house. It is just a stone's throw from the Forbidden City and is scheduled to open in 2005. French architect Paul Andreu, who built the space-age Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris, was responsible for the design. "I admire the courage of any leader who made that choice," says Joe Carter, a Canadian architect who has lived in Beijing for 18 years and now works in the office of McBride Kelley Baurer. But Beijingers are less enthusiastic overall. They've dubbed the theater, which is topped by a translucent glass-and-titanium dome, the Alien's Egg and, perhaps less imaginatively, the Giant Doo-Doo.
"All of a sudden everyone is talking about art and design," says Adam Roberts, a British architect who has taught and worked in Beijing since 1993. "For a long time people like [Norman] Foster, who tried to get in, were blocked. Now all the big international names are here." (Since we spoke, Foster has won a contract to design a new $2 billion terminal at the Beijing airport.)
Rem Koolhaas, of the Rotterdam-based firm OMA, and fellow Dutch architect Ole Scheeren preferred to compete here rather than in New York for the World Trade Center project. Their design for the headquarters of the government-controlled China Central Television is a $725 million, 750-foot-high loop of irregular horizontal and vertical slabs that, when built, will be one of the tallest skyscrapers in Beijing.
"Architects here are under tremendous pressure to develop creative solutions in a ridiculously short time," says Daniel Nazdin, an American who designs everything from embassy projects to office blocks. "A project I would have six months to do in the States, I have three weeks to do here. But it is very exciting. You never know what will happen next."
For public buildings, government authorities select the biggest, showiest designs; meanwhile, private citizens are orchestrating their own construction boom on a smaller if equally showy scale. The opening of an IKEA store six years ago attracted vast crowds, and IKEA still ranks as one of the biggest influences on popular taste. Since anything foreign has cachet, Chinese architects are filling the city with residential developments and christening them with names like Palm Springs, Fifth Avenue, Aristocrat Towers, Chateau Regency, and Merlin Champagne.
Oddly enough, any modern building that looks Chinese—with floating eaves, pagodas, and courtyards—tends to date back to the Republican period (1912-1949) and to have been conceived by foreigners: Xiehe Hospital was built with Rockefeller Foundation money in 1921; Beijing University's campus is the former campus of Yenching University, founded and built by American Presbyterians; and the Soviets were responsible for the Beijing Central Railway Station, erected in the fifties, just after Mao came to power.
During the Ming Dynasty, the writers and painters who settled in Beijing described it as a gilded lotusland, a delightfully idle place of endless parties. The superhighways and unceasing construction notwithstanding, the description once again seems apt. Artists and intellectuals have returned to Beijing—often from self-imposed exile in New York and Paris—and there are again plenty of parties, even if some might more accurately be called wakes, marking as they do the demolition of favorite courtyard houses. Every week, it seems, there is an opening for a new restaurant, boutique, or art gallery.
Beijing's bohemians are so visible that they have even earned themselves a nickname. Known as the Bo Pu Tribe, they're not hard to spot. The women wear their hair short; the men wear theirs long and typically grow a straggly beard. They usually speak an alternating mixture of Chinese and English, the latter picked up living abroad. Their favorite word is fusion—which here means mixing not just Western things with Chinese things, but aspects of old China with symbols of the new China. When I first came across the forerunners of the Bo Pu Tribe at the Zhihua Temple, it was still very dangerous to stage unofficial exhibitions. The authorities regularly arrested artists and accused them of spreading "spiritual pollution" or "bourgeois liberalization." That first flowering of artistic freedom in the 1980's was crushed by hard-liners following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and artists retreated from the city, congregating in a few villages near the Yuanmingyuan—the old Summer Palace. The police suspected them of secretly plotting to keep the spirit of the democracy protests alive and finally forced them to leave. One artist, Da Zhang, became so depressed that after he went back home to Datong in Shanxi province, he killed himself.
"Police often staged raids and arrested artists. Sometimes they were put in prison, sometimes just fined or sent home," recalls Ai Weiwei, a veteran Bo Pu. A beefy man with a neatly trimmed beard, Ai Weiwei is the son of Ai Qing, one of China's foremost modern poets. Ai Qing was at first embraced by Mao, but was then declared an anti-revolutionary in 1957 and exiled to Xinjiang province for 20 years before he returned to Beijing. He died in 1996. Ai Weiwei himself left the city in 1981 for New York's SoHo, but is now back and has even opened his own gallery, China Art Archives & Warehouse. Still, he has mixed feelings about the changes. "Old Peking had this special atmosphere. I worry it is being lost," he complains to me in his vast studio, where he has been welding sculptures out of Forever bicycles, a popular brand.
In the 1950's, Liang Sicheng, a Chinese architect who had trained in America, presented Chairman Mao with a plan for building a new administrative capital outside the city walls. Beijing's Old City would have been preserved with parks, art galleries, and restaurants. Liang was one of the first Chinese to embark on a serious study of the country's architectural history. It was he who discovered the architectural importance of the Zhihua Temple, which, though rebuilt many times over the centuries, retains the layout, tile work, and decorative reliefs that make it an unparalleled example of Ming dynasty art.
It is not so hard to picture what Liang envisioned when you visit places like the Red Gate Gallery. An Australian, Brian Wallace, transformed a watchtower known as the Dongbianmen, overlooking the second ring road behind the Central Railway Station, into what must be one of the most beautiful private art galleries in the world. Wallace, who represents about 20 contemporary Chinese artists—painters, sculptors, printmakers, and installation artists—delights in showing visitors the vast airy interior, the great wooden beams painted dark red, the light streaming in through the windows set deep in thick walls.
"And look at this," he says proudly, taking me outside to see some graffiti in English and Russian that is scratched into the bricks. "It dates back to the Boxer Rebellion, when Russian troops were billeted here."
This stretch of the city wall was preserved by chance. It had gradually become obscured behind hundreds of houses erected along either side. For decades Beijing was desperately short of housing, and many people lived in hastily constructed shacks that have since been torn down. At least a million people have moved out into new high-rises in Beijing's satellite towns. Now you can stroll along the ramparts or walk in the park beneath them that is named in Liang Sicheng's honor.
Liang would also have enjoyed the Courtyard Restaurant, in an old house next to the East Gate of the Forbidden City. The original courtyard is no longer there; it has been covered over to create a bright, modern space. At night, from one of its waterside tables, you can see the light of your candle reflected in the moat below. The juxtaposition of modern-day China and antiquity is one of the restaurant's pleasures; another is the culinary fusion. Recipes created by Filipino-Chinese-American chef Rey Liem (who trained at Jean Georges and worked at Bouley in New York) meld old and new—Chinese dumplings are made with Cognac and stuffed with foie gras.
"The building used to belong to General Yuan Shikai's doctor, but he fled to Taiwan," says Handel Lee, an American lawyer who owns the restaurant. General Yuan ruled China briefly after the overthrow of the Manchus in 1911.Lee, who counts Manchu bannermen among his ancestors (descendants of the original Manchu clan that conquered Beijing in the 17th century), loves the history the building evokes. He himself lives in a house originally built for a nephew of Wei Gongxian—another Ming eunuch notorious for arrogating the highest powers in the land for himself. Lee's original plan was to open a gallery, which he did, in 1996, but it was quickly shut down by the police, ostensibly because it did not meet fire-safety standards. So Lee reopened it as a restaurant, which just happens to be decorated by the very artists he had wanted to represent, and whom the police were so nervous about: Cai Jin, a hyperrealist painter, installation artist Xu Bing, and video and installation artist Lin Tianmiao. The work of all three was seen as subverting the solid values of Socialist art with decadent Western ideas.
"Contemporary art is now a significant force in China," Lee told me. "I was afraid it would peter out, the way it did in Russia after the USSR was dismantled. But it just gets stronger."
And that art is holding up not only in China (the southern city of Guangzhou has its own biennial), but internationally. At last year's Venice Biennale, which showcases contemporary art, China had its first national pavilion, where the work of five artists was shown; Chinese artists were also well represented in several of the Biennale's themed group shows. This success has brought with it distinct material advantage. Some of the artists who have made it in New York or London—including many sponsored by galleries like the Courtyard or Red Gate—can now afford to drive sports cars. Some have opened their own bars near Houhai Lake, north of the Imperial City, an area once reserved exclusively for the Manchu aristocracy. (Many things we now think of as typically Chinese are actually Manchu—silk qipao dresses, Peking opera, Pekingese dogs, and lamb hot pots.) Most of the sprawling courtyard palaces are gone, but you can still find the relatives of the last emperor, living in poverty and struggling to reclaim property confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. For a long time, the area was neglected. You often saw old bicycles and other trash lying at the bottom of the lake. Now it has been spruced up and is lively even at night. The first restaurant to open here was called Silk Road. (It later closed.) It was run by Fang Lijun, whose work inaugurated what is known as the Cynical Realist movement, which broke with the prettified aesthetic espoused by government-controlled art schools, presenting a surreal, often grotesque vision of everyday life. Next came graffiti artist Zhang Dali's No Name Bar, and artist Chi Nai's restaurant Lao Hanzi, which offers Hakka food in a rough-and-ready, peasant-chic setting. Another local restaurant, Kong Yi Ji, is dedicated to Lu Xun, whose "Diary of a Madman" is considered China's first Western-style short story, and who was much beloved for his depictions of ordinary people. His reputation survived even the Cultural Revolution. The restaurant serves regional food from Shaoxing, in Zhejiang province, where Lu was born.
When Mao rejected Liang Sicheng's plan, he did not opt for someone else's vision of Old China but instead stood on the Gate of Heavenly Peace and demanded to see a skyline of smoking chimneys. To run a proper dictatorship of the proletariat, he said, he needed more factories in his capital. Hundreds of factories were built inside the Old City. The refined and courtly style of Peking was blotted out by the proletarian ethos of Beijing, and Liang ended his life humiliated and beaten by Red Guards. He was reviled in political criticism sessions and made to live in a damp and flooded cellar.
Ironically, China's current rulers have ordered that all manufacturing be moved outside the city to ensure a new and clean showcase for the Olympics. And as the workers leave, the Bo Pu Tribe arrives. American Robert Bernell was the first to sense the opportunities. He moved his art-publishing company, Timezone 8, into Factory 798, where 10,000 laborers once manufactured a substance still considered too secret to reveal. Galleries, design houses, architects' and artists' studios, restaurants, and cafés were quick to follow. Many artists were drawn here by the splendid Bauhaus-style spaces designed by East German architects: the oversized, slanting banks of windows; the exhortatory slogans painted in big red letters that declare, MAO IS THE RED SUN IN OUR HEARTS.
Bernell, though a prophet of China's artistic rejuvenation, concedes that there is still a good deal of copycat art and architecture in Beijing. "Sure, a lot of it is derivative," he says, "but there is something big happening here. Beijing is becoming a global city, part of a network of First World cities. The artists here have more in common with artists in Amsterdam, London, and New York than with artists working forty miles away in the surrounding countryside."
Lin Tianfang's Pink Loft is another Bo Pu venture that takes advantage of the remnants of Mao's industrialized Beijing. Pink Loft serves Thai food in a former factory where the chains, girders, glass floors, and concrete walls have all been painted pink. The old heavy, dark hardwood furniture of the Manchu period is set off by embroidered pink silk cushions and a profusion of fresh orchids.
"It used to be one of those secret military research plants, something to do with electronics," Lin explains. "The whole area around here was a sort of Silicon Valley."
Lin's first restaurant, the Loft, was also created in a discarded part of China's military-industrial complex. She started it with her brother and elder sister in 1999 as a place to hold art exhibitions, performances, and electronic-music festivals. The food is European, the furniture is Chinese, and the art is charmingly Warholian—on one wall dozens of TV screens show footage of a model Cultural Revolution-era opera. In a city that is not just post-Mao but post-industrial, such juxtapositions are popular.
Lin's own life story goes some way toward explaining why Beijing is bursting with such energy. Lin's father, a painter, and her mother, a dancer, were exiled in one of Mao's purges and spent 20 years as social outcasts in rural Shanxi. So Lin, as is true of many members of her generation, feels she has a lot of catching up to do. Although she was banned from attending university, in 1988 she organized one of Beijing's first contemporary art shows at one of the city gates. Given the privations she suffered, Lin's take on the Cultural Revolution is surprisingly positive: in her view, it freed younger Chinese from the burden of the past. "Compared to artists in Taiwan, artists here are more daring and forceful," she says.
Ever since China's May 4, 1919, modernization movement, which called for an end to Confucian society, the challenge facing Beijing has been to be both modern and Chinese. Places such as the Green T. House, a restaurant created by two sisters, Zhang Jin R and Sapphire, attempt to meet this challenge with an aesthetic that blends typically Asian touches, Pop ironies, and the industrial chic so popular in Western capitals. An ethereal figure, Zhang flits about a space decorated with aluminum water pipes, white marble floors, an old-fashioned birdcage, and seven-foot-high black wood chairs that vie for attention with oversized armchairs covered in fluffy green feathers. Her restaurant is near the Workers Stadium, where Soviet-style statues of athletic proletarians display their muscular solidity. Here the masses once gathered for "struggle sessions," in which those suspected of being anti-revolutionaries were interrogated, humiliated, and sometimes tortured by Party cadres while an audience of friends, family members, and Party members looked on.
If you listen to Zhang talk, it becomes clear that this grisly past is no longer a key reference point. Friends call her Beijing's queen of style, and she does her best to live up to the name. Every tiny detail here has been chosen purely for its aesthetic value, she tells me, not to make some allusion to the past. Food is served on green leaves, bird's nests, and ice cubes; the chopsticks rest on fresh twigs or stones; and every dish contains teain some form. Dishes such as l'amour du vert (love of green)—broccoli and creamy orchid-tea sauce—are as inventive as their names. Zhang, who also trained to play the guzheng, or zither, has won international culinary competitions with her recipes. Many of her creations are splendidly eccentric—one bore a strong resemblance to the gestating monster in Alien.
According to Rebecca Hsu, owner of the Cottage, a furniture and lighting shop, Zhang's twigs and leaves signal a desire to get back to nature and one's roots. "There are too many concrete blocks around, so people are looking for an escape," she says. "In the past they all lived very close to nature. Courtyards had earthen floors and were open to the sky, so designers want to reflect that."
Maybe. Meanwhile more and more of Beijing is leaving nature—and Old Peking—behind, with glass and concrete and steel so densely packed together that the sky is visible only as a sliver of blue.
All foreigners need visas to enter China. The application takes from one to five days to process and must be submitted to a consular office in person or by proxy, such as a travel agent. Visit www.china-embassy.org for information on local consulates.
Taxis are the most convenient way to get around Beijing, though congested roads may slow you down. Be sure to bring the address of your destination in Chinese, as many drivers' English is limited.
St. Regis Beijing Just off the Silk Alley shops, with luxurious rooms and suites. DOUBLES FROM $370. 21 JIAN GUOMENWAI DAJIE; 877/787-3447 OR 86-10/6460-6688; www.stregis.com
Peninsula Palace Beijing Opulent rooms and lush gardens, within walking distance of the Old City. DOUBLES FROM $340. 8 GOLDFISH LANE; 800/223-6800 OR 86-10/8561-2888; www.peninsula.com
Grand Hyatt Beijing A sleek high-rise with floor-to-ceiling windows and 530 rooms. DOUBLES FROM $170. 1 E. CHANG AN AVE.; 800/233-1234 OR 86-10/8518-1234; beijing.grand.hyatt.com
China National Tourist Organization 212/760-8218 OR 818/545-7507; www.cnto.org
Forbidden City The royal residence during the Ming and Qing dynasties, this cluster of ancient buildings is also known as the Imperial Palace. Just north of Tiananmen Square in the city center.
Zhihua Temple 5 LUMICANG ALLEY, DONGCHENG DISTRICT
Beijing University HAIDIAN DISTRICT, IN NORTHWEST BEIJING
Beijing Central Railway Station One of two principal stations: Central Station is just south of Dongchang'an Jie; West Station is at the head of the Beijing-Kowloon rail line. www.bj-station.com.cn
GALLERIES AND SHOPS
IKEA 27 N. THIRD RING MIDDLE RD., XICHENG DISTRICT
China Art Archives & Warehouse JI CHANG FU LU, NANGAO RD., CHAOYANG DISTRICT; 86-10/6431-3098
Red Gate Gallery Levels 1 and 4 of the Dongbianmen Watchtower. SECOND RING RD., CHONGWENMEN DISTRICT; 86-10/6525-1005; www.redgategallery.com
Courtyard Restaurant & Gallery DINNER FOR TWO $68. 95 DONGHUAMEN DAJIE, DONGCHENG DISTRICT; 86-10/6526-8882; www.courtyard-gallery.com
Factory 798 A factory-turned-art center with galleries, studios, a book publisher, and more. 4 JIU XIAN QIAO RD., CHAOYANG DISTRICT; 86-10/8456-0336
Loft New Media Art Space 4 WORKERS STADIUM N. RD., CHAOYANG DISTRICT; 86-10/6506-5592
Cottage 4 RI-TAN BEI RD., CHAOYANG DISTRICT; 86-10/8561-1517
Panjiayuan Antiques Market PANJIA RD., CHAOYANG DISTRICT
BARS AND RESTAURANTS
No Name Bar DINNER FOR TWO $24. 3 QIANHAI DONG YAN, XICHENG DISTRICT; 86-10/6401-8541
Lao Hanzi DINNER FOR TWO $18. SAN LITUN N. ST., CHAOYANG DISTRICT; 86-10/6415-3376
Kong Yi Ji DINNER FOR TWO $24. HUOHAI SHICHAHAI, DESHENGMEN, XICHENG DISTRICT; 86-10/6404-0507
Pink Loft DINNER FOR TWO $24. 6 SAN LITUN S. ST., CHAOYANG DISTRICT; 86-10/6506-8811
Green T. House DINNER FOR TWO $70. 6 GONGTI XI RD., CHAOYANG DISTRICT; 86-10/6552-8310; www.greenteahouse.com.cn
Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China, by David Kidd (New York Review of Books). A final glimpse of Old Peking by an American scholar of Chinese art who married into an aristocratic Beijing family.
Chinese Art at the End of the Millennium, by John Clark (New Art Media Limited).
Exhibiting Experimental Art in China, by Wu Hung (University of Chicago Press).