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Transforming Beijing

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.


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