Newsletters  | Mobile

Transforming Beijing

"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.


Sign Up

Connect With Travel + Leisure
  • Travel+Leisure
  • Tablet
  • Available devices

Already a subscriber?
Get FREE ACCESS to the digital edition