first posted on TVG in China, 2015. I’m currently archiving old posts onto one blog.
Beijing is a city of contrast, a metropolis of incomparable differences and I’m still finding new angles on the city despite visiting it many times now. I guess that is the great advantage of now living here – I have the time to find even more that the tourist’s eye might miss.
Just two days ago I met up with with Mike again, an old friend from my first time in China. He acts as a representative for ‘Project Trust’, the organisation I came to China with a year ago, and as he has been introducing the new generation of Project Trust volunteers to China this past week, I went to join them for their last day in Beijing before they move to their homes across China for the year. In practice, Dan (also a former PT volunteer) and I spent the day just hanging out with mike in 798 art district, and finished the day at the top of Beijing, 80 floors up in atmosphere, a bar in Beijing’s tallest building.
798 could equally be called Beijing’s hipster district. It breaks the mould of most city’s art spaces by not just being one all-containing gallery. Instead, 798 is an old industrial area, where factory buildings have become small exhibitory spaces and the streets are an extension of the indoor displays.
Dotted amongst the art spaces are world class coffee and tea shops. Quality and art seem to be the buzz words here, with intense care being put into even a simple brew.
Mike took Dan and I to Barista coffee, which ranks in my top 3 coffee shops I’ve ever been in. For their finest coffees, the espresso machine is replaced with a return to the humble filter coffee, so the staff have complete control over the brewing process again. You might not think China is known for it’s coffee…and in most cities you would be right, but in the capital at this moment the drink is getting some really special treatment.
Being in the art district, Detail is everything in 798’s coffee shops. The spaces in the district are almost artwork in them selves. The bare industrial external appearance gives a wonderfully blank canvas to play with.
With a picture of tea above, you might think we just spent the entire day drinking hot brews rather than looking around…and you would almost be right. As soon as we left barista coffee, the first gallery we walked into just happened to have a tea ceremony going on at the back and we ended up being invited to have tea with the table. As you may have heard, Chinese tea is wonderful, and is taken fairly seriously in China. This cup is a pu’er tea, which is perhaps China’s black tea. The taste is quite hard to explain and many westerners don’t like it very much. I’m a bit of a fan however, so an afternoon of pu’er and chatting Chinese with the gallery owners couldn’t be much better. The conversation did have me lost on numerous occasions though…there is only so far that my Chinese can go currently
Some of you might have heard of this guy. Ai weiwei has an exhibition in 798 currently, and as is to be expected with one of China’s most known contemporary artists, the display offered a lot to think about. As an artist which has run into challenges with the authorities before, you know his work has a message. I’m still trying to work out what the message of this display was, but what struck me, aside from meaning, was how well his work fitted to the exhibition space. it was essentially part of the artwork.
This part might remind some of Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds from a few years back in London. This is made up of thousands of broken up teapot snouts.
Outside of the exhibition spaces, graffiti and statues dominate the district
The zone’s industrial roots are very much clear.
I’m intending to spend a lot of time in 798 over the year. It’s not just some stationary museum, but much more a living breathing celebration of creativity. the exhibitions are always changing, the people are individuals, who without a doubt have stories and idea waiting to be found.
Now for something a little different. Atmosphere.
In the evening Dan got invited by Mike to follow him and the new volunteers for their last night in the capital. these guys certainly are leaving for their new Chinese towns in more style than we did, as Atmosphere is at the highest point in the city, 80 floors up in the centre of the central business district. With a definite air of class, a world-class jazz band and views over the whole city, this was a special evening. The drinks may also have been the most expensive I’ve ever had, but that’s unimportant…maybe.
Dan with a rather expensive cocktail.
Chilli and ginger in a cocktail. Beautiful stuff.
This place is high up. Very high up.
Beijing is, without a doubt, a city of contrast.