Review – 798 Art District


Artistic areas in cities usually develop organically. When you read about New York’s Village and London’s Hoxton and Camden, what usually attracted the bohemian types there were the relative cheapness of the rent and centrality, artists being usually both poor and inquisitive, event-attending types. The subsequent funky little coffee shops, bars, galleries and shops spring up organically to cater to this most discerning of cultural segments.

What happens next is that, these areas now being fashionable, middle- and upper-class trendies move in about, buying into what they can’t themselves create, which leads to rising rents, gentrification and bourgeoisification. The shops and cultural venues become classier and more expensive, but lose something of their original flair, or are bought out by chain stores. (For a vivid example, compare the once-bohemian Notting Hill area of London in the films Performance (1970) and Notting Hill (1999): a formerly run-down hippy haven is later home to middle class fashionables and up-and-coming types (and Julia Roberts)).

Beijing, like many developing economies, prefers to jump straight to the most developed period when building something. Why have dial-up if you can go directly to broadband? Thus, the 798 artistic area in north-east Beijing has a plethora of stylish bars, cafes, galleries, workshops and performance areas, bookshops and boutiques. The coffee shops are nice to look at, with pictures on the wall and books adorning the wall, but typically overpriced; the boutiques are stylishly up-market; the bookshops are clean-cut and pleasantly artistic rather than radical and bohemian. Built in a former industrial area, the cultural implications – that this area now produces art, values, meaning, where it once made products, things – are readily apparent: a clear case of post-modernity. Also, the layout, gated off from the surrounding neighborhood, gives a sense of 798 being somewhat cut off from the rest of the community, which further adds to the sterile homogeneity.

The planned, pre-fab nature of the whole area leaves it lacking the organic, market-led basis of genuine cultural enclaves. Like the near-empty designer shops which litter cities throughout China, the belief is: Build It, And They Will Come. But if Beijing wants a genuine artistic environment, its motto should be: Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom.