It’s August in Beijing; the city’s expat community has shed its departing families and welcomed a fresh batch. Whether you’re new to Beijing, or just returning from vacation, walking the city’s streets is a great way to acquaint, or reacquaint, yourself with the capital. We spotlight four walking itineraries across the ‘Jing selected by some of its best tour guides. Get out and explore before school starts! This part two of a four part series, find part one here, two here, and three here.
Featured Guide: Clemence Grinnell and Mirella Coolen (Off the Wall)
Clemence Grinnell moved to Beijing in 2014, with her husband and three boys aged between 7 and 16. Before their move to Beijing, the family lived in France, where Grinnell worked in the tourism business. This summer Grinnell took over the Beijing operations of Off The Wall from its founder Mirella Coolen, who recently relocated to Shanghai.
Off the Wall’s tours take place on foot, or by bike, to places where you can discover the richness of Chinese history and observe the contrast with modern China. Taking you off the beaten track, their tours help you discover a myriad of hidden gems. Children over 12 are welcome on all tours. For younger children, contact Clemence to discuss. For further information, and the current tour schedule and prices, phone 138 1147 8712, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.offthewallbeijing.com.
798 Art district is located in the Dashanzi area, to the northeast of central Beijing. It is the site of state-owned factories, including Factory 798, which originally produced electronics. In the 1950’s the area was a major center of production, with multiple factories making military components. Designed by East German architects, the compound was constructed in a distinctly utilitarian way, with ‘saw-tooth’ roof designs and high ribbed ceilings, north-facing windows, and vast spaces.
By the late 1990s, Factory 798 became redundant and was vacated. Beginning 2002, artists and cultural organizations began to move in, attracted by the low rents. The factory spaces were re-modeled and developed into galleries, art centers, artists’ studios, design companies, restaurants, and bars. “The unique architectural Bauhaus-style gives the area a distinct ambience of art nouveau in China, with a European touch,” explains Grinnell. Machines, steam trains, tall chimneys, and painted-red slogans act as a reminder of its history, all of which is incorporated into Off the Wall’s tour.
Today the site brings together contemporary art, architecture, and culture within this historically interesting location. It symbolizes the country’s cutting edge art movement, and is one of the largest and most influential art districts. “To me, it’s like a very attractive open-air museum,” says Coolen. “So many pieces of art, sculptures, and statues are just waiting to be discovered in the network of alleys.”
The tour includes a visit to the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), founded by Belgian art collectors Guy and Myriam Ullens in November 2007. It’s located in the heart of the district and contains an extensive collection of works by contemporary Chinese artists. It is considered to be the world’s largest and one of the best. The museums spare galleries, exposed support beams, and high ceilings so clearly recall the Bauhaus-style building’s original features.
798 Space Gallery was the first gallery to open, and was set up by designer artist Huang Rui and Hutong photographer Xu Yong. It has an impressive 1,200 square meter floor space, and is up to nine meters high. It’s a trendy space, which hosts cultural, artistic, and commercial activities. “The cavernous space, with its multiple-arched roof, still breathes the factory’s ambience. With Mao Zedong’s propaganda in the background,” says Grinnell.
A great spot to take a break is AT Café, which serves good coffee. This glass-fronted cafe, owned by Huang Rui, was set up in the former office section at the back of the 798 space. You can’t leave without visiting the restrooms upstairs, where you can enjoy the beautiful photos that are displayed on the exposed brick walls.
The tour will take you through the district and away from the commercial streets. Further to the east you will find the leftovers of the huge factories, where their chimneys and pipes remain. Here, you get a greater sense of the scale of this immense compound, where many of the factory employees lived, inside fully furnished apartments. “These buildings give the area its unique and distinguished character, although it was very nearly all demolished,” explains Coolen. Thankfully, a decision was made in 2007 that the area would continue in its current format of a special art zone.
Cao Yong Art World is Coolen’s favorite stop on the tour, and since its opening has become one of the most visited art spaces in 798. Unlike most local artists, Henan born Cao Yong built his fame in the American and Japanese art communities before bringing his creations to China. He spent seven years in Tibet, one year living alone in a cave in Ali, an unpopulated area in the far west of the region. “During those days, he spent his time copying the remains of ancient wall paintings,” explains Coolen. “His work includes some truly wonderful paintings. The colors and the details are just exceptional.”
The tour comes to an end in the heart of the district, with lunch on the terrace of Timezone 8. The menu includes salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza, and a range of Asian dishes.
798 Art District
4 Jiuxianqiao Lu 酒仙桥路4号www.798district.com
Open Tue-Sun 10am-7pm. UCCA regularly organizes art workshops for children of different age groups. For details on workshops, contact 8459 9269 or visit their website www.ucca.org.cn
Contact 6438 4862 / 6437 6248.
Daily 11am-11pm. Contact 6438 7264.
Daily 11am-2am. Contact (5978 9917, email@example.com) www.restaurant.timezone8.com
This article originally appeared on page 62-63 of the beijingkids August 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Courtesy of Off the Wall