Built by the Russians in the early 1950s as part of a war-reparations deal with Germany, the large-scale state-owned plant in Beijing -then officially named Factory 798 – churned out electronic radios and components by the million.
Architecturally, the sprawling complex was, and remains, pure Bauhaus. But its significance as a state-owned entity waned in the 1990s due to falling orders and other factors. Laid off workers were given parts of the complex as compensation and are now multi-millionaires with the conversion of 798 into a number of individual workshops for rent. Soon came artists, who appreciated the units’ low rental rates, generous spaces and convenient transportation.
Soon the trickle became a gush as more artists from various fields, foreigners as well as Chinese, were attracted. Following massive of redesign and renovation, what is now called the 798 Art Area is today best described as Soho-esque in an ambience encapsulating both its international flavor and the trend of loft-living by some of the artists. In its way, the former home of electronic widgets is now a unique slice of Chinese history and culture.
Much of the art has a protest-cum-political flavour, seeming to resent
modernization, extravagance and wanton capitalism. The Titanium egg is
mucked by protesters, angry plastic mobs denounce capitals, babys stomp
on hamburgers, Beijing’s newest skyscrapers are attacked by primitive
arrows. One leaves wondering how the old can survive in a new world.
Not all the newcomers are wielders of a brush. Along with artists, the building’s tenants now include commercial exhibitors, performers, entrepreneurs from Beijing’s service sector, and people involved with luxury furniture, high-end fashion, food and beverages.
Also to be found at the 798 Art Area are galleries, operatic studios, design companies, restaurants and bars, which are all part of the city’s fast-evolving modern urban lifestyle. These days, multi-culturism is a growing trend, with artists in particular devoting more and more energy in the direction of urban culture and lifestyles.