Goodbye to snobbery but how long will it last?

By Zhao Xu (China Daily)
(China Daily 04/10/2009 page18)

By all signs, 798 Art District - the number refers to its 1950s central Bauhaus building - seems to have embarked on a "de-gentrification" process of its own. The wave of bourgeois bohemia, with its special mix of commerce, public spiritedness and urban snobbery, has been receding since late last year.

Boutique stores that sell "re-interpretative" Chinese fashion to foreign visitors have witnessed a drop in business. And since runway spectacles are no longer considered "essential" under the gloomy economic climate, D-Park, a design stronghold that opened in 798 in early 2007 and hosts the twice-yearly Beijing Fashion Week, had only 20 shows in March, compared with more than 50 last November.

If you listen to some people, however, like those who came to 798 early in the piece and who claim to have driven its transformation, this sudden reversal of fortunes had been anticipated, and welcomed.

"798 today is quite unlike when I first came," said Lu Jie, founder and director of Long March Space, which made 798 home back in 2002, when much of the site was still functioning as factory workshops.

The shrieking and hollering of machines may have been disruptive at times but Lu said artists generally lived in harmony with whatever remained of the fast-vanishing industrial era. Exhibited works often featured some of its longest residents - workers who saw the ongoing "encroachment" of their workplace with bewildered amusement.

The half-desolate factory compound, built in the 1950s with East German design and Soviet money, had provided the artists with an ideal sanctuary and plenty of inspiration. In recent years, though, it flourished, thanks largely to the meteoric rise of contemporary Chinese art overseas. It is no longer the poor man's land and artists' haven it used to be. Jerome Sans, director of Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), said gentrification is merely "a natural process".

"If you look at what has happened to Soho, and now Chelsea, artists are the best inventors - and reinventors - of a place," he said. "That's why they are always followed, especially by those in the fashion and design industry."

Long Yu, director of Amelie Gallery, believes the current 798 is a vast improvement on the old. "Artists get nostalgic about the former 798 in the same way we do our childhood," she said. "But 798 today is not just a congregation of art galleries, it's a vital, fully grown eco-system in which all parts complement each other."

Moreover, the downturn is not wholly bad. The area has regained some of its quirky personality and a rent reduction is in the air.

But is the trend of gentrification truly reversible?

"It's true that history tends to repeat itself," said Lu, lamenting the commercialization - and corruption - of formerly avant-garde art colonies around the world. "But the uniqueness of 798 lies not only in its architecture, its history and memory, but also in its dream of China first as an industrial powerhouse and then as a creative hotbed."

"That dream goes on."