A glimpse into the contemporary art scene
08.15.2008 81 °F
It was like a vacation from a vacation. After several days of running around town, I had yesterday (Thursday) off and seized the opportunity to get out and see some of the city. I first visited Beijing in early October 2000, right after I spent five weeks in Australia for the Sydney Olympics. Back then there were fewer cars, skyscrapers, and urban congestion, plus the weather was spectacular. Note, Dear Reader, to never come to China in the summer...unless you enjoy sweating yourself to near-death. So on that first trip I saw all of the main sights: Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Great Wall, and the Ming Tombs. Having seen those places - especially under much better climactic conditions - I don't feel a huge need to go back.
A couple of months ago we received an e-mail at work from a guy who was asking about buying green coffee from us and having it shipped to Beijing. I replied to him (being the resident Chinese-American at Atlas) and we started going back and forth. Herbert is partner in an Internet company here that seems to be doing well, but his heart is in coffee and he's looking to start a roasting business. He originally is from Hong Kong and went to Carnegie Mellon to study engineering, so he has the mechanical background that will serve him well.
Herbert originally planned to escape Beijing during the Olympics but ended up staying to get minor surgery on a toe. So we made plans to meet up at the Starbucks (!) at the Holiday Inn Lido Plaza, one of the first Western hotels in Beijing that's still somewhat of a local landmark. At the time (11:30am) it was pretty humid outside so I got a sweetened iced tea. We walked around the immediate area surrounding the hotel where there are all these higher-end shops, and on the way to a dumpling restaurant we passed one of the original branches of a local chain of cafes called Sculpting in Time. An odd name, yes, but apparently it's the title of a French movie. The cafe was fairly large and looked pretty cool - they used Illy espresso which was a good sign. We didn't get anything, in spite of a female employee eagerly trailing us with menus in hand as we walked around.
After a great dumpling lunch, we took a taxi to 798, the much-ballyhooed complex of art galleries that's occupies a former factory. Contemporary Chinese art is the rage these days - I had read about it on the New York Times Web site a couple of times over the past few years, and 798 is the center of that movement. The complex is enormous, with multiple buildings and alleyways. The art itself (at least what I saw) ranges from black-and-white photography to sculpture to paintings to these large installations that I cannot even begin to describe (one was like the set for a model train but without the train, though very artsy-fartsy). There was even a gallery representing Japanese artists...who would have thought that Japanese would want to exhibit their works in China!
One of the interesting things I noticed was that there were no prices listed on any of the works. I suppose it's one of those situations in which only people who who can afford these kinds of things will dare to inquire about the cost. At the first gallery we entered, Herbert explained to me how photographs are sold. The gallery sets a limit on the number of prints (30 was the common number that we saw) and will destroy the negative once that cap is reached. The price starts on the lower end for the first few copies, but it climbs as more copies are sold. Each sale is marked on the placard with a red sticker so the potential buyer can see how many copies are left. Pretty ingenious.
It started raining in the mid-afternoon so we ducked into a cafe/restaurant, the second floor of which was a no-smoking section (smoking is rife, though you rarely see women doing it in public). I had a decent americano that was slightly watered down but still decent, and Herbert got a latte that even had latte art on top. Impressive! We continued to talk all things coffee, and in the process I found out that Herbert knows quite a bit - especially for being completely self-taught. He gave me a clearer idea of what the cafe scene is like in Beijing. Starbucks is everywhere, of course...recently the company publicly said that China will be their second-largest market after the U.S. Many copycats have popped up, including UBC Coffee and SPR Coffee (whose lettering and colors mimic Starbucks') that have outlets all over town.
The rain continued to pour down, and when we left the cafe at 4:30pm it was a mess outside. Since Herbert was wearing flip-flops and couldn't get his toe wet, I volunteered to look for a taxi. I sloshed through the streets from almost an hour - the guards at the entrances weren't letting taxis into 798 for some reason, and eventually I lied and told one of them that I was buying art and needed a taxi to protect it from the rain.
Since my cousin Bing and her three kids are flying back to California today (Friday), we were planning on all going out to dinner for Beijing duck last night. Calvin and Bonnie decided to hang out with friends of theirs from Santa Cruz who are also here for the Olympics, so a smaller group of us went to a new branch of a very successful, upscale Sichuan restaurant called South Beauty (don't ask...the Chinese names often don't make sense when they're translated into English). The restaurant was on the top floor of a brand-new, glitzy shopping mall called Euro Plaza that's only 1/5 occupied. Peggy told me that the rent is so high that tenants won't sign leases, so for now it's kind of a ghost town. Not to fear, though...there's a McDonald's on the ground floor! Ugh.
Good thing it rained so hard yesterday, because it's absolutely beautiful outside right now. Blue skies - a rare sight during these Games - and a perfect day to watch the tennis semis. James Blake beat Federer in a rain-delayed quarterfinals match last night, which now gives us an American for whom to cheer. I was a bit bummed that Federer wouldn't be able to redeem his two previous Olympics losses in Sydney and Athens, but I love that Blake beat him for the first time in his entire career. So stay tuned for my next post!