Friday, December 19, 2008

At the Beijing Capital International Airport

Taiwan is not an international departure destination.

Hotel Review: Lu Song Yuan

The Entrance

I stayed in room 311 of the Lu Song Yuan hotel from 17 to 19 December, 2008. Room 311 is not on the third floor but on the ground floor, by the way.

The Lobby
The main courtyard

The good:
Booking was easy. I simply emailed them to ask the availability of a bedroom, received a reply on the following day, emailed them again to confirm my booking, and received their confirmation and a direction to the hotel (useful to show taxi drivers as this hotel is not well known to them) as email attachments. As I would arrive late, I called them up to give my credit card number (otherwise you don't need to do this), which went on smoothly.

The hotel building dates back to the Qing Dynasty era. The lobby's decor feels traditional with antique furniture and decorated ceilings. So does the bedroom. There are several courtyards, one of which I see through the window of my bedroom. The tea house looks cosy with two shared PCs for internet access.

Near the hotel is Nanluoguaxiang Hutong (see the post below), a narrow street lined with hutongs, Beijing's traditional homes dating back to the 13th century, which house small restaurants, bars, and shops of rather good taste.

The staff members are all friendly though few speak English.

Room 311

The bad:
The location is not as convenient as it seems. It is located in the center of Beijing, but the nearest subway station is a 15 minute walk away. As taxi drivers do not know where this hotel is, going back to the hotel is a bit of a pain in the ass.

There seems to be no way of preventing shower water from spilling into the bathroom floor even with a shower curtain.

The receptionist mistakenly charged my credit card with 1100 yuan at checking-in, which is fine. But when I checked out, it took 15 minutes for her to arrange the refund in cash, shortening my precious time for exploring Beijing before heading for the airport.

The ugly:
The bathroom stinks.

Verdict: if you don't mind breathing with your mouth in the bathroom, it is a great budget hotel in Beijing.

Nanluoguxiang Hutong

A street in Beijing with recently renovated hutongs housing cafes, restaurants, and shops.


A restaurant mostly featuring Taiwanese cuisine despite its Italian name. What's noticeable at this restaurant is the uniformity of waiters and waitresses. All of them have the same haircut (the kind of short hair style popularized first in Tokyo), wear the same kind of clothes (a white shirt, black suit trousers, and either a black jacket or a black vest), and have a round face. It takes some time to realize that some of them are boys while others are girls. The restaurant manager seems to select girlish boys and boyish girls to achieve the unisex appearance. The decor is, I would say, a mixture of Chinese and Scandinavian style.

I order a Taiwanese pickled cabbage for a starter, a Taiwanese stir-fried noodle for the main dish, and a glass of hot milk tea in Hong Kong style. All of them are excellent. The price is 76 yuan (7.60 euro).

Gongti Xilu, the street that Bellagio faces, appears to be a happening place during the night with several restaurants in style like Bellagio (the next door is Green T Cafe, featured in Wallpaper* City Guide) and some nightclubs.

On Line 8 Platform of Beitucheng subway station

If your travel guide to Beijing was published before the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, the subway map in the guide is outdated. It's wise to print out a Beijing subway map with station names both in Chinese and English, like this one or that one, because subway stations do not provide portable maps to visitors.

A Chinese woman playing pool in front of the Water Cube

The Water Cube (aka the National Aquatics Center) doesn't really look beautiful. Fortunately, there is a weird sculpture nearby.

Bird's Nest

What makes Bird's Nest beautiful is the shape of its top edge in entirety. The closer you get, the uglier it becomes.

Entrance to the Forbidden City at night

Lotus Lane at night

After having dinner at No Name Restaurant (see the post below), I stroll down to the south along the western shore of Lake Qianhai. After passing loads of restaurants and bars, most of which are rather tacky, I enter Lotus Lane, where I meet the most disgusting Chinese people. A guy approaches me, talking to me in Chinese. I ignore him as this kind of guy is usually dodgy. But he doesn't give up, following me all the way. Once he realizes I'm not Chinese, he starts talking in broken English, saying, "Chinese girls." I say, "No thank you." But this pimp never gives up, still following me all the way. It's very disgusting and distracting. I tell him out loud, "No thank you." Then he finally gives up.

At the exit of Lotus Lane, a woman approaches me, saying, "Music. Girls." She also never gives up until I tell her out loud, "No thank you."

Chinese pimps are very persistent and disgusting.

No Name Restaurant

For dinner in Beijing, I visit No Name Restaurant, recommended by Wallpaper* City Guide. Finding this spin-off from the pioneering bar in the area surrounding the Houhai Lake without its name (thus known as No Name Bar) is a bit tricky. But once you find it, a real treat awaits you.

The restaurant offers the Yunnan cuisine. The menu is both in Chinese and in English with photos of each dish. Both shredded potato fried in Yunnan style and grilled whole fish stuffed with lemongrass are excellent. Even a cup of tea (Pu-erh tea) is very good. All of these cost 136 yuan (13.6 euro), expensive by Beijing standards but still reasonable for someone from London or Stockholm.

East End Art Zone B

Although it is still an interesting area to explore, the Beijing 798 Art District (see the post below) has become too commercial for some serious contemporary artists. Such artists, also grumpy with rising rent in the 798 District, have migrated to the northeast, by crossing the Fifth Ring Road, and settled in a village named Caochangi. I'm amazed by the fact that Beijing's contemporary art scene has already reached such a second stage. The Caochangi village indeed has no commercialism at all. No billboard. No cafe or restaurant.

East End Art Zone B is a walled area in Caochangi. Inside the premises spreads out a surreal settlement. Every building looks the same: two-story, gray bricked walls, and with a garden surrounded by wooden fences. If you turn more than once, you will lose the sense of direction. No signpost.

On one alleyway sits a giant art piece, possibly thrown away by an artist.

There are two art galleries in the Zone. One of them turns out to be a Japanese one named Mizuma & One Gallery, which displays a work by Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba.

Beijing 798 Art District

After flying back to Beijing yesterday, I spend two nights in the Chinese capital city before heading for Tokyo. The aim is to see how far Beijing has developed to be a modern city.

Taking a taxi from the city center to the northeast for about 20 minutes, I arrive at the much-hyped Beijing 798 Art District (its official website only in Chinese).

The district used to be a place for secret weapon factories back in the 1950s, after communists took over mainland China. The factories were then abandoned until contemporary artists started colonizing the area, because of its cheap rent, in the 1990s.

If the description of the area stops here, it's not particularly unusual. Many cities in the West have such a contemporary artist colony in post-industrial chic. (The most notable is probably Tate Modern in London, the contemporary art museum housed in the former power station.) What's unique about the 798 Art District is that it is located in China, the country with long history and distinct culture, the communist government, billions of people, and "cool" Japan as a neighbor.

Therefore, art galleries are housed in the former factories with occasional appearances of communist slogans on the wall. Chinese letters on the signage look as if they are part of art and design. In an area of 800 meters in width and 400 meters in length, you cannot stop finding more galleries, with even more under construction. The popular art form is painting, often with influences from Japanese manga and socialist propaganda cartoons. Funny-looking giant sculptures stand along streets. In addition, the area is peppered with cafes and restaurants, some in style. One event space in a former factory exhibits the latest autumn/winter collection from several top luxury brands such as Comme des Garcon and Alexander McQueen. All of these make it interesting to explore the district. One day is certainly not enough to see everything.

The red letters say, "Hooray for the Communist Party!"

Chimneys with a giant red-star mug

More chimneys with a giant fly.

With Maoist slogans intact, this unused space in a former weapon factory looks as if it is a piece of art.

The main street in the District

Behind these iron doors spread the latest collections from Comme des Garcons and other luxury brands.

:phunk studio's exhibition at Art Seasons Gallery.

A gallery advertisement in post-industrial chic.

The Artkey 798 Showroom.

Bai Shi Tea House (白石茶館), housed in the Artkey 798 showroom, with piano music in the background. I'd frequent this cafe if I were a Beijing resident. The vibe is perfect.

An unused square in the district

A corridor to galleries

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gallery Show

The first gallery I visit in the 798 Art District is Gallery Show. The pathway to the gallery is already surreal.

The gallery's entrance. Notice a Maoist slogan in Chinese letters on the wall below the broken windows.

The gallery can be reached by walking up the staircase full of graffiti. Letters featured in this graffiti are Korean. This gallery appears to be owned by a Korean.

Above the graffiti remains the floor map used when the building was a weapon factory.

The gallery itself is well-curated. Below are two of the paintings that I like:

Wang Xiao Jin (2007) "Sister No.4"

Tang Jie (2007) "I'm not afraid No.1"

An abandoned bus in the Beijing 798 Art District

A cafe in the Beijing 798 Art District

On Seven Star West Street (E8 in the District map)

Li Gang (2008) "Pink"

From a gallery in the Beijing 798 Art District.

Desire, Believe, and Love

From an art gallery's entrance in the Beijing 798 Art District. I forgot the name of this gallery, but it's located on Seven Star West Street.

Iberia Center for Contemporary Art

On the southern edge of the 798 District stands the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art. (E10 in the District map.)

The Center features a Chinese artist Li Qing.

Li Qing (2007) "Images of Partial Unity - Nanjing"

Displaying two pictures side by side with a few differences between the two characterizes most of Li's works.

Li Qing (2008) "Ping-pong No.2"

Red dots on the ping-pong table indicate where red-inked ping-pong ball landed during the ping-pong play between a player on the side with a map of China and the other player on the side with a map of the world.

The Iberia Center also houses a cafe with nice decor, great food that is NOT Chinese (including Spanish omelets, Thai chicken curry, and a decent cup of coffee), and wireless internet connection for free of charge.

Pan Dehai (2008) "Performing the Loyalty Dance"

From a gallery in the Beijing 798 Art District