When I first lived in Beijing, China from 2003-2005, I attended a party in an area of town very far from my home in the Yizhuang Economic Development Zone in the southeast of the city.
Truthfully, everything was very far from there, but this seemed exceedingly far! The main thing that had attracted me to this party was the fact that I had read they would be serving Absinthe there, and I had been intrigued by this infamous alcoholic beverage after reading about it in magazines such as FHM and seeing it in films like Moulin Rouge. To be honest, the drink wasn’t all that special (I’m not a big fan of things that taste like licorice), but the area intrigued me.
by Immanuel Giel via WikiMedia Commons
It seemed to be an area of former factories that had been taken over, as often happens, by artists and hipsters looking to make a new community out of something rundown and shoddy.
Now, this is China, and the idea of re-gentrification is a bit different here. You don’t have the violent crime, drugs, etc. that often come with inner city areas that are re-gentrified in the west.
I definitely didn’t feel unsafe as I walked around this area like I might have in parts of New York, Washington D.C., or London as they were being re-gentrified.
Instead, it was almost like a post apocalyptic movie where there weren’t many people, but lots of big empty buildings with large pipes running all over the place, many with steam still coming out of them. Needless to say, I hoped to explore this area again one day, but had no idea when that would be since it was so far from where I lived.
by Charlie Fong via WikiMedia Commons
So I was quite shocked when I moved to a new apartment in a different area of the city at the end of my first year in Beijing and found out that I had moved right next door to the area known as 798, which is where the party had been. Within 5 minutes I could be in the maze of alleyways exploring the little art galleries and the small cafes that were scattered around.
One of my favorite cafes was just on the other side of a large, locked gate from the main road I lived on. It was called Vincent’s, and I have to admit I climbed over that fence more than once to get to the crepes (both savory and sweet varieties available) quicker than it would have taken me to walk all the way around through the gates that were open.
As I left Beijing for a new adventure in Brazil in June of 2005, I noticed a slight change in the area that had interested me so much just a few months earlier. When I returned to Beijing in 2007 I saw this change had multiplied faster than I could have imagined.
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Just like every other spot in the world that has re-gentrified, the 798 Art District had become commercial. Where once was a slightly seedy area with small art galleries that doubled as artist work spaces, now there were large commercial art galleries with price tags on the art work beyond what I could ever afford.
The number of cafes multiplied, and with it came many more tourist friendly shops and restaurants.
I am not against modernization or capitalism in general. I have gone back to 798 almost every time I have returned to Beijing to visit since I left it in 2008, and I still enjoy the area for its uniqueness.
There are still the pipes running all over the place, many with steam still coming out of them. There are still the alleyways that are easy to get lost in. And I do not mind the fact that the area is cleaner and much better sign posted than in the past. But it definitely has lost some of the things that made it an interesting place.
As with everywhere else I used to go in Beijing, a city that has changed faster than anywhere else I have ever lived or visited, I have a slight nostalgic twinge as I walk around remembering what used to be and comparing it to what it currently is.
by gongfu_king – 798_6. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The 798 Art District is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Beijing. All you have to do is get into a taxi and say (in Chinese) 798, and they know where you want to go.
It is close to one of my favorite areas in Beijing, the Lido area, which has tons of restaurants and shops (both local and expat friendly). This is another area that has changed quite dramatically since I first visited over a decade ago, but that is another story for another time. In the meantime, I hope you will give 798 some of your time, and if you ever saw it in its former state, I hope you will remember what it was while admiring what it has become.