The Design Observer Group

Posted 05.07.12

An Xiao Mina

Art Village: A Year in Caochangdi

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre
Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, designed by Ai Weiwei, Caochangdi, Beijing. [Photo by Kapooka Baby]

The warning arrived early on an April morning in 2010: a sheet of paper emblazoned with the red seal of the local party. “Notice,” it said, in big, bold Chinese characters. “Due to the rapid development of our cities, our village belongs to a demolition area. The date for demolition is uncertain.” The village secretary personally delivered the notice, one of hundreds issued that day in Caochangdi Art Village, on the outskirts of Beijing.

RongRong was busy when the message arrived. He and his wife, inri — founders and co-directors of the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre — were planning to launch Caochangdi’s first annual art festival, PhotoSpring, the next day. [1] In the decade since the influential artist Ai Weiwei had moved to this sleepy district just off the Airport Expressway, Caochangdi had grown into an international center of contemporary art. Three Shadows played a major role in that transformation. Founded in 2007, the sprawling 4,600-square-meter gallery complex, designed by Ai, was the first contemporary art space dedicated exclusively to Chinese photography. RongRong hoped that PhotoSpring would further unify the district’s galleries through a couple of months of exhibitions.

Now the demolition notice put all that in jeopardy; RongRong worried the festival would be canceled. Residents could challenge the eviction, but their chances for success were slim. When the nearby art village of Suojiacun was razed the year before, artists had only a few weeks’ notice to vacate their studios, and some carted out their work as bulldozers approached. [2]

Neighborhood demolitions, and the lives they disrupt, have become a common story in Beijing and across China, and not only in arts communities. In 2011, China became for the first time a mostly urban country, with more than half the population living in cities. [3] Today more than a third of Beijing’s 20 million residents are migrants, and because they need spaces to live, work and play, the city's traditional housing, scattered in a mazelike warren of hutong, or alleyways, is being demolished at record rates. In its place rise multi-story offices, shopping centers and apartment buildings. A staggering 2 billion square meters of new buildings are added in China each year. [4]

Demolition of Beijing Hutong
Demolished hutong neighborhood in central Beijing. [Photo by Remko Tanis]

Many demolitions, as in RongRong’s case, are planned by the government. [5] But some are “land grabs” initiated by developers without official oversight; in such cases shadowy demolition crews evict residents by force or with inadequate compensation. Indeed, land seizures and disputes are now the chief cause of social unrest in China. [6] The most resilient residents resort to life as dingzi hu — literally “nail households" that stick out like a stubborn nail because they refuse to budge. But eventually they give up, and when the bulldozers roll in, few beyond the immediate community pay much heed. [7] Anyone living in the path of development — poor or middle class, famous or anonymous — can be served an eviction notice, and there’s little chance for recourse in a country with a complicated history of property rights.

Yi Bei Yi Xi
The Chinese have a saying, yi bei yi xi: “one part sad, one part happy.” It turned out to be that kind of day for RongRong and inri; the demolition notice was followed by official confirmation from the Ministry of Culture that PhotoSpring would be allowed to proceed. The event had been heavily promoted in the international art media, and much of Beijing’s cultural community would be present. RongRong and inri realized they had the perfect opportunity. Together with artist Huang Rui and curator Berenice Angremy, they decided to use PhotoSpring as a platform for galvanizing resistance to the demolition of Caochangdi. On opening day they held a forum for concerned residents to speak out, and they organized an online petition.

It was a risky path. Resistance elsewhere had resulted in neighborhood-wide violence. Just two months earlier, thugs armed with sticks had come at night to beat artists who were resisting eviction in Beijing’s 008 Art Zone, where the power and water had already been shut off. After the 008 artists staged a protest along Chang An Boulevard — the main east-west thoroughfare of the city, which passes Tiananmen Square — their leader, photographer and installation artist Wu Yuren, was jailed on questionable charges. He was freed after 10 months, but the village remains in shambles. [8] More recently, in December 2011, an entire town in southern China was surrounded by riot police. Officials struggled to contain a village-wide protest against forced evictions; five protesters were abducted and one died in police custody before tensions were quelled. [9]

008 Arts District demolition
Bleeding wall of artist Liu Yi's studio, the last building standing after the demolition of the 008 Art Zone, Beijing. [Photo by Remko Tanis]

But if the Caochangdi artists were worried about retribution, they didn’t let it stop them. “Doing this was a way of expressing my inner feelings,” RongRong later told me. “How can this not be expressed?”

In preparation for PhotoSpring, the artists had created a map of village galleries, which they could now use to highlight the district’s economic and cultural development and make a case for survival. This was a strategic move. Historically, the Chinese Communist Party has placed a high value on creative fields. Mao Zedong studied calligraphy and poetry, and the party officially recognizes art as a vital cultural industry. [10] Chinese art auction sales recently surpassed those in the U.S. and now comprise about 40 percent of the world market. [11] During the 2008 Olympics, Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, a gallery district sometimes compared to New York’s Chelsea or SoHo, became a major attraction for foreign tourists and dignitaries. 

In fact, though Caochangdi hosted a number of influential galleries, it could hardly compete with the more established 798 Art Zone, just two miles away. The paved streets of 798 were lined with chic cafés and galleries serving a lucrative foreign art market; outside RongRong’s stylish studio, Caochangdi was a one-square-kilometer area of dusty dirt roads, with trash spilling onto the ground from open-air dumpsters. The artist-residents worried that demolition seemed inevitable, and they alerted each other whenever they saw construction machinery roll through. They kept the phone numbers of moving companies handy and made sure their artworks and supplies could be quickly packed. The demo crews could come at any time.

Galerie Urs Meile
Galerie Urs Meile, designed by Ai Weiwei, Caochangdi, Beijing. [Photo by Kapooka Baby]

The Town That Ai Weiwei Built, and the Town He Didn’t
I arrived in Caochangdi some six months after that nervous spring, on January 12, 2011, a bitter winter afternoon fading into night. I had moved to the village to assist Ai Weiwei in developing the Gwangju Design Biennale, but he wasn’t there to welcome me. That same day, cranes and bulldozers had begun tearing down Ai’s satellite studio near Shanghai, and he had flown down to document the destruction. [12] I had seen the photos he tweeted. As I rode into Caochangdi, I imagined the village’s galleries and art spaces suffering the same fate.

In 1999, Ai had set up his home and studio on an empty road at 258 Caochangdi and triggered an influx of artists and galleries. Today his architectural signature is everywhere: the wavy brick layers of Three Shadows; the China Art and Archives Warehouse; the tall, imposing Red Brick Galleries complex, which houses Chambers Fine Art and Li Space. Imitation designs have even been built alongside the originals. The district supports a vibrant mix of galleries and studios, well connected to art spaces in the United States and Europe and regularly featured in Western publications like the New York Times and Artinfo. It’s no exaggeration to say that Caochangdi today is the result of the gravitational pull of an artist famous enough to have an asteroid named after him.

And yet the village is also home to a strong community of rural migrants from all over China. In our daily exchanges, they often asked what brought me there, and I’d tell them who had invited me. “Do you know who Ai Weiwei is?” I’d ask the shopkeepers, market vendors, restaurant staff, bicycle repairmen. Their faces registered no hint of recognition. I thought at first that they didn’t understand my accent, but then I realized they had no idea who he was. Partly this was due to state censorship: Ai’s name can be difficult to search for on the Chinese internet. But the simpler explanation is that they just had different concerns and social spheres.

Closed-circuit television camera outside the home and studio of Ai Weiwei, Caochangdi, Beijing. [Photo by An Xiao Mina]

Caochangdi is a microcosm of 21st-century China. Rural migrants come from the provinces — historic Hubei,  impoverished Anhui, subtropical Sichuan — in search of opportunity in the big cities, but a lack of marketable skills and the inability to gain an urban hukou, or residency status, limit their access to housing and prevent them from obtaining social services like education and health care. They can’t afford to live in the expensive new neighborhoods in the center, so they live on the margins, where they remain in a legal gray zone until the money and luck run out or the demolition trucks roll in. [13]

The migrant community in Caochangdi is just across the street from the galleries that play host to internationally renowned artists and fashionably dressed collectors; but the two worlds remain parallel. Many of the migrants workers use public baths and they burn coal to keep warm; some sleep in makeshift residences alongside construction sites. Those who have kitchens in their apartments share them with neighbors; those who don’t can eat outside at one of the many street vendors and restaurants, where a meal of dabing — a crepe-like snack stuffed with lettuce, pork and tofu — can be had for the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents.

Chengzhongcun: A Village within the City
Before moving to Caochangdi, I’d known two models of living for the urban poor. On the one hand there was my native Los Angeles. Growing up in Silver Lake, I lived with my family in a low-cost apartment in what was then an undesirable neighborhood. Those below us on the socioeconomic ladder lived in public housing projects. Such spaces aren’t always safe, but they’re for the most part legal and relatively cheap. On the other hand there was Manila, where my family was from originally. There shantytowns pop up on stilts above rivers; the poorest residents cluster into informal neighborhoods and create their own micro-economies, illegally occupying the land and rigging up houses, while the government pretends not to notice.

Top: Street life in Caochangdi. Bottom left: Dabing, a crepe-like snack often stuffed with eggs, tofu or pork. Bottom right: Makeshift outdoor kitchen used by migrant construction workers. [Photos by An Xiao Mina]

Caochangdi is something else altogether: a chengzhongcun, literally, a village within the city. It exists somewhere between these two models, on the blurry edge between legal and illegal — and as such it is typical of the paradoxes of contemporary China, where the official certainties of the authoritarian system can get messier and more complicated on the ground. To understand how this works, it helps to step back a generation.

Caochangdi, which means “grassland," was once farmland; during the Cultural Revolution, the government of Mao Zedong banished urban intellectuals to these grasslands, then on the rural outskirts. But in the next generation, during the economic reforms initiated under Deng Xiaoping, as Beijing expanded — and expanded — Caochangdi was absorbed into the city; it became one of the more than 850 urban villages scattered throughout the capital. [14] And because of its roots, Caochangdi’s leaseholders have legal rights to the land solely for rural development; instead they have chosen to construct residential and commercial buildings without permission.

“Most of the buildings in Caochangdi are not legal,” confirmed Mary-Ann Ray, a SCI-Arc professor who, with her partner, Robert Mangurian, runs B.A.S.E. Beijing, an architectural research studio across the street from Ai’s studio. Ray and Mangurian are the authors of Caochangdi Inside Out, a comprehensive study of the village’s history and architecture. [15] Their B.A.S.E. complex, a sublease of a sublease of a sublease, is not legal, and was among the buildings marked for demolition in the spring of 2010. According to the authors’ research, as many as 80 percent of the village’s buildings exist in this extra-legal gray zone. Of course, that doesn’t stop landowners from collecting rent. On the low end, residents pay less than 50 USD per month for a small room — a common rate in migrant settlements. What makes Caochangdi different is that it also has luxury spaces where rent can be a thousand times higher.

Caochangdi, 2007. Black indicates buildings that are not legal. [Map by Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray]

While it’s easy to assume demolitions are targeted at certain groups for political or social reasons, the reality is often more mundane. “As a rule, demolitions are for economic, bureaucratic and commercial reasons,” said Sus Van Elzen, a researcher from Belgium, whose book Dragon and Rose Garden traces the impact of Beijing’s urban development on arts communities. He quickly noted that the case of Ai’s studio in Shanghai is a rare example of politically motivated demolition. “The demolition of Caochangdi seem to me commercially motivated,” he said. But, of course, in an opaque bureaucratic system there’s no way to be certain.

A Village Saved, A Village Discovered
There’s no dramatic ending to this story, no massive uprising, no violent crackdown, no corrupt party officials or vicious army of thugs. In May 2011, four months after my arrival and a year after Caochangdi residents organized to challenge the demolition plans, they received official notice that the village would be spared.

Why Caochangdi? The question stayed with me throughout my sojourn in Beijijng as I navigated a city that seemed to change with vertiginous speed. One weekend I would bike to villages outside the city and find condemned buildings and abandoned schools. Another weekend I would bike through the brand-new developments that had replaced them: nondescript townhouse complexes that could just as easily have been in the California exurbs. Every day the news was filled with demolition stories. Why should this small village of artists and migrants be spared?

Condominiums under construction in a suburb north of Caochangdi. [Photo by An Xiao Mina]

The answer unfolded over the course of my year in Caochangdi. My first day at the supermarket, a young child squatted and peed on the floor near my shoe, and my stomach rumbled when I dared to sample the street food. I struggled to speak Mandarin with the villagers, whose thick accents revealed that Mandarin was a second language for many of them, too. Caochangdi seemed utterly foreign, even to someone who'd grown up eating dim sum on weekends in L.A.’s Chinatown. Bitter cold and homesickness kept me indoors and under blankets much of the time, and when I did go out, I socialized with other expats in the nearby districts of Sanlitun and Lido Place, where we could find a Starbucks and American-style cocktail bars.

But after a few months, I started to make friends with the village artists. I met up with them at Fodder Factory, the restaurant I dubbed “the Cheers of Caochangdi,” where everyone knew my name and we drank Yanjing beer late into the night. In the summer we gathered outside at plastic tables for lamb skewers and conversations about politics and art. We hung out in studios and posted silly pictures of ourselves on the microblogging service Sina Weibo. [16] I started to prefer quiet nights in Caochangdi’s dusty streets over the glittering bars in downtown Beijing.

And as my Chinese improved, I found myself welcomed by the rural migrant community, who switched to Mandarin from their local dialects when I stopped by. Their children called me ayi, “auntie,” and jiejie,“big sister.” I learned about the towns they came from, the lives they left behind. Those with families and children confessed to me the heartbreaking anxieties of life on the margins. I remember being excited to see that the village was laying gas pipes for heating, which would reduce the use of toxic coal and make life more comfortable. The villagers I spoke to, however, were concerned about higher rents and gas fees and worried that they could no longer afford to live in their homes. [17]

Gas pipes laid throughout Caochangdi in the summer of 2011. [Photo by An Xiao Mina]

But for Chinese young people — people in their twenties — the city is a dream of new opportunity, a place far from their families where they can at last declare their independence. The young Chinese I met lived alone or with a partner — a new phenomenon in a society that has traditionally valued the family unit — and revel in their freedom. They worked as graphic designers, teachers, cafe workers. They owned smart phones that beeped constantly with chats from the instant messenger service Tencent QQ, and they surfed the web on netbooks armed with USB modems.

Caochangdi also attracts the increasingly mobile members of the global creative class, who jet to cities and countries in search of work, opportunity and adventure. During the year my friends came and went, travelers and temporary residents, seeking community with the help of social media, coworking spaces and expat neighborhoods. [18] Every day, I saw new foreign faces struggling to navigate Caochangdi’s nameless streets. Some would stay and set up a studio or work in a gallery. Most I would never see again.

Ultimately all of these groups — rural migrants, itinerant artists, global expats, independent youth — were seeking some stability, a sense of home and community; and this is what the chengzhongcun provides, just as much as studio spaces and new opportunities. In an increasingly mobile and urbanized society, the village counteracts the anonymity of the megalopolis. Contemporary Chinese cities are sprawling places, with balkanized neighborhoods connected by elevated highways and complex networks of buses and trains. It’s easy to disappear. The first question Caochangdi villagers would ask me was Ni shi nali ren? — “Where are you from?” It’s important to know people’s roots in a city where so many are uprooted. [19]

The author's habitual breakfast spot, serving baozi (buns) and jiaozi (dumplings). [Photo by An Xiao Mina]

No one can say for sure what saved Caochangdi. Probably it was the right combination of savvy political maneuvering, commercial interest and international attention. After RongRong’s petition and media outreach, the village leader branded Caochangdi as a Cultural Industry Zone, a bureaucratic category that improved on its previous status as New Socialist Village. [20] Surely it didn’t hurt that international galleries had set up shop and attracted foreign money. But the idealist in me thinks there’s another explanation. I can’t help but think that this community, and the way it came together, helped to stop the demolition. Without this kind of solidarity RongRong would never have been able to organize a petition and highlight the village’s cultural value. [21]

Like the Grass: The Future of Caochangdi
I often received messages on Sina Weibo from anonymous people who said they saw me at this or that restaurant in Caochangdi, or that they wanted to say hi as I biked past. “You live across from me,” one young woman messaged me once. “I always see you.” In any other context, this would have felt at best awkward, and most likely downright creepy. But in Caochangdi it felt natural.

“Say hi next time,” I told her. She did, and we soon had dinner. I taught her English and she taught me Chinese. She took me out to buy Beijing specialty snacks, I brought friends to her cafe, and one day we all shared a big meal of home-cooked food. In all my years in different neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York, I’ve politely chatted with my neighbors, made efforts to learn their names and to say good morning. But I don’t think we ever shared a meal.

Caochangdi alley. [Photo by Russell Stadler]

One day, against all my instincts as an Angeleno, I stopped locking my bike. I called it a one-person performance art piece, a performance only I knew about. The village had always felt safe, and I saw many bikes left out on the road. Mine was a bright yellow folding bike, and friends told me it would be an easy target for thieves. But I was willing to gamble its price — 30 USD — for the sake of a social experiment.

The bike traveled with me everywhere, as I snaked through the village’s narrow alleys. I rang my bell to warn people that I was coming, and I wore a face mask to keep the dust out of my mouth. Everyone knew where I was when they saw my bike parked on the side of the road. “An Xiao!” good friends would call out. “Hei ni hao!” I would shout back.

Near the end of my stay in Caochangdi, I biked over to Three Shadows to speak with RongRong. In the library on the second floor, I asked him what he thought the future held. Could the village maintain its sense of community and its unique blend of artists and migrants? Or would it have to transform into a highly commercial space like 798 to survive?

“Caochangdi needs to stay as it is right now,” he said. “Each space, each gallery has its own way of doing things. ... The city government has to face the reality that the village has changed. They can’t rely on old plans and documents signed 10 years ago about the way the space would be portioned off.” He gestured to the green lawn out the window. “It’s like the grass,” he said. “The varieties that are native to the soil or attuned to the environment are what can survive, not what is controlled by the government. It has to grow naturally.”

Top: Red Brick Galleries complex, designed by Ai Weiwei, Caochangdi, Beijing. [Photo by An Xiao Mina] Bottom left: Donkey Institute of Contemporary Art. [Photo by Edward Sanderson] Bottom right: “Country Fair,” organized by Emi Uemura, Vitamin Creative Space. [Photo by Edward Sanderson]

I think often about that conversation. With the threat of demolition still fresh in residents’ memories, it’s difficult to imagine the Caochangdi I knew existing for much longer. The local government is now trying to rebrand the area, adding cultural amenities and public infrastructure like trash cans and an outdoor dance space. [22] Chinese brand stores like Semir are moving in. It’s not quite H&M, but it’s a sign of things to come. Independent cafes with wifi are popping up. Prices for dinner are steadily rising. When I left Caochangdi this past winter, rumors were floating that the streets, now unmarked, might soon have names.

But in that moment Caochangdi was just the grasslands, a village where native and foreign grasses grew naturally. I retrieved my bike and took a scenic route back to my studio, zipping along a back alley and through a gap in a fence that locals had shown me. I carried the bike up a few steps and coasted past the street vendors selling an assortment of fruits, pet goldfish and English and Chinese books. Some were beginning to sell gloves and face masks for the coming winter. I passed the square and cruised along the main drag, with its supermarkets and hair salons and thinly-veiled sex shops. I turned left into an alley, dodging a stray dog and a man in pajamas on his way to the public bath. Then I rolled past the internet cafe, where people were busy shooting each other in video games or watching soap operas, and I waved hello to the lady who operates the local laundromat.

Turning down the restaurant corridor, I saw construction workers squatting and enjoying noodles beside a makeshift outdoor kitchen. The owner of my favorite homestyle cooking shop shouted “Hello!” in English, eager to use the one word he knew. I held my breath as I passed the public restrooms and dumpster and rang my bell while weaving through families who’d just picked up fresh meat at the open-air market. “Ciao!” I belted out when I passed some Italian friends, eager to use the one word I knew. Then I entered the heart of gallery territory, quiet on a weekday afternoon but for a few tall foreigners and Chinese, armed with notebooks, price lists and iPhones. I rolled past their black cars and yawning drivers.

I tried to sear it all into my memory: old men playing Chinese chess, a cart of bootleg art books, a recessed coffee shop and patio, a corner grocery vendor, a Korean kindergarten turned into apartments, bored plainclothes police slumped in their vans, the old basketball court no one ever used, the art delivery trucks, the famous artists, the glamorous curators, the children playing with toy dump trucks outside the real construction zones, the local toughs puffing cheap cigarettes, the line-dancing women, the building-wide banners promoting new exhibitions, the round-faced babies, the flat-faced dogs, the tricycle carts and electric bicycles, the art supply stores, the sizzle and smell of lamb skewers.

When I arrived home, I left my bike unlocked, like I did every day, outside my apartment. A few weeks later, on my last day in the city, I gave it to a friend and neighbor who had never gotten around to buying one.

“Let me know when you come back,” she said, in Chinese, as I handed her the key to the lock I never used. “It will still be here.”