The Great Walls of China

Exploring the contemporary art worlds of Beijing and Shanghai

By: By Patricia Gajo

The Details

North American visitors can fly directly into Shanghai’s Pudong or Beijing’s Capital international airports. United Airlines has direct flights to both cities from San Francisco.

Between Beijing and Shanghai, Air China offers hourly flights which last approximately two hours long.

A more relaxing and affordable option, at less than half the price of airfare, is to take the 7 p.m. overnight train with sleeper cabins. Travelers get dinner in Shanghai at the outset and arrive in Beijing just before breakfast, and vice versa. The trip takes about 12 hours and costs just under $73.

Getting from your hotel to the art districts themselves may prove more of a challenge. Suggest clients take a taxi instead of the bus and have them ask the hotel concierge to inform the driver of their destination, especially since the names M50 and Dashanzi sound very different in Mandarin.

Also, at, clients can search and print out key addresses in Chinese characters that they can give to their taxi driver. The Web site is a great general city resource for English speakers as well.

Air China 
Smart Shanghai 
United Airlines 

Dashanzi and M50 are both situated along the periphery of their respective cities. So, unless clients are not planning to visit any other sites, you will likely want to book their room in a more central area.

In Shanghai it seems there are endless options for hotel accommodations. Not many cities can claim two Hyatts — Grand Hyatt Shanghai and Hyatt on the Bund — and a third, the Park Hyatt Shanghai, scheduled to open this fall.

Thanks to the recent Olympics, Beijing is full of a number of five-star hotel accommodations, too. Beijing alone boasts five Shangri-La locations, with the most elegant one situated near the Summer Palace.

Hyatt Hotels 
Shangri-La Hotels 

798 Space gallery 
Beijing 798 Art Zone 
Chinese Contemporary gallery 
Long March Space gallery 
Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery 
Timezone 8 Books & Cafe 
Art Scene China 
Cafe Mojo 

Eastlink Gallery 
Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts 
Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai 
ShanghART Gallery 
Traveled Coffee & Tea

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Scroll down for details on getting to Beijing or Shanghai, where to stay and where to go

Following the recent Beijing Olympics, all eyes are focused on China. As travelers flow into the East and marvel at its ancient treasures, many are delighted to discover the country’s thriving contemporary art scene, which is also making international waves. In the exciting, gentrified locales of Beijing and Shanghai, China’s creative communities blend new and old worlds alike, allowing visitors a unique glimpse into the country’s engaging dichotomy and, potentially, an opportunity to score a one-of-a-kind, or at least a limited-edition, souvenir.

During the 1950s, an agreement between China and the USSR to unite military and industrial interests gave birth to the Dashanzi factory complex in Beijing.

798 Space Gallery // (c) Patricia Gajo
798 Space Gallery 

Now officially called the Dashanzi Art District, locals have affectionately baptized the entire area as the 798 Factory or 798 District, referring to the biggest building that now houses 798 Space Gallery. Modern photography, sculpture, abstract installations and remnants of Maoist slogans quietly remind passers-by of Dashanzi’s not-so-distant past.

Some five revolutionary decades later, the area possesses a bohemian Greenwich Village air. Tall indoor spaces maximize natural light and offer optimal conditions for current gallery incarnations. And there is literally a maze of exhibitions to see. The Long March Space and Chinese Contemporary galleries promise enough stimuli to challenge even the most abstract of thinkers. For photography aficionados, must-see spots are 798 Photo and Paris-Beijing Photo.

Dashanzi is also home base to Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, where students mingle on a daily basis with resident artists and workers in the few factories still in operation. Locals and tourists are also valuable members of this vibrant community, criss-crossing from building to building, strolling in and out of one gallery to the next.

There are several quaint eateries for break time and people watching, and one of the most popular is the Timezone 8 Bookstore & Cafe, owned and operated by Texas native Robert Bernell. Clients can peruse his eclectic book selection before taking in a light lunch from a Western menu of sandwiches, pastas, soups and salads.

Often snubbed by Beijing’s intellectual crowd as being the superficial little sister, Shanghai always seems to be in an extreme state of transformation. At the moment, the city is preparing for the 2010 World Exposition with massive construction taking place near its ports. Some go so far as to call Shanghai The Paris of the East, likening its futuristic Pearl Tower to the Eiffel Tower.

Etymologically speaking, Shanghai translates roughly to "city by the sea," a logical name considering its earlier importance as a fishing and textiles port. Here, along Suzhou Creek and nestled within the Putuo District’s decommissioned cotton and wool spinning mills from the 1930s, another art enclave has emerged.

Although it’s called the Chunming Art Industrial Park, locals will likely scratch their heads until you say M50, a fashionable derivation of its central address at 50 Moganshan Road. Much more cozy and intimate than Dashanzi, M50 contains big and small workshops that sit on top of each other, sharing real estate with a cosmopolitan brotherhood of galleries, design studios and architectural and media firms.

For art patrons, the ShanghART, Art Scene, BizArt and Eastlink galleries are the big contenders and often the biggest crowd pleasers; the latter is well-worth the climb up five flights of stairs. At a recent auction, a portrait by respected artist Huang Yan, infamous for painting traditional Chinese art on the human form, was estimated between $2,200 and $3,000. It’s a hefty price indeed, but mere peanuts in light of artists such as Yue Minjun, often considered the grandfather of Chinese contemporary art whose works are now worth millions.

While exploring M50, clients can check out a smaller outpost of the Timezone 8 Books & Cafe near the Moganshan entranceor or the adjacent Traveled Coffee & Tea.

They can also bookend the day in the painfully hip Taikang Lu area. Spread throughout a bustling hutong (traditional Chinese neighborhood), vegetable peddlers and old-time residents live in harmony alongside modern coffee shops, miniature pizza joints and clothing boutiques. Here, clients can discuss brush strokes and lighting techniques over cappuccinos and free Wi-Fi at Cafe Mojo. Zealous tourists may want to purchase "I heart Shanghai" T-shirts in town, available at Produc-T.

If an extra day permits, clients should visit the Ke Center for the Contemporary Arts. The center, which occupies a former rubber factory, is free and offers daily events. Another worthy attraction is the Museum of Contemporary Arts Shanghai adjacent to the People’s Park and the picturesque lotus pond of Barbarossa Lounge.

Unlike many of China’s landmarks that have staked permanent places on the map, China’s art districts — despite their popularity — tend to have a more transient lease on land. As newer, more lucrative businesses spread out, they creep in and push out older infrastructures.

When pop art icon Andy Warhol, whose portrait of Mao Zedong recently sold for $17.4 million, said, "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," he overlooked the artists of Dashanzi and M50. Their works merit much more than the quarter hour allotted in Warhol’s prophecy. While there are no guarantees that they will become household names in the West, they will surely leave lasting impressions in any visitor’s memory — and maybe even one on the living-room wall.