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Communist-Era Factories Now Home to the Hip in Beijing

In Beijing’s DaShanzi district there is a large complex of buildings that began as military factories in the late 1950s and have evolved over the years into something on the opposite end of the spectrum— an enclave of trendy art galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

This place is known as Beijing 798 Art Zone and it is now a permanent fixture in the northeast part of the city, having played host to international art events for over a decade now and boasting a long waiting list of artists who wish to rent spaces here.

The former factories were constructed in a joint venture between China and East Germany, during the period of Mao Zedong’s five year plan (1953-57). Like many other projects around this time, the factories were to play their role in boosting China’s economic growth through the development of major industries.

Joint Factory 718, as the entire collection of buildings was known at the time, produced a large variety of electronic components for both military and civilian use. Later, the complex was divided into sub-factories as refinements and other changes took place with what was being manufactured. Factory 798 was the largest of these and continued production well into the 1980’s before operations were eventually shut down and it, along with most of the other sub-factories, were leased out to most anybody who wanted to set up shop here—including many small family-run businesses.

Around this time, more and more artists also began renting spaces in these factories—Factory 798 being the earliest to be occupied by a handful of artists. These Bauhaus style structures were ideal for those needing expansive, functional space to create and display their works and, by the mid-90s, others were flocking in to stake their claim on a piece of post-industrial chic.

interior of old Chinese factory

The area quickly became known as the premier spot for the contemporary art scene in the city and in the wake of this reputation fancy shops, cafes and hipsters have followed. Unsurprisingly, the cost of rent here nowadays has become absurd, so many who operate galleries or shop here aren’t exactly the “starving artist” type but more reminiscent of the Chinese nouveau riche.

Dior bar and lounge area

For those in Beijing who want to check out something beyond the Forbidden City or Temple of Heaven, it might be worth popping over to 798 Art Zone for an afternoon. Lots of free modern art exhibits, interesting street art (sculptures and graffiti) and probably some good people watching.

There are numerous bus lines and two metro stops in the area. From the metro, you would still need a short bus or taxi ride to 798 Art Zone. For more directions (in English and Chinese) plus some travel tips for the area, have a look here.