Where Communism and Commercialism Collide: Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shanghai’s M50, by AHA alum Helena Roy

China’s art is exciting – it really is. Extremely simplistically, the PRC’s art history can be divided by pre- and post-Mao’s rule. What little art there was in between was either so corrupted it is purely propaganda, or was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This makes modern Chinese art one of the few windows into their confusing, contradictory and colourful political system.

Graffiti in the 798 Art District, Beijing

Modern art in China comprises expressions formed by political, economic and cultural combustion. In the 798 Art District in Beijing, and M50 in Shanghai, China’s revived interest in nudging at societal boundaries have bred edgy art scenes. With many relics decimated during the Cultural Revolution, the low rent and spacious rooms in the disused factories of mutating cities gave artists a unique and low-cost way of creating a Chinese artistic history.

The 798 Art District in Beijing
Graffiti in M50, Shanghai

Closeted amongst decommissioned military factories built by the East Germans during the Maoist heyday of the 1950s, the 798 Art District in Beijing is a thriving microcosm of artists’ studios, boutiques and independent cafés. ‘Saw-tooth’ roof design, high ceilings, north-facing windows and right-angles give each building a distinctly utilitarian feel. Communist slogans paint the walls in fading red letters. Quietly riveting exhibitions confront depictions of the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward and China’s “great leader”, with established or fresh mainland artists pushing forth ardent political messages from minimalist gallery walls.

A statue in the 798 Art District

Once the Chunming Slub Mill, and now the nerve centre of Shanghai’s art scene, M50 is a similar complex, with galleries and noodle bars stuffed into every crevice of a disused cotton factory. Satirical undertones pervade the air: the Maoist personality cult haunts modern China, which now paints Little-Red-Book-waving PLA soldiers with dummies in their mouths.

ShaghART gallery and streets in M50
Political art depicting a PLA soldier in M50, Shanghai

But no matter how exciting the art may be – no matter how many times it embellishes China’s rigid daily politics with under-the-surface views – it is neither Communism nor political repression that mars the 798 Art District or M50. Neither escapes the rampant, almost religious commercialism that paints nearly every street in the Chinese metropolises. Wandering the manicured boulevards, you enter a bubble of Sino-Europe. At Café – a wild café with bombed-out brick walls in Beijing – serves spaghetti bolognese and tuna niçoise. Illy Coffee signs jump out between every gallery, offering respite to tourists, and a chance to imitate the West. Previously an oasis of individualism, born by the low-cost nature of the shabby setting, both complexes have become playgrounds for people who want street-stall souvenirs to be sold in Scandinavian-style shops.

Perhaps this is utterly inevitable as China strides confidently forward into the world economy, squeezing every drip of GDP it can from its culture. But in doing so, the subtle political dissent the galleries quietly put forward is overrun by capitalisation of what attracts tourists to the art districts – shopping for mass produced Communist memorabilia and homesickness for good coffee.

The 798 Art District and M50 are triple-tiered exhibition fields. On one level, China’s socio-industrial history creates a backdrop to modern Chinese art where the forgone creativity of the late 19th century should have been. On the second level, the cultural aspirations of modern China offer timid satire of China’s political system. In reality, however, a third level of crazed commercialism drips over both, clouding what modern Chinese art is really for.

Abroad, Chinese government officials often justify their regime by putting the economic enfranchisement of millions on a pedestal. If everyone’s getting rich, who needs more than one political party? It is certainly ironic, but possibly even intentional, that the Chinese commercialism post-Mao Zedong has almost become a new form of political repression.

All photographs by Helena Roy.

News from China! The Shanghai Fabric Market by Caz St Quinton

Every girl has her dream dress. Unfortunately, these dreams rarely become reality. To get a dress design tailor made is often too expensive and rarely ends up how you once imagined it. However, in the bustling fabric market in Shanghai they will make you whatever you want, in whatever fabric you want and for prices you most definitely want.

The endless choice of materials and colours from one stall

Located in a massive four storey building sit hundreds of fabric stalls that together make up the Lujiabang Lu Fabric Market. Mountains of silk, cotton and chiffron in any colour or print you can imagine are hidden away in small dens where their owners sit waiting for customers. Men can be seen choosing the right fabric for their custom made £50 suit, whilst women take in photos of the latest red carpet gown and for around £40 get a replica made to measure. Sounds of haggling can be heard from every corner as customers bargain for the best price.

A stall in the fabric market


When a price is agreed two tailors begin to measure every inch of their new customer, carefully recording each number and nattering away in Mandarin. Before they can begin work on the dress discussions are made about the necessity of a lining. Decisions are made about how quickly it needs to be finished. Exclamations are made when the customer shows just how high she wants the slit up the leg to be, or how low the neck line.

Any design can be copied. A favourite here is the Chanel suit.


Braver tourists take in their own designs drawn on pieces of
paper. Simple clear drawings are presented to the tailors in hope of avoiding
the language barrier through pictures, although they have little to fear as
their English is often very good.

A taylor stands proudly next to the finished dress




Excitement builds in the market when girls come to try on their finished dresses. No doubt she will attract a small crowd around her as they murmur approvingly. The magical moment when one sees a custom floor length gown fitted and designed perfectly for its loving owner and knowing that three days previously it was a mere fantasy. A dream come true for the shoppers of Shanghai.





MoCA and the Marriage Market: is Shanghai a contemporary city? AHA alum Caz St Quinton explores

As cities go, Shanghai seems about as contemporary as they get. It is known for its sky scrapers and shopping, rather than its history and culture. Proving this point, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) has been recently refurbished. It stands shiny and proud in People’s Park, whilst its neighbour the Shanghai Art Gallery glooms in its shadow with eerily empty walls, the few pieces shown often only accompanied by those fatal words: ‘artist unknown.’

MoCA in People's Park Shanghai

However, artists themselves are no longer current enough for MoCA’s impressive new exhibition called ‘Mock Up.’ In their place are ten teams of architects that have been invited to create ten different living spaces. The installations consider Chinese living spaces and the relationship between people and their contemporary living environments. Microwaves, magazines and plastic furniture replace traditional Chinese interiors.

One of the spaces at MoCA made out of magazines

There is no hint of art being intended for the academic. In fact the spaces interact with the viewer by encouraging them to sit, climb and even play. People of all ages were playing in ‘The Kids Room’; a room that hangs from the ceiling so moves with you and is filled with big yoga balls that complete strangers end up throwing at one another.

At the end if the gallery it explains that the room is designed to imitate the rocking that we feel whilst in our mother’s womb and then the cradle, although most the people inside are having too much fun to bother reading it.

A girl playing in the Kid's Room at MoCA

If it weren’t for the mysterious gathering of people opposite MoCA, one could be fooled into thinking Shanghai has turned its back on all tradition. However, stray a little from the entrance of the museum and you will stumble upon the Marriage Market.

Personal advertisements litter the  pavement and trees as parents try to find suitable matches for their child. Parents spend their weekends sat next to their laminated piece of paper which contains information such as their child’s age, job, achievements and whether they own a house or car.

A woman exploring the marriage market

They sit hoping that another parent will find their offspring suitable, if this joyous moment happens then a date is arranged. The marriage market is a last resort for some parents as traditional arranged marriages are becoming harder to organise due to the uneven demographics of the population caused by the one child policy. A problem that will only get worse with an estimated 24 million bachelors in China by 2020.

Parents display their child's information on umbrellas

In Shanghai, marriage is obviously still an indicator to success and parents using a market to achieve this leaves the MoCA viewers questioning whether Shanghai is as contemporary as they once thought.