Art Village: A Year in Caochangdi

Working in Ai Weiwei’s studio during a volatile time in the Beijing arts district.

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.”

Author's Note

I am grateful to Mary-Ann Ray and Sus Van Elzen for generously providing their time and resources as I researched this article. For further reading, I highly recommend Caochangdi Inside Out and Dragon and Rose Garden, which explore some of the issues I cover in this essay in far greater detail. I am also indebted to Leise Hook and “JM” for their translation and interpretation work; Jennifer Ng and Tricia Wang for providing additional research and consultation; and Green Papaya Art Projects in Manila, whose residency program afforded me the time and wherewithal to complete my first few drafts. And, of course, I must thank Ai Weiwei for inviting me to live, work and play in Caochangdi in the first place.

  1. inri does not capitalize her name.
  2. Italian artist and curator Alessandro Rolandi, who once had a studio in Suojiacun, and then moved to Caochangdi, recalled how quickly demolitions can happen, and artists can respond: “I just thought, if it’s going to happen again, I can just move again,” he told me. Rolandi and other expatriate artists in Suojiacin were profiled by Dan Levin, “For Expatriates in China, Creative Lives of Plenty,” New York Times, January 8, 2010.
  3. Once an agrarian economy, China has urbanized rapidly since Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms in the 1980s and ‘90s. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 690.79 million people now live in urban areas across China, compared with 656.56 million in rural areas. One upside to urban migration is that some 200 million people no longer live in poverty. The migration was once focused primarily on coastal cities, but now China’s inland cities are also developing at a rapid pace. See “Daily Chart: The largest migration in history,” The Economist, February 22, 2012, and “China’s Urban Population Higher than Rural Areas,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 12, 2012.
  4. Beijing’s Population Nears 20 Million,” China Daily, May 5, 2011. According to one recent report, in the 1990s hutong were demolished at a rate of 600 a year. This has slowed down somewhat due to preservation efforts, but they are still vanishing at an alarming rate. See Jonathan Kaiman, “Razing History: The Tragic Story of a Beijing Neighborhood’s Destruction,” The Atlantic, February 9, 2012. See also Coco Liu, “China’s Regulators Tackle Energy-Guzzling Buildings,” New York Times, July 27, 2011.
  5. The demolition notice sent to RongRong requested detailed information about the building, occupants and commercial activities conducted there, which the government could use to make a final decision about eviction and determine compensation.
  6. Remarkably, the party-supported China Daily reported on the results of an opinion poll of relocated citizens conducted by a research center in Beijing. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said they faced problems in their relocation such as forced eviction or insufficient compensation. See Yan Jie, “Demolitions Cause Most Social Unrest,” China Daily, June 27, 2011. In 2011, officials announced new laws against some of the more egregious eviction practices, like physical violence. See Fang Xuyan and Lea Yu, “Forced Demolitions Getting Creative,” Caixin, January 12, 2012. Enforcement seems to be taken seriously. China Daily reported in January that in the past year the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection “handled” nearly 1,500 cases related to illegal land grabs. See “1,480 Cases of Land Grab, Demolition Handled,” China Daily, January 6, 2012.
  7. Nail household tactics vary. While stalling demolition, residents attempt to petition the government. They also place photos of Mao Zedong and Hu Jintao on the wall, thus making the demolition an unwitting defacement of the revered leaders. A new film, High Tech, Low Life, follows the efforts of Zuola and Tiger Temple, two citizen journalists who have recorded tactics of resistance. The phenomenon of nail households is so widespread that there’s even a video game that puts you in the shoes of a resident resisting eviction. Here’s a summary from Wall Street Journal bloggers Juliet Ye and Emma Ashburn: “The goal? To defend your house against guards and gangsters brandishing knives and bouncing on jackhammers. The characters you can play include a woman in curlers who throws sandals at encroaching attackers, a pot-bellied man who drops dynamite from the roof, and an old man with a shotgun.” The final level, apparently, is impossible to beat, as demolition teams roll in en masse, overwhelming your character.
  8. Andrew Jacobs, “Evicted Artists Protest After Attack in Beijing,” New York Times, February 23, 2010. See also Evan Osnos’s blog post for The New Yorker, “Little Ai,” July 12, 2010. For a report I wrote for Brooklyn art blog Hyperallergic, Wu shared photographs of the village strewn with graffiti and rubble. Despite the fact that residents were violently removed, developers appear to have done little with the space.
  9. The dramatic uprising at Wukan ended anticlimactically when the villagers reached an agreement with party officials and peacefully disbanded. Lin Zulian, who led the protests, become a party secretary, and in early February, villagers placed their ballots for an election committee that would supervise future elections for leaders. It was a historic event in China and caused a tremendous amount of discussion on Sina Weibo.
  10. Dr. Jimin Zhao, who studies arts communities in Beijing at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, told me that in the government’s eyes, art is a wenhua chanye, or cultural industry. “So they value the development of the arts,” he explained in Chinese. “They don’t intend to demolish all the art villages in the city. The government protects 798 and Songzhuang,” two major art districts in Beijing. He then described how a concerted effort from professors at Tsinghua University and artists in the community saved the 798 Art Zone from demolition.
  11. In 2011, Chinese art auction sales totaled $4.79 billion, compared with $2.72 billion in the U.S. Of course, auction sales are just one part of a broader picture, but they underscore the high valuation of Chinese art today. “China Pushes Global Art Auction Sales to $11.5B,” CBC News, February 9, 2012.
  12. Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei’s Shanghai Studio Demolished,” BBC News, January 12, 2011.
  13. Among the many issues facing migrants in Beijing who lack a hukou is education for their children. In September, families were told that 23 migrants’ schools across Beijing would be shut down, which outraged the community. See “School’s Out,” The Economist, September 3, 2011.
  14. One of the best pieces of scholarship on the subject of migrants’ lives, values and demographic statistics is Siqi Zheng, Fenjie Long, C. Cindy Fan, and Yizhen Gu, “Urban Villages in China: A 2008 Survey of Migrant Settlements in Beijing,” Eurasian Geography and Economics, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2009), 424–446.
  15. A terrific essay by Ray and Mangurian that appears in Caochangdi Inside Out can also be found  as “Urban Rural Conundrums: Off-Center in Caochangdi, Beijing,” Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2008). As early as 2008, well before the official notice arrived, they were investigating the theoretical risk of demolition in Caochangdi. See also this video of the researchers speaking about their book at the London School of Economics on their book.
  16. As on Twitter, Sina Weibo users post short messages limited to 140 characters, and they can use a combination of hashtags and @replies to organize posts and engage in conversation. The site differs in substantial ways, however, with embedded multimedia functions, community boards and a threaded commenting system. Further, Sina Weibo is just one of many weibo, or microblogs, in China. Its two major competitors are Sohu Weibo and Tencent. TechRice, a blog on technology in Asia, has a good examination of the “Romance of the Three Microblog Kingdoms.”
  17. As a window on the slow, steady pace of life in Caochangdi, I highly recommend Sébastien Baverel’s short documentary film, The New Socialist Village, a poetic ode to this town of artists and migrants.
  18. I identify social networks as the glue for the global creative class, but social media technologies and mobile phones are playing a vital role as third spaces for China’s migrant community too. Sociologist Tricia Wang explores this issue extensively, and I interviewed her in a recent essay for the Huffington Post. I highly recommend reading her Bytes of China blog, where she writes regularly on this topic, and 88 Bar, a group we maintain with a number of other researchers. Full disclosure: Ms. Wang assisted me in revising some sections of this essay.
  19. I look Chinese, so the villagers weren’t asking what country I was from or where I grew up. They were asking what province and town I came from in China. Even after I explained that I’m an American of Filipino-Chinese descent and that I grew up in Los Angeles, they still wanted to understand my exact ancestry. If the quintessential conversation starter in a New York cocktail party is “What do you do?”, the equivalent for migrants is “Where are you from?”
  20. Both the Cultural Industry Zone and the New Socialist Village are important bureaucratic categories that almost certainly played a role in preventing Caochangdi’s demolition. In the party’s five year plan, one of their mandates was to improve cultural industry; thus, a Cultural Industry Zone label aligned Caochangdi with national priorities. As for the New Socialist Village, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recorded a good discussion about the implications of the party’s efforts to promote the New Socialist Countryside. Last year, Reuters issued a special report examining the effectiveness of this policy. See Chris Buckley, “Special Report: Is Wen’s ‘New Socialist Countryside’ Working?”, Reuters, February 22, 2011.
  21. Many Caochangdi artists have led projects that engage the migrant community. Rolandi and artist Megumi Shimizu, together with a group called the “Caochangdi AIs,” organized a participatory art piece involving dance and poetry. Ray and B.A.S.E. worked with Angremy to install art videos in village spaces, such as a hair salon and fruit stand. My favorite example is the work of Ma Yongfeng, who led an art intervention in the local bathhouse. See Shen Bollang, “A Steamy Contemporary Art Show Washes Up in a Beijing Bathhouse,” Artinfo, September 24, 2010.
  22. While public parks in America’s Chinatowns are filled with elderly men and women doing tai chi in the morning, public spaces in China often fill up at night with couples and single women line dancing. It’s difficult to overstate how fun this is to watch. With her permission, I uploaded a video of my friend Tian Tian leading a salsa dance session in Caochangdi’s new public dance space.
An Xiao Mina, “Art Village: A Year in Caochangdi,” Places Journal, May 2012. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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