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Art Blossoms in Beijing Spring

Musical, visual and performance arts, alone or intermingled, made this year's May Day week a delight in Beijing. But the special events of the holiday merely opened the door on a surprisingly diverse capital city art scene.

Beijing goes pop

Beijingers and visitors to the capital city enjoyed a stunning musical feast, the Chaoyang International Pop Music Festival, during this May Day holiday. The event, held in Chaoyang Park, is the largest of its kind in Asia with more than 3,000 singers from all over the world performing.

The festival, co-sponsored by the China Performing Arts Agency, Beijing Music Radio and the government of Chaoyang District, is a key element of the ongoing Fourth Meet in Beijing cultural exchange activity.

Performances ran for 12 hours a day on five open-air stages during the
festival, which ran from May 1 through May 7. Altogether 230 groups and bands put on 53 performances and seven talent contests, making for a weeklong carnival of musical fun. Estimates put the audience numbers at about 2,000 each day.

Fans were thrilled to listen to live performances by some of their musical Dream Teams from abroad, such as Front Porch Country Band from the US, Toure Kunda from France, Die Gabys from Germany, the State Academic Kuban Cossack Chorus from Russia, and the Viva Brazil Samba Troupe.

The show began at 9:00 AM on May 1 with an African drum performance by a group from Congo's Arts College. The thrilling beat of the drums quickly drew crowds to the No. 5 stage. An hour later, the German Die Gabys girls' jazz group and a Chinese guzheng (zither) performer who lived in Germany jammed on the No.2 stage. The combination of Western jazz and the traditional Chinese instrument had listeners dancing in their seats, and they rewarded the musicians with a long ovation.

Festival organizers sought to create a unified theme for each day of the event, with various hues and textures of each theme presented on the different stages. Folk and foreign music were featured on opening and closing days. May 2, 4 and 6 belonged to China's own rock and roll heroes and their faithful fans; pop and original music were in the limelight on May 3 and 5.

A Pop Music Talent Contest was held for new faces and to give amateurs a chance to show off their own substantial talents and ideas.

Li Fei, lead vocalist for Jimo Xia Ri, plays his left-handed Fender on May 5.

Freelance photographer Dong Ning, 25, said, "In the past, most of the rock and roll concerts have been in the bars far away from downtown and late at night, so I had to put aside some of my work until the next afternoon. Worst of all, I couldn't bear the foul, dirty air in those bars. Every time I went in, it almost choked me. Besides the fabulous music performances here, I really like lying on the lawn and breathing the fresh air."

Ms. Wang brought her little son to the show. "It's a good place to relax during the Golden Week holiday. Music lovers come here and sing with the performers and feel the happy, festive atmosphere. I want my son to experience the magic of music with his own ears and eyes. It's a feeling you can never get from watching TV."

Unfortunately, capital city rock fans were not able to satiate themselves entirely with their favorite sounds. The Fifth Midi Music Festival, which has drawn enormous crowds in past years, suffered an 11th-hour cancellation owning to Public Security Bureau concerns about safety. The annual "Chinese Woodstock," was launched in 2000 by the Beijing Midi Music School, which hopes to be able to hold the event in October this year.

Collegiate cosplay

On May 4 and 5, a cosplay was held at the Capital University of Economics and Business. Nearly 200 cosplayers and hundreds of fans attended.

Cosplay, an amalgamation of the words, "costume" and "play," originated in Japan and has become an international subculture in recent years. Cosplayers typically dress up as characters from animated films (anime), comics (manga) or video games and attend role-playing parties to enjoy themselves and elicit admiration for their outfits. It bears many similarities to the costuming for science fiction conventions or Renaissance fairs popular in North America and Europe.

According to Shen Yijun, an official with the university's Culture and Arts Center, the activity was organized by manga and anime fans from Beijing, Tianjin and other places in the vicinity of the capital.

"We hope the event will facilitate exchanges between people who enjoy this pastime. We invited some famous cosplayers to perform here and hope more people will learn about and participate in cosplay."

More than 100 individuals and over 30 groups applied to perform within two
days after the event was first announced on sina.com.cn.

The show opened on the morning of May 4 at the university's Student Activity Center. Most shows were group performances, interspersed with people modeling some classic costumes. Cartoon lovers filled the house to capacity and more, with many sitting on the floor or standing outside until the end of the show.

Each of the fantastically dressed and made up characters that walked onto the stage drew more gasps of wonder and admiration than the last. The character of Yuna from the TV game show Final Fantasy 10 and the group appearing in the roles of the characters from the controversial Japanese film Battle Royale were wildly applauded. Other favorites included the cartoon characters Long Yuan Shengwu, Didu, Tiaoyue and Youling.

Cosplayers appear as characters from the Japanese film Battle Royale

Altogether, some 40 performances were given during the two-day show. All of the skits and costumes were designed and put together in the performers' spare time.

Li Yuanyuan, a graduate of North China University of Technology and head of the Tiaoyue group, said, "Although we are not professional performers, it makes us happy to show the audience what we do."

The Yuan Long Shengwu group was more serious in its approach. The leader of this group is a ninjutsu (ninja-style martial arts) master and knowledgeable about manga and anime. Several other members of the group have studied various forms of martial arts.

Dressing up as their favorite cartoon characters and immersing themselves completely in the world of fantasy is more than a game to cosplayers. It is a dream that has been cherished by many since their childhood.

Factory 798 radiates & resonates

Just as the official May Day holiday was coming to an end last Friday, avant-garde artists in Beijing's Dashanzi Art District were just getting into gear at their own festival, the First Beijing Dashanzi International Art Festival (DIAF 2004).

Entitled Radiance and Resonance, Signals of Time, the month-long series of exhibitions, performances, lectures, workshops and film screenings, which opened on April 24, is showcasing some of Beijing's Best artistic talent.

The festival is to be a "living platform" for multiple forms of contemporary arts from around the world. The main course will be the audio and visual arts, with screenings of experimental and documentary films from Europe, Australia and Asia as well as modern dance, performance art, architectural designs and more.

Northeast Beijing's Dashanzi area is the site of many old state-owned enterprises, including Factory 798. Built around 1950 and designed by East German engineers with guidance from Moscow, the factory once produced electronic goods for the People's Liberation Army. Its walls still bear slogans painted during the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960s. But with China's modernization, most of the old factory was closed down.

In 2002, artists and cultural organizations began to subdivide, rent out, and
remodel the unused factory. Now, the rooms where workers once studied the Little Red Book are populated by painters and performers and purveyors of gourmet food; gallery owners, sculptors, designers of haute couture and crafters of luxury furniture get together for a drink and a bit of live music at one of the in-house bars at the end of the day.

This is the Dashanzi Art District, a Sohoesque place of international character, attracting visitors from around the world and rave reviews from art critics and artists everywhere. Factory 798 is now considered by many to be the place to go for a look at modern Chinese art.

Bringing together contemporary art, architecture and entertainment in a historically interesting setting, 798 has evolved from a munitions factory into a cultural concept influencing Chinese notions of both urban culture and living space.

The factory building itself is architecturally simple and honest, emphasizing utility. Its massive ducts and vast windows, designed in earlier times to help conscientious workers increase production, are seldom seen elsewhere. The vicissitudes of history show on the peeling walls.

But now the peeling paint, ventilation ducts and boilers have become part of the art, incorporated into the renovations carried out by the 60-plus artists and 50-odd enterprises that have settled down in the old 798. Bearing in mind need to preserve the historical and cultural ambiance, its new inhabitants revived rather than rebuilt the place.

Hovering somewhere between the ties of history and the imperatives of development, between pragmatic necessities and aesthetic diversions, the spaces enter into a living dialogue with their old surroundings. The economic livelihoods of the denizens are living evidence of China's economic reform, revealing a new connection between individual identity and social and economic organization, somewhere between utopia and reality, between memory and future.

Factory 798 and the Dashanzi area personify the economic and social development of Beijing. But they are also endangered by that development: the city, replacing the labor-intensive and polluting industries of decades past with low-pollution, low-capital knowledge-intensive ones, is planning to turn Dashanzi into another high-tech electronics hub. New office buildings will replace all the old factories, including 798, within four years. Demolitions in the area began early this year.

The 798 artists have until December 31, 2005, according to the owner of the land, the Seven-Star Huadian Science and Technology Group. The company has stopped leasing space to artists and will not renew any existing contracts.

Li Xiangqun, an established sculptor and deputy to this year's 12th People's Congress in Beijing, submitted a proposal to the government to save the art center earlier this year.

"I have witnessed the development of the area from deserted factories to a booming art community," said Li. "The future of 798 depends on how much the government wants to save the art zone. I am not optimistic, as we still have a long way to go. But anyway, we must try our best."

The government will make a final decision on the fate of Factory 798 later this year.

First floor for work, second floor for sleep

The Sit bar, a harmonious blend of gallery and French cuisine

Factory 798: the past, present, and the future of China combined in a 1,200-square-meter space
Installation work at Factory 798

Click for more photos:

(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, May 13, 2004)

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Wang Shan's Cosplay Passion
The F Generation: Living Their Dreams
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