4 March 2013

Art in Chongqing

In Chongqing, the world’s largest city, which sprawls over a sharp bend in the Yangtze River, is a neighborhood surrounded by green hills called Huangjueping. The road through it is broad and rarely crammed, though cars and buses trickle through. It seems like an urban China from another time. The streets are placid and lined with trees. Everyone strolls with a deliberate, unhurried pace—save the “stickmen,” scraggly day laborers who have places to get to. Old ladies walk hand-in-hand, gossiping like teenagers. 

But part of the neighborhood looks like Futurama. On its main stretch, Tuya Street, ten-story apartment blocks with shops and eateries on the ground floor have been painted over with cartoon aliens. A three-eyed monster towers over a pharmacy, its mouth full of fangs. A monkey-man in muscle shirt squints down at hipster art students spilling into the road from the side of a building. Another is dotted with black-rimmed, menacing blobs. Down the street, a Lisa Frank-style unicorn poses, five stories tall, amid rainbows and clouds. 

“Tuya” means “graffiti” in Chinese—the name is recent—and this street, three-quarters of a mile long, may be the longest stretch of public art in the world. It’s also a government-sanctioned “art district,” centered around the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which was established in 1940. Huangjueping has been a natural gathering place for Chongqing’s artists ever since, and thanks to its remoteness from Beijing, it has a reputation for producing artists independent of the art establishment. 

Today, tile mosaics reminiscent of Gaudi’s Park Guell adorn a nearby commercial arcade, and red industrial piping has been repurposed for benches along the road. Until 2003, this street was unpaved and half its present width, and water pipes and sewage drains had not yet been installed. Seeking to drum up tourism and show itself as a green, friendly place before hosting the 2005 Asia Pacific City Summit, the city of Chongqing spent 115 million RMB to renovate all building facades—but only the facades—along the main roads in the central core. 

It was in this atmosphere that the Institute declared the neighborhood an “art district,” and the Vice Dean of the Institute’s Animation Department, Zhou Zongkai dreamed up Tuya Street. Initiating the project in 2006, he secured 25 million RMB in government funding to cover the project in its entirety. He then hired his own animation company, CMay, to design the facades, and 800 workers—many of them students at the Institute—to carry them out. The project was done in six months. 

“It’s terrible!” pronounced Xin Haizhou, an artist and teacher at the Institute who has lived in the neighborhood for three decades. The word he used for “terrible”— zaogao— is the one my mother used to describe my own insolence when I was 16. “Whoever heard of a street called ‘Graffiti Street’?” 

Another of our table-mates in the neighborhood restaurant where we sat cried out, “That stuff is not art!”

“No artists were involved!” 

“And the art school students hired to carry out the designs were nothing but underpaid manual laborers!” 

“Think what it’s like to walk down that street in the summer, when it’s 42 degrees Celsius!”

“Rents are rising so fast that everyone is going to have to move somewhere else soon,” said another bespectacled artist.

Xin lived in Huangjeping during the ’80s, in the early days of liberalization and market reform. Back then it was full of cheap, low-density housing, and China’s contemporary art scene was just emerging after the Cultural Revolution. The houses leaked, lacked heat and proper plumbing, and often smelled. But even after graduating from the Institute, Xin chose to stay in the neighborhood, since he and his friends—who were devoted to personal exploration, individual expression, and living outside the confines of the traditional family—were shunned everywhere else. Cast out of society, the artists lived and worked together, shared their materials and books, and entertained themselves in their rooms with booze, cigarettes, and music.

The houses have been replaced by apartment blocks, and Xin’s paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the international market. He splits his time between Chongqing and Beijing (the New York of Chinese art, complete with promises of big sales, impenetrable cliques, and unsustainable living costs). 

“Now, even the power station will probably be torn down within the year,” he said. The station is visible from everywhere in the neighborhood, thanks to the smoke pouring continuously from its stack.  

I pointed out that the smoke was filthy.

Xin shrugged. The neighborhood people used to shower in the heated refuse water from the plant. Otherwise hot water had to be heated over a fire. People went there to clean up after work, and like a bathhouse, the plant became a gathering place at night. 

“We lose a landmark,” he said. “You have to realize that this is not a straightforward place. It’s full of contradictions.”

At the edge of Tuya Street, where a slope suddenly appears, one last cluster of the old houses remains, though surely not for long. They are in terrible shape—their tin roofs patched with tarps held in place by rocks, their windows sealed with plastic, their walls no more than propped up wooden boards. The people living in these houses are workers in the nearby factories and warehouses, which manufacture construction materials. Stone steps wind between them all, and residents have cultivated the grass to the side, cutting little square dirt patches into the slope and fencing them in. Where will the residents go when these houses are gone?


Chongqing is best known today as the site of the Bo Xilai scandal, which came to a head in March 2012 and has been described as monumental enough to rival the events at Tiananmen in 1989. The city is more than just this. A remote town of 200,000 in the 1930s, when it was the provisional capital of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government, Chongqing is today the fastest growing city in the world, with an area the size of Kansas and a population of 32.6 million—nearly equal to the entire population of Canada. Slated to become China’s inland hub as part of China’s “go west” policy, which seeks to shift economic development from the saturated coastal regions to the rural western interior, Chongqing has been undergoing development and swallowing up surrounding countryside at a breakneck speed. Its GDP has grown from 175 billion RMB in 2001, to 789.4 billion RMB in 2010: 450 percent in under a decade. Electronics producers have been setting up shop here in spades, including Nokia, Foxxconn and HP, taking advantage of labor costs that are 30 percent cheaper than Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Officials predict that the city will soon be the world’s top manufacturer of laptop computers.

Chongqingers who go away for a few years return unable to recognize their surroundings. The only people who ever seem to know with certainty where everything is, amid the concrete shells of new buildings that appear overnight, are the police officers who patrol every space from stations resembling tiki huts. 

This is what happens when a city seeks to re-engineer itself from the top. Chongqing had been an area of loose policy experimentation ever since migrations from the Three Gorges Dam placed extraordinary pressure on its infrastructure. But it was the announcement of the “Chongqing Experiment” by the Chinese State Council in 2007 (the same year Bo Xilai arrived as local party chief) that suggested these loose policies were becoming codified, and thereby the object of intense state scrutiny. The Experiment, an attempt to integrate urban and rural development, was meant to solve the puzzle of how China would continue its miracle growth once industrial development collided with the need to maintain a minimum amount of cultivated land to guarantee the country’s food supply. Chongqing still consists of mostly rural hinterland, with roughly two-thirds of its population registered as peasants. But in October 2012, 9.2 million of those residents were migrant workers, with 5 million of them choosing to stay in Chongqing, and those figures will continue to increase as farmers migrate to the cities in search of jobs and security. 

  The Experiment encouraged rural-to-urban migration, but aimed to concentrate the population more tightly in the urban core, to make more efficient use of space. A land exchange market, similar in logic to carbon trading, was meant to ensure that urban development only occurred when rural residential plots were converted back to cultivated agricultural land. Peasants who sold their lots through the market were permitted to start a decent life in the city if they so chose. 

To house these migrant workers, 40 million square meters of subsidized public housing were also planned—enough for approximately 2.4 million people, with the eventual goal of housing 30 to 40 percent of all urban residents. And where hukou (household registration) status used to stick to migrants for life, the Experiment would include hukou reform on an unprecedented scale, to grant migrants new status as urbanites, providing them with access to education, health care, pensions, and social services, as well as greater rights. 

These provisions were meant to relieve some of the pressures that large-scale migration has caused. Decades of uneven, urban-focused development resulted in dire poverty and a lack of opportunities in the countryside, driving 230 million Chinese to migrate in search of work in 2010. The Experiment aimed to remake the city to be more inclusive of the peasants and working class, and by the end of 2012 it had achieved many impressive feats: 3.6 million peasants have transferred their household registration since 2010, and 1.6 billion yuan have been distributed to 38,000 households through the land exchange system.

But the Experiment also left many glaring inequities in place. Under the Experiment, private development in the urban core continued apace, with the laws of the free market governing real estate costs while developers, who bought land-use rights from the local government, wound up colluding with officials. The land exchange market is reportedly rife with mismanagement. Many peasants still await compensation, and the shoddily constructed public-housing units are often located in inaccessible neighborhoods. Then there were the forced evictions—a side effect of mass redevelopment. From 1994 to 2004, 20 million square meters of Chongqing were demolished, which resulted in the displacement of 259,000 families. The trend will only rise as the number of construction projects balloons. Despite its achievements in providing more affordable housing and increasing access to social services—which may be viewed as radical in the radically unegalitarian China of today—the Experiment also failed many of those its was meant to serve, thanks to another central trait of the Party: corruption.

These inequities do not stem from the model itself, but from the paradoxical fact that the model was underplanned. However egalitarian the policies themselves, their implementation has ultimately relied upon the good intentions of officials and developers, who are held accountable to the city’s residents only rarely. The assumption underlying the model is that state planning protects markets; but in the absence of effective measures to prevent corruption and hold officials accountable, the free markets the system was designed to protect were eventually overwhelmed by powerful private interests. Liberty in even the narrow economic sense was unprotected. In no case was this more obvious than in the art market, where creative liberties and market liberties are meant to coincide.


Over the next few days in Chongqing, I noticed that every artist I spoke to referred to 2005 as the year everything changed. 2005 was the year the government became interested in art. But that interest didn’t spring from the void: 2005 was the year that the volume of trade at Beijing’s premier auction house increased by two-and-a-half times. This is widely seen as the beginning of the first Chinese art boom, which had been fueled largely by global speculation in a previously undervalued market. A year later, in 2006, Institute alumnus Zhang Xiaogang’s painting “Tiananmen Square” was auctioned for over $2 million—then a record-breaking price for Chinese art. Tuya Street was born the same year. 

At the annual Central Committee plenum in October 2011, CCP leaders announced their intentions to make China a cultural world leader, citing Mao’s command to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” “A nation cannot stand among great powers,” declared the front page of the official CCP newspaper People’s Daily on the day of the plenum, “without its people’s spiritual affluence and the nation’s full expression of its creativity.” 

This could have been counted good news, but there were contradictions. Ironically, China’s first art boom has also been linked to the Chinese government’s restraints on real estate prices—an attempt to cool off an overheated market—which diverted speculative investments to the art market. In Chongqing, this then led to government investment in art and the neighborhood of Huangjueping, which has driven up local real estate costs. 

This is what Ni Kun and I discussed as we huddled over a rickety wooden table, sipping tea. Ni Kun is in his mid-thirties, and wears black plastic-rimmed glasses, warm-up pants with black loafers, and a goatee. It was a weekday, mid-afternoon, and hundreds of retired men and women had gathered in this Tuya Street tea house, as they do each day, to pass the time with mahjong and cards. 

Ni Kun is the curator and director of Organhaus, the only not-for-profit art space in Chongqing. Today its offices and gallery are located inside the 501 Artspace—a former cigarette factory, and one of two main art complexes on Tuya Street that are independent of the Institute. I had gone to visit their gallery space the day before, where a group exhibition entitled “Box:New” was on display, with boxes of different shapes, contents and sizes scattered carefully across the floor. Each artist had been asked to fill a box, and their choices had included a live chicken, a static TV, and a banana penis, among other things. (“It’s partially a statement about individual expression within a government-enforced conformity and anonymity,” one of the artists explained to me.) I counted three “penises,” compared with only one box of sashimi to represent the female counterpart. 

Before Organhaus was in 501, it was located in the Tank Lofts, which are on-campus studios converted from a tank warehouse in 2005. That was right after the Institute had discovered that art could actually be lucrative, and decided to make the neighborhood an official art district and invest in artist spaces. Drawn by the Tank Lofts’ subsidized rents, one of Organhaus’ forebears, Ni Kun’s creation “Haus,” moved out from its initial home, a rundown building filled with other artist studios and performance spaces, into the Institute’s lofts, becoming one of their first tenants. 

Haus had always specialized in avant-garde art, with a particular interest in installations—Ni Kun had started it with friends in 2001 after graduating from the Sichuan Academy and finding nowhere for young experimental artists to exhibit—but it took a full year for the school to realize that Haus would not produce the kind of art that sells. At the same time, Ni Kun and the artists of Haus discovered that cheap rent came with non-negotiable obligations, like participating in government-run exhibitions unrelated to their work. So a largely amicable breakup ensued, and Haus moved out, once again becoming the first tenants in a new art complex—the 501 Artspace—where it merged with another space called “Organ,” to become “Organhaus.” Since that time, rent in 501 has doubled. 

“The government’s interest in Huangjueping is in the value of the land and properties,” Ni Kun said. “You think the government cares about art?” 

“Did you see the field just across the street?” he continued, referring to a vacant park-like space across the street.  He mentioned that there used to be many houses there; they were very run-down, and the government had demolished them a few years ago to create some “green space.”

“Where did the residents of those houses go?” I asked.

Ni Kun answered vaguely: “Somewhere else.”

Later, I was told that many residents are simply left without homes.  Most receive a modest compensation, though not enough to acquire new homes, while a lucky few receive replacement apartments—though like the public housing units, most are located in neighborhoods on the city’s periphery. 

Perhaps there is an uneasy consolation to be taken from the fact that peripheries will not remain peripheries for long in this bewildering city, where neighborhoods can become unrecognizable within months. One thing that has protected Huangjueping so far is its remoteness. It is still a twenty- or thirty-minute bus ride from the central shopping area of Yangjiaping, and the road winds through quiet streets, seen so rarely now in Western media portrayals of China. But once the subway and light rail system is complete (it started limited operations in 2005 and will eventually consist of eighteen lines), Huangjueping will be easily, comfortably accessible to Chongqing’s main commercial and business centers, likely for under 5 RMB

The paradox is that the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, the raison d’etre of Tuya Street, has already grown so big that it can no longer be contained. As of 2005, the school’s primary campus has been located in the newly constructed “University City” (alongside campuses for Chongqing University and Chongqing Normal University) over an hour away. One morning, I rode the bus through rush-hour traffic to the new campus. We passed desolate fields and sped through a white tunnel long enough to feel like Tron. That is when I realized that the person who had described it to me as “out in the middle of nowhere” was not being hyperbolic. Once the light rail system is complete, it will be the last stop on line No. 2. 

Once I arrived, I understood why it’s actually a very nice thing for the campus to be remote. The hills are neatly manicured, dotted with interesting sculptures and landscape art. One ceramic sculpture represented a beastly human on all fours, the leash around his neck held taut by a civilized dog in a suit. Unlike everywhere else I’ve been in Chongqing, the campus is contemplative, relaxing, serene. But will it last? The fields on the way to University City are sure to be filled with new high rises within a few years. I suspect the city planning people didn’t choose this area for its serenity quotient. Rather, it was probably for the empty space—all the better for engineering a district from scratch, as in virtual reality, where high rises can sprout from empty land like plants.


Five years ago, Yan Yan was an idealist, but he isn’t anymore. When he established the 501 Artspace in 2006, having discovered that the landlord was looking for a tenant to rent out the whole thing, he imagined the building as totally free, open to whoever wanted to rent out workspace. It had no restrictions of any kind, to encourage artistic freedom. First come, first served. And—in a conspicuous display of democracy—all decisions were to be made by majority vote. 

Despite a few years in Beijing, Yan Yan had been living near the art school on-and-off since enrolling in 1978, so it was not difficult to find friends and friends of friends to fill the sixty or seventy units. News spread quickly around the art community. The artists in 501 did shows together, worked with their doors open, and wandered into one another’s studios, blending work with hanging out.

“I’ve learned that I’m incredibly stupid,” he said one night over beers at Moon, a café across the street from 501. Yan Yan is mousy in appearance—gentle and thin, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail—but he said this with a decisive air. “I thought that I could get by just knowing how to navigate certain parts of the system, but I didn’t understand the whole.” He thought he could strategize around existing laws. “But in reality,” he said, “the government just gets whatever it wants.”

The reasons Yan Yan cites for no longer having his own studio in 501 are fairly mundane—rising rents, desire for a change of environment—but as I questioned him on the latter point, I discerned that it was his final response to his failed utopian experiment. If rising rents have driven even him, the founder, out, and changed the makeup of the building to include fewer artist studios and more “creative industry” companies—what was the point of paving the way for design studios and documentary filmmaking companies? One space, one vote on all decisions didn’t last for long (there was too much turnover for it to remain functional). Then, seeking control over the project, a government agent contacted him in 2006 wanting to cut a deal, offering money for participation in events and certain renovations they asked to be made. 501 made their end of the bargain, but the money never came. Payment kept being deferred. What does it mean to make a deal with an authoritarian government? 

I asked Yan Yan if he now thought that they should have created some restrictions, or at least better guidelines, on who could rent out space and under what conditions. No space exists in a vacuum, I said, so failing to build protections only invites invasion by the forces that dominate everywhere else. 

“Over the past few years, I’ve seen the neighborhood and the wider world change,” he said, “and what I’ve realized is that the changes occurring are inevitable and cannot be stopped.” 

“You can still try to control the spaces you create,” I said.

But he immediately retorted: “You cannot put restrictions on art!”

I thought for a moment. “Maybe we can’t change the course of history, but we can still change a specific place or a specific policy,” I said.

“I used to be angrier about how things were,” he said more soothingly, “but now I’ve come to terms with them. Now I just focus on the things in my life I can change.”

I’d meant to say that political change can happen through steps, not that we should just focus on ourselves. But I realized that Yan Yan was in a trap I could only be superficially familiar with. This was not the familiar paradox of art in an authoritarian society, but rather free art in an authoritarian society. It was art propped up by the state in order to burnish the state’s credentials, and fill its coffers—art not for art’s sake, but for the sake of urban development.


 At Moon, Johnny Cash was playing on the stereo. Art students lingered in the glow of their laptop screens and older artists congregated around tables crowded with cigarette packs. The furniture was mismatched and worn, odd trinkets crowded the shelves, and black-and-white candids of young bodies in underwear—young bodies smoking and drunk, young couples making out—hung from a clothesline along the wall. It might have been anywhere in the West—anywhere in the world. 

We asked the café‘s 20-year-old proprietor, Hou Dong, to join us. He was lurking nearby. A design student at the Institute, he bought the café with the help of his family a year earlier when he saw it was about to close. Since that time, he has also opened a bar filled with old couches and a pool table on the ground floor of 501, along with a cavernous performance space in its basement, where I had gone to a showcase of Chongqing bands a few days before. 

Based on his appearance, I expected Hou Dong to be insufferable: his navy tennis headband and his hair, dyed and permed a la Justin Timberlake circa ‘N Sync, did not inspire confidence. But he was earnest and sweet—in a JT sort of way, incidentally—answering my questions politely, as if I were his mother’s age. 

I asked him the question he gets asked all the time. How did you come to open three establishments by the age of 20?

“I think I’m successful because I’m not afraid to just do things,” he said. “I learned how to do everything along the way, like make coffee, put in floors. I did all the renovations myself and started by just serving three types of beer and nothing else,” he said. “At the beginning, my friends helped me out.”

I knew his parents had also helped him out—they were there at all three of his spaces, everyday, helping him out—and I could tell that this answer had been rehearsed, or at the very least given a few times before. So I let him question me for a little while instead. “I used to write fiction,” he said. I used to win contests in magazines, 1000 yuan.”

“Do you still write?” I asked.

“I stopped after two years.”

“Why’d you stop?” 

“I got into painting.” 

“Do you still paint?”

 “Actually, I’m doing some design work now,” he said, reaching for his MacBook. “Want to see?”

On the screen was a layout for a website his friend was starting up. It was DIY in aesthetic, and kind of minimalist. 

Writing in the morning, painting in the afternoon, philosophizing in the evening: here it all was, personified in Hou Dong, and in a country still nominally Communist. But Hou Dong was not an idealist or utopian; he had no pretensions about politics, and even fewer about art. He was steadfastly practical, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the rapid transformation of Huangjueping, without cynicism. He was the kind of subject that the Chongqing model was in fact designed to create—one who would “serve the people” by ultimately assisting in the private development of the neighborhood. 

Hou Dong mentioned that the editors of the Institute’s art magazine had contacted him recently, having discussed his coming aboard to help increase circulation. But Hou Dong only wanted to join them if he could control his own realm—maybe a more pop-oriented supplement, that he would launch? I suggested that the supplement might be better in the form of a website. Hou Dong and I discussed how a web presence and social media are necessary for building editorial brands, and how he could broaden his audience by connecting art to everyday life. 

Yan Yan sat back and listened, amused and pleased, I think, at our youthful versatility.


When I visited Chongqing in late 2011, the face of the charismatic then-Party Chief Bo Xilai, pleasant and often smiling, still stared out at me from framed photographs in countless Chongqing restaurants, offices, and stores. One of China’s “princelings” (he is the son of martyred revolutionary Bo Yibo), Bo was a symbol against the free market and Western depravity, stirring up speculation of a Chongqing-led “red turn.” Alongside his socialist-driven Chongqing Experiment, he carried out an anticorruption campaign that led to the arrest of thousands of triad members and officials. He sent party cadres to the countryside to live with peasants; led millions of residents in singing old revolutionary songs; and periodically sent text messages of Mao’s quotes to residents.

The Chonqing model is now widely considered a thing of the past, thanks to the implosion of Bo Xilai. Bo’s career began to unravel in February 2012, when the now-infamous scandal began to unfold. Bo’s right-hand man Wang Lijun—who had spearheaded Bo’s anticorruption campaign as Chongqing’s police chief—arrived at the US consulate in Chengdu unannounced, seeking political asylum, then was detained by Chinese authorities after prolonged negotiations. Meanwhile, details began to emerge of Bo’s wife Gu Kailai’s involvement in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, her extensive business investments, and their son’s decadent lifestyle as a private school student in the UK. Wang Lijun was embroiled in this tale of palace intrigue, but quickly faded to the margins after Bo accepted responsibility for Wang—and defended his Chongqing Experiment. By mid-March, Premier Wen Jiabao was publicly criticizing Bo for dredging up the ghosts of the Cultural Revolution (though Bo himself had been imprisoned as a youth during the Cultural Revolution), and Bo was removed from his post as Chongqing Party Chief with no official explanation on March 15. In the dead of night on April 10, Bo was quietly removed from the CCP Central Committee and the Politburo.  

The Party leadership maintains that Bo was dismissed for disciplinary violations, and Gu Kailai was found guilty in Heywood’s murder in August 2012, in what many considered to be a show trial. Some on the Chinese “New Left”—including Wang Hui in the LRB and Yuezhi Zhao in Monthly Review—have interpreted Bo’s downfall as an indictment of his Experiment and the alternative socialist road he had proposed. 

But the Chongqing I saw, a few months before Bo Xilai and his Experiment met their fall, already showed evidence of how the bureaucratic, top-down approach was blind to individual experience. Its methods were not only restrictive; they also counteracted the progressive aims of the Experiment. Maybe this approach lent it credibility, and thereby gave it life, among Bo’s Politburo peers. Maybe the scale of socioeconomic inequality demands solutions this broad. But ultimately the Experiment was tending to destroy the base that it was trying to re-establish. “From the mass, to the mass”: the old Maoist line that was on everyone’s lips in the Chongqing rallies was nowhere in the practice. Instead, the change was like an invasion—as strange in people’s lives as a fifty-foot tall cartoon alien, peering out from behind a sparkling ten-story facade.

Image: Tuya Street. Photograph by Triplefivechina via flickr.

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