Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Songzhuang Artist Colony

This is the true story of how we went to spend the day with friends of ours who live in a remote village near the border of Hebei Province and ended up eating dinner at the home of a professional artist in a famous art colony we had never heard of.

One of our regular destinations this past summer was a nondescript place called Yanjiao, a small town in Hebei Province just over the river from Beijing. "Just over the river" makes it sound like Yanjiao was no more than a hop, skip, and a jump from our apartment in the middle of Beijing. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. To get to Yanjiao and the nearby village where we have friends, we had to run the following two-plus hour marathon...

Take a bus from our apartment to the Beijing metro system. Take the #2 subway line to the #1 line. Make another transfer from the #1 line to the Batong Line. Take a local bus way out into the middle of endless fields of corn. Along the way, fight with masses of Beijingers trying to ride the same buses and trains and trying to make the same transfers. Oh, and get on the wrong bus going way out into the middle of the wrong cornfields.

At some point kind of late in the afternoon, after hours of good fellowship, I asked a pretty straightforward question. "Hey, what time does the last bus come through here, heading back in the direction of Beijing?" I had a sneaking suspicion that the answer might be something like 8pm, given how remote our location was.

"5:30 or so," came back the answer.

Well, then, we had better get going! Don't want to miss that last bus!

"Nah, don't worry about it. We'll make sure you get to an area where there are later buses."

For some reason, that kind of unverified statement always seems to resonate with us in China, and so we sat tight, continuing our conversations and good times.

And so it was a little while later that a couple of newcomers came walking into the traditional brick-style courtyard home where we were hanging out. It turns out that, unbeknownst to us, we were all heading out to go see some friends of our countryside hosts, some Christian friends who are resident artists in what is apparently one of the hippest artist colonies in all of China.

Here's how the deal went down. There was a man with a sanlunche, the ubiquitous three-wheeled cycles that we are always writing about. Onto the back of the sanlunche climbed Desi and three of our friends. There was also a woman, wearing really cool dark shades, who was riding a motorbike. That was my ride...Nice! As for Julie and Z, it was jump onto an old-fashioned bicycle, with one pedaling and the other riding on the back. And so off we went...

Desi's driver apparently knew where we were going and jetted off, leaving the rest of us in the dust. Although our motorbike could cover some ground, the woman in the dark sunglasses kept the pace slow, so Julie and Z could follow along and not get lost in the middle of the rural Beijing landscape.

As the two of us rode on, I asked questions from my perch in the back. "What's up with this artist colony?" It turns out that artists from all over China, and the rest of the world, flock to this desolate place where the rents are cheap and the camaraderie abundant. In fact, glasses girl herself had migrated to Songzhuang (as I had just discovered our destination was called) from Shanxi Province, just so she could work in an art gallery.

"Do you want to see the gallery?" Well, of course that was going to be the next question! So off our prescribed path we went, with Julie and Z struggling like mad to pedal fast enough and keep up.

Since it was now after normal working hours, the gallery was, predictably, closed for the day. But glasses girl was not to be deterred. Working her cell phone, she contacted a colleague who was still somewhere inside the warehouse-looking structure, a young woman who opened the door and let us in.

I'd like to say that the art was great (and some of it was pretty cool), but the dominant mood inside the gallery was one of impatience. You see, just after we went inside, Desi called, having arrived with the rest of the posse at our originally intended destination, the home of one of the aforementioned Catholic artists. Desi was now on her own, in an unfamiliar place, with no one who speaks English, in a house where there were inexplicably tons of little kids running around wreaking havoc. (It turns out, to cut to the chase, that our artist-dinner host teaches painting to local children as a way of making ends meet.)

Meanwhile, back at the gallery, Julie, Z, and I politely but quickly made our way through room after room, eventually heading back outside and onto our respective bikes. Back onto the streets and within a few minutes we joined up with Desi and the chaos that was going down at the really neatly renovated courtyard home of our new artist friend.

At one point, while the artist was preparing a dinner made solely from ingredients grown by himself on his own property, one of the little kids came running up and exclaimed, "Teacher! One of your chickens has gotten outside of the courtyard!"

You know I had to be a part of that chase scene! Down the narrow alley between the artist's home and the courtyard next door we went. Around the back. Reaching down into vines full of ripening squash, there it was, the chicken, now firmly held in place and carried back inside the big courtyard gate and door.

Strolling through the rooms of the courtyard, there was plenty of art to be seen, some of it finished, some of it still in progress. Much of it, our artist friend told us, is from a current series that he is working on, a series inspired by visions of the Resurrection and the ascension into Heaven of all those souls who were emancipated from Purgatory.

For its part, dinner was spectacular. Freshly picked vegetables, all prepared in that distinctive north China peasant style of cooking. (Old China hands, I would hope, have a strong idea of what I am trying to describe here.)

So this is all good...But, uh, how are we getting home? After all, it was getting to be pretty late in the evening, and we still were far from home and any trace of metropolitan Beijing.

After a phone call from our artist friend, a guy with a small car pulled up, positioned to drive us back to Beijing. "Cool, that should be much faster!" And the price we negotiated was more than fair, actually one of the best bargains I think we have ever had in years of living in China.

The only hitch? The folks who we had originally come all this way to see decided that they would go back to Beijing with us and crash for the night in our apartment. Let's get this straight...Two families of four, plus a driver...All squeezing into a car about the size of a Ford Escort...Sounds good to us! Let's do it!

You can imagine...Desi riding shotgun, with a kid (not one of ours!) on her lap. Us in the back seat, one person sitting and leaning forward, the next person squished in behind. Somehow four of us fell asleep...Not me, though, as my job was to talk with the driver and make sure he knew where he was going (and that he didn't fall asleep!).

Hey, I didn't lie to you, folks!



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