Lost in Beijing

As with any multi-faceted city, one’s experience and impression of Beijing depends on a variety of factors: the reason for being there, the duration of the stay, the people you meet, the attractions that you see, and the districts that you navigate, often via public services, in order to see them. My visits to China’s capital since 2005 have also been defined by where I have been staying, as the city is so big that arranging convenient accommodation always becomes a priority: I have checked into a hotel near the shopping mecca of Wangfujing, been hosted by friends of my in-laws who live in a luxurious residential development, and also stayed at a hotel in Haidian district that was within a short taxi ride of the Beijing Film Academy. Knowing that my recent trip to Beijing was going to be comparatively scattershot in terms of alternating professional and personal activity, I opted for a hotel in the fairly central, rather anonymous area of Anzhen, located near a subway station and therefore very suitable for a busy four days in a city that can best be summarised as an urban sprawl. To say that I was lost in Beijing would be overly dramatic, as I had a rough schedule, address details, contact phone numbers, and some street knowledge from prior visits. Yet the rapid development of the city, not to mention its busy walkways and heavily congested traffic, often conspires to turn simple appointments into missions that are difficult to accomplish.

The main reason for visiting Beijing was the publication of my latest edited collection, World Film Locations: Beijing. A new addition to the World Film Locations series from Intellect Books, an examination of the enduring relationship between city and cinema, this volume was off the press just in time to coincide with Intellect’s presence at the 19th Beijing International Book Fair, and the publisher’s second annual meeting with the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. Held from August 29-September 2 at the new venue of the China International Exhibition Centre, accessible via subway on the way out to Beijing International Airport, the book fair is essentially a trade event that serves to illustrate China’s growing status in the global publishing market. With representatives from presses both popular and academic occupying the 21,000 available stands, it was the kind of fair that required anyone attending with a view to business development to have a clear agenda in order to avoid several days of accumulating random business cards and glossy hand-outs. From a more casual perspective, however, it was clear that publishing is thriving in China: while it is inevitable that not every international imprint will break into this market, either due to not having the right catalogue or struggling to connect with the necessary mainland partners, the potential financial rewards in reaching Chinese readers are too great to ignore. All areas of publishing seemed to be attracting interest from attendees, with a sizable crowd gathered for a panel discussion on Swedish crime fiction.

My visit to the Beijing Film Academy was actually the second time that I have been to the institution since relocating to China. In 2010, I interviewed Professor Mei Feng about his collaborations with the Sixth Generation filmmaker Lou Ye, for whom he worked on the screenplays for Purple Butterfly (2003), Summer Palace (2006), and Spring Fever (2009). The hour before that interview was spent wandering around the campus, which is relatively small, with a main building for teaching and administration, studios where students can work on their films (live action and animation), and a dormitory. Still, anyone with an interest in Chinese cinema cannot fail to experience a genuine sense of awe from any number of visits to the Beijing Film Academy: its graduates include such significant filmmakers as Chen Kaige, Jia Zhangke, Lu Chuan, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Wang Xiaoshuai, Xie Fei, Zhang Yimou, Zhang Yuan, and the aforementioned Lou, not to mention countless other directors, performers, and industry professionals. Over the course of a productive two hour meeting, Mark outlined Intellect’s extensive catalogue of film studies texts and journals, further establishing valuable links with the school that will hopefully result in the English-language translation of the work of their scholars. I was on hand to provide my perspective as an author and editor, discussing how books such as World Film Locations: Beijing are put together, while having the great pleasure of meeting Professor Yao Guoqiang, chief librarian Liu Jun, and Wu Guanping, editor of the influential Film Art Magazine.

An equally important meeting occurred later in the day at 798 Art Zone in Chaoyang District, where Mark and I spent time with Mars Zhang of the independent publishing house BeePub and Dong Bingfeng, the artistic director of Li Xianting’s Film Fund. Since establishing BeePub three years ago, the enterprising Mars has become a key player in Beijing’s publishing scene, engaging with the artistic community by locating his business and stores at Songzhuang Art Zone, a former village that is now part of Beijing due to the expansion of the city. Bingfeng works for the non-profit organization founded by art critic and curator Li Xianting that assists Chinese independent cinema in terms of both production resources and promotion. The office of the film fund is also based at Songzhuang, and I visited on the following day. Bingfeng kindly provided a tour, while discussing the fund’s archival work and recent activities. This was the location of the recent 9th Beijing Independent Film Festival, which is sponsored by the fund and was moved from its intended venue due to official intervention during the opening screening of Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone (2012). The festival was a combination of two events, the Beijing Documentary Film Festival and the Beijing Independent Film Festival, which had been running for 7 years without interference, but came under government scrutiny in 2011. Bingfeng explained that the actions of the authorities were anticipated, with plans to move the festival to Songzhuang in place before the official shut down.

Taking some time out from professional commitments and research interests, my wife and I caught up with friends from her Northern home town of Anshan, Liaoning province, who are now based in Beijing, having relocated more than a decade ago to pursue careers in the capital. We mostly socialised with Liu Jing and her husband Dahai: Jing studied Italian, and now works as a freelance translator, often taking care of visa applications for the Italian embassy, while Beijing native Dahai is a hairdresser who opened his own salon in April 2012. Located in the Anzhen district, Micio Salon is as friendly as it is trendy, with Dahai’s easy-going manner ensuring that customers enjoy the service. Dahai is one of many Beijing citizens seeking to parlay his skillset into a long-term business, but his training at the make-up department of the Central Drama Academy and professional experience with other salons will hopefully lead to success in a competitive field. His celebrity connections will certainly be useful, and the wall of Micio Salon is adorned with photos of Dahai with famous clients, such as Wen Zhang, the star of the box office smash Love is Not Blind (2011). In the company of Jing and Dahai, we spent a relaxing evening wandered around Houhai, a lakeside area that has become a popular nightspot with Beijing’s youth. Houhai is also a regular film location, featuring prominently in Dayyan Eng’s comedy Waiting Alone (2004) and Feng Xiaogang’s romantic drama If You Are the One (2008).

After a number of visits to Beijing, and co-editing a book on its cinematic representation, my feelings about the city remain mixed. It is a place of great opportunity with its continued development serving as a symbol of China’s drive towards global prominence. However, keeping up with its sheer pace can take its toll, and any success achieved in this vast capital is ultimately shrouded in a grey fog as a result of its hazardous pollution level.  It’s also a city that looks to the future at the expense of the past, with its history being demolished as old neighbourhoods are replaced by looming skyscrapers and high-price shopping malls that cater to members of the Fortune 500 club. Dahai grew up in the Anzhen district, where his salon is based, but no longer recognises the area of his childhood due to how much it has changed during his lifetime. Beijing may be notoriously difficult to navigate, but it is personal history that is getting lost, rather than the confused visitor, who can always get back on track in a couple of subway stops. As I was covering a lot of distance for professional purposes, my impression of Beijing after this trip was based on its spatial geography and its networks, the manner in which it is at once disconnected and intrinsically linked. In-keeping with this contradiction, it is also a city that I was not sorry to leave, yet one that I look forward to revisiting for further urban investigation.

Editor’s note: John’s Beijing diary kicks off a two-week series celebrating the September 15th release of World Film Locations: Beijing on Intellect Ltd.  Throughout this series, we will be publishing several reviews related to this volume, as well as a chance to win a free copy!


798 Art Zone




Beijing Film Academy


Beijing International Book Fair 2012


Beijing Official Website


Egg and Stone trailer


Intellect Books


Interview with Beijing Independent Film Festival sponsor Li Xianting


Micio Salon


Songzhuang Art District


World Film Locations: Beijing


World Film Locations Official Facebook page