Whatever I expected from China’s capital, it wasn’t this.

In Beijing’s industrial gallery district, brick buildings armoured with gleaming exposed pipes loom above me over a concrete street. Bright, gestural graffiti frames doorways that open to cafes and sculpture studios.

The 798 Art District exhibits work by some of the biggest names in the art world, from Ai Weiwei to David Hockney, and also acts as an incubator for creativity in the city, offering a platform for emerging artists. The imposing, Bauhaus-style complex originally housed Cold War-era factories that manufactured weapons and electronics (798 was a clandestine military code used for one of the buildings). Censorship still runs deep in the communist state, but its thriving contemporary art scene acts as a flagbearer for freedom of expression.

“I like looking at the tension of old and new, remnants of historical Beijing and its modernization,” says Mu Lei, a young Chinese artist based in the city. Surrealist oil paintings that explore gender and identity hang on the walls of his small studio, and motion-graphic installations stand at attention throughout the space, blurring boundaries between the real and virtual world. Travelling further into the belly of the district, I pass concrete bunkers stamped with scarlet slogans exalting Mao and slip through the glass doors at Faurschou Foundation. The gallery is hosting American artist Doug Aitken’s first solo exhibition in mainland China, a mix of dizzying, large-scale video works and glowing figurative sculptures, specters in the dark.

Leaving the district behind, the highway stretches out in a grey smudge outside my car window. In between the opposing traffic lanes, pink and red roses—the city’s official flower—climb a fence. Entering the downtown core, the windows of high-end fashion boutiques in the Wangfujing District wink like camera flashes in the sun. The car pulls up to the Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing and as I enter the hotel’s lobby, I’m greeted by a large, pink koi fish sculpture suspended from the ceiling. Illustrious architect Frank Gehry created the piece specifically for the hotel, and it’s the only one of its kind exhibited outside of his own personal collection. “Art is part of the Mandarin Oriental’s DNA,” says hotel manager Mark Bradford. The hotel is located in the Wangfujing area, where imperial princes lived in grand mansions, with daily lives that revolved around art, music, literature, and gastronomy. “Beijing has a vibrant mix of history and modernity, providing a constant source of inspiration,” says Bradford.

beijing-art-wangfujing-mobar-terrace-9--mandarin-oriental-hotel-groupMo Bar terrace | Mandarin Oriental Hotel Groupbeijing-art-wangfujing-hotel-lobby-8-mandarin-oriental-hotel-groupLobby | Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group

A calming watercolour palette of sea greens and blues inspired by traditional Chinese ceramics washes the entire property in a wave of calm, while custom wallpaper gives a nod to Chinese ink painting. Photographs by Chinese artist Liu Bolin hang in a conference space, and original artwork by photographer and digital artist Yao Lu inspired by Song Dynasty landscape painting decorate every room. Even the cocktail menu at the hotel’s Mo Bar takes its cue from art. Drinks with names like Neon and Paradox pay tribute to Beijing’s art stars. “Mixology is about creativity, and might be considered as another form of art,” says Bradford.

beijing-art-cloud-house-1-mandarin-oriental-hotel-groupCloud House | Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group

Later that afternoon, I head to Cloud House, the home of revolutionary Chinese artist Huang Rui, which functions as a gallery space and cultural centre on weekends. The sprawling building uses 200,000 bricks pulled from Beijing’s old city walls, around the hutongs—alleys and passages that frame old courtyard residences—where Rui grew up. Built around an open-air atrium with a water mirror, the house mimics the design of a traditional courtyard, and rooms soon to be occupied by artists in residence mix 6th-century antiques and carpets with a minimalist aesthetic. By using these traditional elements in a modern way, Rui hopes to strike a balance between old and new Beijing.

beijing-art-huang-rui-4-mandarin-oriental-hotel-groupMandarin Oriental Hotel Group

Rui is a pioneer of China’s avant-garde, using his art as a means of protest against communist ideology. 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of Stars, the country’s first contemporary art exhibit and the catalyst for the Beijing Spring, a pro-democracy movement and brief period of political liberalization at the end of the 1970s. Rui and a small group of artists, including Ai Weiwei, hung their art without permission on the railings of the China Art Gallery. When they were forced to remove them, they protested and were eventually given a space to exhibit their work. I stand in Rui’s immense, airy, light-filled studio as he explains his most recent pieces. “I’m still criticized for my work,” says Rui.

The next morning, I head to Tiananmen Square, which glows an eerie orange in the smoky sunrise. It’s hard to reconcile the bloodshed that haunts this place with the hopeful, inspired Beijing I’ve experienced. I wander into Yangmeizhu Xiejie, one of the city’s hutongs. The area was revitalized as part of Beijing Design Week and is peppered with hipster cafes and boutiques stocked with local designers. Outside Beijing Postcards—a shop dedicated to the city’s history and filled with photos, maps, and postcards of Old Beijing—fuchsia roses bloom against a grey brick wall, as if in an act of defiant beauty.

beijing-art-china-rose-7-chloebergeChloe Berge

Back at the hotel that evening on Mo Bar’s sprawling patio, the centuries-old Forbidden City is cast in silhouette against the fiery setting sun and an art-inspired drink sweats in my hand. I take a sip. It tastes sweet and sour all at once.


When You Go

Get there

Cathay Pacific flies direct to Hong Kong from Vancouver and Toronto. From Hong Kong, catch one of their daily flights into Beijing, but make time for a layover at the Cathay Pacific Pier Business Lounge to indulge in the noodle bar, teahouse, and yoga sanctuary.


The artful Mandarin Oriental Wangfujing comes with views of the forbidden city, a library stocked with art tomes, and tai chi on the garden terrace.

The Opposite Hotel in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighbourhood is the city’s original design hotel. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the hotel’s atrium functions as a contemporary art gallery.


Hua’s Restaurant specializes in Peking Duck and other traditional Chinese dishes, while King’s Joy serves upscale, seasonal vegetarian fare in a romantic traditional courtyard. For a flat white and a stroll, head to Soloist Coffee in the Yangmeizhu Xiejie hutong, and in the 798 Art District, At Café serves salads, sandwiches, and coffee. Founded by Huang Rui, the café is also a gathering place for local artists.