Shanghai Social Diary: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Visits China – Part I

An outdoor sculpture by Wang Guangyi in the 798 Arts District in Beijing, one of many stops on an exclusive art tour of Shanghai and Beijing organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

BEIJING –When I learned the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) Collectors Circle was making its first trip to China so the members could acquaint themselves with the burgeoning art scenes in Shanghai and Beijing, I knew it would be the best of the best.

I’d once served on the Museum’s board, and I was living in Shanghai, so I offered to help. Since I’ve extensively covered the Shanghai art scene for New York Social Diary already, it was the Beijing leg of the tour I wanted to report on.

The well-honed trip included a dream schedule of meet-ups with top artists, visits to galleries and studios, and tours of historic sites and restaurants that could be the blueprint for any art lover’s visit.

This China trip was one of two annual excursions organized exclusively for the Collectors Circle, MCASD’s premier support group. Members enjoy access to a range of art institutions, attend private dinners and special events, and even get to vote on which works the Museum will acquire. Learn more at

The ten-day trip was too eventful to cover in a single story. So here’s the first of two parts.



I flew from Shanghai’s modern and well-organized Hongqiao airport to Beijing, China’s second largest city and its political center, to meet up with the group.

A Raffles Hotel representative accompanied me from the airport on the drive through maddening Beijing traffic. Though the city has built ring road after ring road, you still encounter a constant line of red taillights—much like L.A.!

The historic beaux-arts Raffles Hotel Beijing, built in the early 1900s, is centrally located on Chang’ An, the main street that runs east and west through Beijing.

(Hint: always carry your hotel’s business cards, which will have directions in Chinese and Pinyin [Chinese characters transliterated into the Latin alphabet]. If you can’t pronounce the hotel name, just hand the card to the taxi driver.)

The grand hotel Raffles Beijing is only a few minutes’ walk to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the historic Wangfujing pedestrian street.

The bellmen’s smart red-jacketed uniforms matched my bag. (Red signifies good luck and joy in China.)

In the elegant lobby, studded with chandeliers, the staff—from general manager on down—greeted us.

Since check-in had been pre-arranged (a lovely touch!), the bellmen escorted us directly to our rooms. I love the older hotels where you can use the grand staircase instead of waiting for the elevators.

In our luxurious rooms, Imperial Travels had provided goodie bags. Among the treats were macarons that rivaled the famous ones from Ladurée in Paris.

One of the coveted “personality suites” is named for Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), who received the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The George Bernard Shaw suite’s vintage décor included a writer’s desk and an old-fashioned typewriter.

I loved the spaciousness and ample closet space of the guest rooms, and I especially enjoyed the balcony, from which I could see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.


After unpacking, we headed downstairs to the Writers’ Bar, named for the famous literary luminaries who have stayed at the hotel or written about it, including George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and Noël Coward.

MCASD patrons Irwin Jacobs and Melissa Garfield Bartell were celebrating birthdays, so fellow patron Joan Jacobs had orchestrated a caviar and Champagne party.

A champagne birthday reception was waiting in the Raffles Writer’s Bar.

Eschewing the customary tourist sport clothes and shoes, our well-dressed group added glamour to the elegant hotel, which I know was much appreciated.

We enjoyed mounds of caviar on ice served with blini, accompanied by vodka and champagne.

Today in major Chinese cities, delicacies and first-rate produce from around the world are available—if you’re willing to pay the price.

Even after the nearly 12-hour flight from California, the spirited group didn’t miss the chance to celebrate the birthdays.


The birthday dinner was held at New York-based chef Daniel Boulud’s Beijing outpost. It’s in the heart of the city, in the newly renovated former Delegation Quarter. During the former Qing era, many embassies, including the American Embassy (then called the Delegation), were located here.

For the dinner, we entered the gates of Ch’ien Men 23. It’s a short distance from Tiananmen Square in the area known as Qianmen, center of imperial life for thousands of years.

For the dinner, we entered the gates of Ch’ien Men 23. It’s a short distance from Tiananmen Square in the area known as Qianmen, center of imperial life for thousands of years.

Maison Boulud is in a grand colonial building, with a spacious bar area, a lounge, a large dining room, and many private rooms.

Our group of 24 sat at a long table in a private room off the main dining room.

We began with squash soup, a creamy velouté with smoked bacon, cinnamon meringue, and poached cranberries, served with pumpernickel grissini.

Second course: Tuna confit marinated in citrus, with Niçoise garnish and arugula leaves.

Third course: Herb-basted golden chicken with roasted artichokes, porcini mushrooms, and seared foie gras, with black truffle jus.

To celebrate two birthdays, we had two cakes: chocolate for Irwin Jacobs and vanilla for Melissa Garfield Bartell.

Blowing out candles.

Melissa Garfield Bartell toasted her pals on the celebratory night.

Birthday celebrant Irwin Jacobs with his wife Joan Jacobs. Irwin, co-founder of Qualcomm, has been doing business in China since the 1980s.

The festivities lasted late into the evening, and our group was the last to leave.



Breakfast in China at international hotels is always a treat. Many serve a bountiful buffet with American, British, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese fare cooked to order. Sometimes I can’t resist returning for an American breakfast after eating my Chinese one!

My favorite feature is the noodle station. You choose one of the four kinds of noodles, the chef lowers them into boiling broth, and then you add fish or chicken and vegetables, such as bok choy and mushrooms, to make a filling, healthful soup.


Tuesday, we left early for the Cao Changdi Art District, about 40 minutes from downtown Beijing. Once a farming village, it has become an international center for contemporary art in China.

Many artists relocated here when the 798 Art Zone (one of the first arts communities in China, sometimes compared to Manhattan’s SoHo and Greenwich Village) became too commercial and expensive.

Now Cao Changdi is like the “alternative” art enclaves in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Bushwick neighborhoods. Members of the artistic community mix with locals and migrant workers.

The number of galleries and studios is ever expanding. Though we could have spent several days here, with our time limitations we could visit only a few—but they were outstanding.

Cao Changdi’s urban village seems a world away from central Beijing’s gentrified 798 Art Zone.


A dirt road lined with artists’ studios and homes led us to the Pekin Fine Arts gallery. Opened in November 2005, Pekin has more than 1,900 square feet of exhibition space and a sculpture garden. It showcases the best contemporary Chinese artists and promotes them abroad.

Artist Wang Qingsong met with us and discussed “Safe Milk,” his large-scale photo of a group of bare-breasted women that references China’s contaminated milk scandal of 2008-09.

I was captivated by “History Lessons,” a beautifully done three-minute video that presented the history of China in ink drawings.

It would make a great pop quiz for Chinese history students.

I had fun seeing how much Chinese history I knew.

In addition to touring the curated collection, we got a peek at some of the artworks in storage, which gave us a totally different viewing experience.


Next we visited Chambers Fine Art, a gallery displaying calligraphy and landscapes by Shanghai-born Wang Tiande—his first solo show in Beijing.

Considered one of the most innovative modern calligraphers in China, Wang combines materials both traditional (xuan [rice] paper and ink) and unorthodox (cigarette burns) to create his drawings.

The paintings on display were illustrations for Wang’s novel 3,720, about a man who counts the number of steps he takes on his daily walk home from work and is never again able to repeat the number. It suggests that despite seemingly repetitive actions, ordinary life still holds uncertainty.

On the way to Chambers, we passed through the village encircling the galleries, an area where many migrant workers live alongside the artists’ community and the locals.

Another scene of the surrounding street life. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you will find a vendor selling warm, ready-to-eat sweet potatoes, which I can’t resist buying.

Chambers Fine Art is located in a maze of walls and alleys referred to as the Red Brick Art Galleries.

In its entrance is a lovely courtyard sculpture garden.

The minimalist gallery was a perfect setting for Wang’s monochromatic art.

In his graceful works, Wang draws a landscape with ink on xuan paper and then enriches the image with a lit cigarette.

The gallery was eager to educate us about the other artists it represents.


Many of the galleries are located in the surrounding authentic village neighborhood, dotted with farmer’s markets, tiny local cafes, and stands selling a little of everything.

A neighborhood market serves locals and artists alike.

Fish, turtles, crayfish, and crickets are sold as pets.

Street food is popular. As in our fast food shops, the fare is quick and cheap.


In the center of the village we stopped at the Galerie Urs Meile, sister to a gallery based in Lucerne, Switzerland. In the 1990s, Urs Meile was one of the first international galleries to get involved in the Chinese art scene. It has nurtured the careers of many now popular avant-garde Chinese artists.

Its artist-in-residence program offers Western artists the opportunity to work in China and establish themselves in the Chinese art world.

The Beijing outpost of Galerie Urs Meile, completed in 2005, is a distinctive complex, with beautiful landscaping, gray brickwork, and world-class art.

Once you enter these gates, you walk into a tranquil space that seems far removed from the village hustle and bustle.

Works of art are placed in the garden.

A curator talks about artist Shan Fan’s bamboo ink paintings.

He draws stems, segments, stalks, and leaves with traditional calligraphic-style strokes.

Trained in the techniques of traditional Chinese painting, Shan Fan developed new ones after living in Germany and being exposed to Western art.


After a full morning of art gallery visits, we were happy to sit and dine at Green T. House Living, a very cool “concept store” and destination spot with a spa, a private dining room, and a boutique selling beautiful design objects.

The neighborhood around Green T. House is being transformed. Of the villages we drove through, seven out of nine had been razed.

Now filling with ubiquitous high-rise apartment houses and big estates, the area might become the Beverly Hills of Beijing. With its close proximity to the airport and international schools, it’s a draw for foreigners and locals alike.

In the suburban village, we arrived at Green T. House Living, where we turned onto a narrow walkway and a Modernist sea of white walls and sharp edges.

We entered a gigantic space (you’d find nothing like it in Manhattan!) with a pavilion that houses the Green T. House restaurant, where the owners wanted to provide a cultural experience.

Chinese celebrity chef and artist Zhang Jin Jie and her Australian husband Robbie Gilchrist, the owners of Green T., with Nancy Kim of Imperial Tours, organizer of the museum trip.

The couple took a leap by choosing this space for their second location (the first is in central Beijing), but they saw the potential of the developing area and have even planted a vineyard.

Recently, they launched their own furniture designs in the popular fusion style. The line includes Plexiglas Chinese-inspired chairs and this tall-backed Chinese seat, reminiscent of Scottish Macintosh chairs.

The furniture collection is a mix of traditional Chinese and contemporary international styles.

The concept store has carefully displayed objects around the rooms.

For tea lovers, the menu offers a large choice, including green, wuulong, puer, jasmine, yellow, and floral blends.

A long table with benches was set up for us in the center of the light and airy glassed-in dining room.

Lunch featured innovative presentation of fusion food.

We dined on many small dishes, exactly the light meal we were in the mood for.

The dessert presentation was spectacular: a gigantic bowl, sending up clouds of smoke (created by dry ice), was filled with many flavors of ice cream and paired with homemade chocolate wafers.


After lunch we visited the 798 Art Zone, created out of former munitions factories in the Chaoyang District of Beijing.

The factory complex, which originally served as a neighborhood for factory workers and their families, fell into disuse under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s.

In the early 1990s, Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts set up temporary workspace there, and other artists soon trickled in.

The entrance to the 798 Art Zone, which has become an exhibition center for Chinese culture and art plus numerous other enterprises.

A directory indicates the breadth of galleries and businesses in the 798 area.

The enormous 798 Art Zone is filled with hundreds of galleries; sculpture, design, and artists’ studios; media and publishing companies; fashion boutiques; and cafes and restaurants.

Graffiti is a common sight in the Art Zone.

Obviously the sign does little to deter amateur “artists.”

The 798 area’s playful outdoor sculptures are a colorful backdrop for fashion shoots.


At the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Art Department Director Yan Zheng gave us an enjoyable private tour. The Center was founded in 2007 by a Belgian couple, Guy and Myriam Ullens, two of the leading art collectors in the world.

The first private, noncommercial cultural institution in the country, it serves as an organization and gallery space to promote the local artistic environment and showcase art and design.

The 26,000-square-foot Center hosts exhibitions of all sizes, lectures, film screenings, performances, and public festivals. We could have easily spent an entire day browsing here.

In the foyer of the Ullens Center stood Zhang Huan’s gigantic ash sculpture. The smoke emanating from it represents the burning of incense at temples.

This little Buddha is almost hidden in the side of the massive figures.

Valerie Cooper, Iris Strauss, Jeanne Lawrence, and Karen Cohn, in one of the artist-decorated rooms.

Hope Tunnel by Zhang Huan

A highlight was Zhang Huan’s “Hope Tunnel,” a locomotive train recreated from pieces of a real train destroyed in the Sichuan earthquake. (Fortunately, only two drivers were hurt, as it was not a passenger train).

The work represented the emotional response to the wreck.

A video showed how the train pieces were picked up and transported to the artist’s Shanghai studio. The project hinged on the idea that rebuilding the train would be a symbol of hope.

Yang Shaobin’s Blue Room

Yang Shaobin’s “Blue Room,” created specifically for UCCA, was also powerful. An ocean of portraits, all rendered in blue, covered the walls.

Portraits of world leaders at the Copenhagen climate talks hung opposite portraits of victims of ecological disasters.

The other two walls featured vast panoramas of a black hole and the eye of a storm.

The haunting images illustrated a different facet of global climate change—people who are directly affected by it but have no voice in policymaking.


Later we visited some of the other galleries, among them the New York-based Pace Gallery, whose incredible space in the 798 District houses an extensive collection.


Our last stop was the Beijing Center for the Arts, located in the same complex as Maison Boulud. Here we enjoyed a tour by Museum Founder and Director Weng Ling. With an impressive resume, she is considered one of the power players in the art scene.

In 1996 she became the director of the Gallery of the Central Academy, and in 2002 she was named co-director of the Shanghai Biennale. She then spent four years at the Shanghai Gallery of Art at Three on the Bund.

On the way in, we debated whether this Audi in a glass case decked with frothy spheres was an advertisement or an art installation. (It was the latter.)

MCASD Director Hugh Davies and Weng Ling, founder of the Beijing Center for the Arts.

This series of paintings represent artist Zeng Hao’s response to China’s rapid urbanization.

Artist Zhou Chunya is best known for his “Green Dog” series.

Museum director Weng Ling enthusiastically led us to the terrace to see a wonderful view of Beijing, with Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City only blocks away.

On the way to dinner, we drove past the 500-year-old Qianmen (Front Gate) that stands guard to the entrance to the Forbidden City.


After the full day of gallery tours, we dined at the beautiful China Club Beijing, an exclusive private club in an authentic palace near the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Founded by David Tang, it has a sister club in Hong Kong.

The palace was built in the 17th century for a prince descended from Emperor Kang Zi of the Quin Dynasty. Its architectural features and character have been carefully preserved, and it is now designated a historical landmark.

The China Club is famous, since reformist Deng Xiaoping was a frequent guest. A native of the Sichuan province, whose spicy cuisine includes lots of chili and peppers, he influenced the club to use these ingredients. They are often accompanied by beer or maotai, an intense Chinese liquor.

In the China Club, the antiques and décor make you imagine you’re living back in the l7th century.

The four courtyards of the China Club are surrounded by a series of interconnected Qing Dynasty single-story pavilions.

The Club offers accommodations, restaurants, private dining, and business meeting space.

The banquet had been pre-selected. I imagine the menu changes according to who the diners are.

The dining experience in this fantasy setting was magical.


Photos by Jeanne Lawrence.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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