798 Art District, March 2010. Only in a city as wondrously contradictory and confusing as Beijing could a place like 798 Art District exist! Formerly a huge network of factories built by the East Germans in the 1950s, by the mid 1990s the entire area had fallen into a state of abandoned disrepair. It was around this time that The Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts setup shop here to take advantage of the cheap rent and vast working space. Soon after independent artists began trickling in and the community grew and grew…
The Summer Palace, January 2010. I’ve always considered The Summer Palace to be Beijing’s crowning achievement! For me you can keep the organised chaos of The Forbidden City and the anticlimactic expanse of Tiananmen Square. While these places are definitely worth seeing, China’s largest royal park has way more charm, with breathtaking temples, gardens, pavilions, bridges, a huge lake and dazzling hilltop views. This shot was taken as I closed in on the top of Longevity Hill for a look in The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. Guarded by a selection of fearsome bronze animals, its focal point is a giant hardwood throne.
The Forbidden City, April 2010. Home to a succession of Chinese emperors; Beijing’s incredible Forbidden City served as the very heart of China for over five hundred years and is said to be Planet Earth’s largest palace complex! And right enough you’d be hard pushed to doubt this claim as you walk under The Gate of Heavenly Peace, the disapproving stare of Chairman Mao tracking your every step.
After a happy, prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in gray, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling
I was right on the verge of blissful slumber when the red dot flickered across my face, settling right in the middle of my forehead, jarring me from my restful state. What the ****? Straining to focus through my drowsiness, I could make out some manner of form standing to my side, a futuristic gun gripped in a small, pale hand. Aimed right at me, there was a lone beep followed by an equally unsettling metallic click. And then, much to my relief, it was withdrawn. “Thirty six degrees” purred the air stewardess with a robotic smile. And then she was gone with a swish of her red and yellow tie scarf, a faint trail of perfume hanging in the air. “No Swine flu for you then” chuckled S, rubbing my arm. And then she was asleep again, such was her ability.
E.E. Education, April 2014. The sleepy, unremarkable little Beijing neighbourhood of Shangdi stands as the dictionary definition of a non-place. There is very little to see and even less to do, save for a sizeable collection of restaurants and local stores, a lone bakery and a big ass supermarket. And yet somehow this is where I lived for two years teaching English at a small language school. Despite its many frustrations, I have great memories from my time at EE. This shot was taken during a Saturday afternoon drama class, the kids and I rehearsing a short Harry Potter themed play. Matteo (left) was a boy genius with a Michael Jackson fetish. Gawain meanwhile (middle) struggled with the language and refused to accept that his name should in fact be Gavin, while Jerry (right) was one of the nicest boys I’ve ever taught, his heavy Beijing farmer’s accent bringing a smile to my face as he shrarred and arred his way through the script.
MOMA, June 2014. The school was located on this large residential complex, a short walk from my apartment. The families that lived there were very wealthy and I saw some amazing apartments within those identical cookie cutter tower blocks. This shot was taken on a depressingly polluted afternoon. I had to cycle down to EE’s school with Annie, one of my teaching assistants. Armed with a pair of rickety bicycles and my trusty facemask, I half wondered if the smog would swallow us up along the way.
Local Hypermarket August 2014. Shangdi’s massive local hypermarket was always an interesting affair. Chicken feet and duck tongues in the snack section, staff following you around and watching your every move for reasons unknown. This massive open-air aquarium in the middle of the shop floor never failed to make me giggle, especially people’s attempts to scoop up their chosen fish with the provided nets.
Zero Restaurant, September 2014. My American buddy Anthony worked with me at EE and lived one floor up from my studio in the same high rise. To keep ourselves entertained, we carried out a forensic investigation of the local restaurant scene. With no idea what each place was actually called, we devised a numerical system based on the order each joint was discovered. “You wanna grab lunch at 2?” he’d ask me, or I might suggest we do some dishes at 3. There was also a barbecue joint we called Muslim and a pricier place down by the subway station we christened fancy. We referred to the little street side restaurant in this photo as Zero, as it was actually closer to our building than both 1 and 2. The food was always deliciously greasetastic; Mama Zero always welcomed us with a wide smile and we did our best to ignore the suspicious chemical smell that lingered by the front door. The ghostly spectre of the Lenovo factory in the background only added to the street’s pervading feel of hopelessness.
E.E. Education, January 2015. I couldn’t wait to get out of Shangdi in the end. My boss was a nightmare, Anthony was moving on and I’d saved up enough money to embark on an extended travel route through Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. But it was tough leaving some of my students behind. Take Clare, Snow and Sofia for example, three ridiculously cute little girls who’d stamped their feet, cried and hissed at me during our first lesson together. It had taken months for them to trust me, almost a year before they’d come sprinting into school to hit me with aggressive full-force hugs: “Leeeeeeeeeeighton!!!!” Sometimes I think about what went down the day they came to school and discovered I’d gone. One day I will return to Shangdi and they’ll have changed beyond recognition.