In a country where censorship rules, few people gave the idea much of a chance. In little more than a decade, however, the 798 Art District, which occupies a former military zone on the northeastern edge of Beijing, has grown to become a genuine creative hub for contemporary art.

The story begins in the 1950s, when huge brick factories were thrown up around the Chinese capital to help satisfy the army’s growing demand for communications technologies. When manufacturing techniques moved on, these Bauhaus-style buildings were left abandoned.

China, Beijing, 798 Art District

By the early 2000s artists had moved in, attracted by low rents and the high-ceilinged spaces that gave them room to work on, and show off, their paintings and sculptures. With few other places for local artists to express themselves, and the empty factories effectively a blank canvas, news began to spread.

Today, the vast 500,000-square-metre complex teems with bookshops, galleries and art stores. Bright sculptures (think lipstick red and lime green) add colour to the traffic-free streets, while hipsters from Beijing, Shanghai and beyond rummage through trailers stacked high with ceramics and old cameras, searching for souvenirs.

Abandoned Electronic Factory, China, Beijing, 798 Art District

It’s hard to spot much in the way of politically charged art, though you might glimpse the odd cartoonish doodle of a tank or gunman, and the shops do a good line in “Obamao” T-shirts.

Away from the glossy commercial galleries, multimedia installations and corporate-sponsored exhibitions, though, there are still traces of the area’s edgier beginnings. Old factory walls shimmer with graffiti, and lone photographers snap at the handful of tumbledown industrial buildings and rusting pipelines that have yet to be torn down or redeveloped.

On its journey from niche art hangout to major tourist attraction – a transition that has caused rents to spiral, and thus priced out many artists – the district has picked up its share of critics. But then, if an art district like this wasn’t bringing in the money, it might not have been tolerated for so long.

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