Photos by Julia Dimon for Metro Toronto

Above and below, Factory 798, an industrial art district outside central Beijing, showcases local modern art, photography and abstract sculpture.

Factory 798 isn’t what you’d expect to find in a communist country. This arts district is peppered with industrial spaces turned art galleries, showcasing contemporary art, photography and abstract sculpture.

Located in the Dashanzi area, this former state-owned factory can be tough to find, but those who venture beyond central Beijing will be rewarded with trendy cafés and awesome art, designed by Chinese and Taiwanese artists.

First stop, the visitor’s information centre. I picked up a map and a list of the day’s lectures, dance performances and film screenings. Next, a little gallery hopping, absorbing all styles of artistic expression: everything from Japanese video installations, to experimental nude photographs, to pop-art representations of Chairman Mao.

Post exhibit, I popped into one of the many cafés dotting the district. I ordered a cinnamon cappuccino and a plate of pesto pasta drizzled with goat cheese. “This is communist China?” I thought to myself, nibbling on a forkful of green penne.

The country that implemented the Cultural Revolution and once condemned artists, now permits the modern art district.

Though the Chinese government isn’t financially nurturing the arts, “they’re not storming buildings to burn down paintings either,” confessed a Finnish curator who worked in one of the galleries. “Today, a lot of censorship seems to originate from the artists themselves,” she continued. In order to survive, galleries will only carry art that sells. “Instead of art-for-art’s-sake, artists are creating works that are commercially viable.”

The result is revolution-less art; cool to look at, but ultimately, it lacks a strong social message. Whether this censorship is self-imposed or not, I can see how being cautious is probably best. Many Chinese creative types, journalists and web bloggers, for example, have been arrested and jailed for expressing their views.

For the art-lover travelling through Beijing, Factory 798 is well worth the trip. Expect cute boutiques, art installations and, at the very least, great pesto pasta.

Julia Dimon, a Toronto-based freelance writer, is travelling around the world for one year. She can be reached at