The Big Picture, V – China’s Creative Economy, Beijing’s Creative Spaces and a Robot Monk

August 19, 2016 § Leave a comment


China’s Creative Economy, through the lens of creative spaces, is the subject of the last installment of our Big Picture series.

It was a few days before New Year 2016 when I first heard the word 融合业态 (Rong He Ye Tai)- fusion or convergence of industries – as a latest trend in China. The son of my father’s friend visited San Francisco with his newly-wed wife during the holidays, and I entertained them. I was trying to explain what kind of work I do (or am doing in recent years), and instead of an awkward silence which I thought would ensue, he was unexpectedly turned on by my “explorations between art and science, culture and technology, nature and lifestyle”, a concept I had thought would be too esoteric, convoluted or impractical for anyone in China to care. “融合业态!” He declared, “It’s the ‘in’ thing now!” He went on to tell me how high tech parks are passé now, replaced by creativity and design parks, and cultural incubators; how a real estate or tourist project would get funding more easily, if it had a cultural theme. He urged me to collaborate with the association he was working for, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture.

Sensing my skepticism, he handed me a document a few days later, on red letterhead. It is the State Council 2014 [10] Gazette, on promoting “the integration of cultural creativity and design services with the development of industries”.

I was blown away.  The central government is recognizing that the culture industry has the desirable attributes of “high knowledge intensity, high value-add, low energy consumption, and low pollution”, as the country’s economy goes through much-needed transformation.  It is encouraging the “deep integration” of culture industries with ‘real’ economy industries such as technology, manufacturing, real estate and retail, as new sources of growth, competitiveness, employment, consumption diversity and higher standard of living. It knows that without culture leading the way, there would be no “Created in China”.

A couple of trips to China in the ensuing months gave me the opportunity to investigate and see with my own eyes. Below I share with you several creative spaces I visited as part of this reconnaissance. It is not a conclusive report on whether the government’s policy is working – much more time and resources would be needed for that – but rather an observation of the physical (and in some cases, business and cultural) environments that creativity is being pursued, along with anecdotal stories. They are not necessarily born out of the Directive – some of these places predated the Gazette by a decade; and the people I spoke to at these places did not necessarily know anything about the policy; but in a uniquely characteristic Chinese way, the Visible Hand of the Government and the Invisible Hand of the Market are certainly at interplay, with the former sometimes directing the latter, while other times shrewdly taking clues and multiplying the latter.

All these spaces sampled are in Beijing, simply because I had the most time there. With the exception of the Buddhist temple, all the other, intentional, types of spaces exist in other “first tier” cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou. In fact the head of a French development group repurposing the pavilions of 2010 Shanghai Expo into a luxury, art and lifestyle destination told me about Shanghai government’s heavy investment in culture as a “pillar industry”. On the other hand, Beijing does have an edge and critical mass in technology; and it is not entirely random that the super adorable, wisecracking robot monk (see below), addressing your sufferings with artificial intelligence, was reincarnated in a temple there.

The Shanghai destination developer also observed changes in consumer behavior. “Even just three years ago, a nouveau riche would walk by a piece of fine art with zero interest. Now, you would see him ‘study’ it intently, looking at the front, looking at the back, nodding approvingly.”

His observations corroborate with macroeconomic trends in the market. According to the 2015 “General Survey of China’s Economic Life” released by China Central Television, the average Chinese person’s leisure time per day has increased to 2.55 hours from 2.16 three years ago. Although still “only half of that in developed economies”, the number is expected to further increase. The R&D Center of Noah Holdings Ltd. (NYSE: NOAH), a market leading Chinese wealth and asset management company with a focus on global services for high net worth individuals and enterprises, is predicting a wave of investments in cultural sectors ranging from media, entertainment and animation / gaming, to sports, education and art / music, with technology innovation further boosting opportunities.

The spaces featured here are of myriad types, serving very different functions. However, some common themes run through. Art and culture are well-integrated with other activities, be they entrepreneurship and investing, commercial / institutional strategies, or technological inventions. Innovation and tradition live side by side, supporting one another.

“Financiers Coffee”
Crowd-funded investors’ club in a historical quadrangle (which doubles as a gallery)

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Inside Beijing’s innermost 2nd Ring Road lies a 40 block area known as Beijing Financial Street (BFS), or Beijing Jinrong Street (北京金融街), which offers a collaborative environment for foreign and domestic financial institutions and Chinese regulatory agencies. Although without a stock exchange, BFS is often called China’s Wall Street, and is undoubtedly China’s most important financial regulation center. The financial asset of BFS accounts for 60% of that of the entire country with over 10 billion RMB (US$1.54 billion) cash flow each day and over 13 trillion RMB in total asset. It controls 90% of national loans and 65% of national insurance premiums, which makes Beijing the country’s largest monetary market and rivaling Shanghai to become the domestic financial center of China.

Tucked in a small alley way off the artery of BFS or Jinrong Street, amidst the forest of gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers, is a gray, one-storey building looking more in harmony with the White Dagoba in the background then the nearby skyscrapers towering over it. Glancing at this historical courtyard quadrangle known as a siheyuan (四合院),  one of the few remaining in the country, one would not have thought of it as having anything to do with finance, until you take a very close look at the sign hardly distinguishable from the brown door, which says “JRCoffee”, JR standing in for Jinrong, Finance.

JRCoffee is a crowd-funded investors club founded by a few financiers on BFS in 2014. It is an upgrade from 1898 Coffee, an earlier, lower-end edition with similar concept located inside Peking University at the heart of Zhongguancun, Beijing’s Silicon Street. Both do serve mediocre coffee and light eats, but the point of the club is to serve as a place for investors and entrepreneurs to mingle, to facilitate interaction between technology and capital, and to provide investment opportunities for “the crowd”, leveraging the power of the Internet. Hidden inside the ground-level courtyard is a sky-high ambition: to become a new landmark on BFS, representing “equality, democracy and decentralization”.

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On the evening I visited, a forum was about to start and I was invited to attend. This was part of their regularly-organized luncheon and dinner forum programs taking place at least weekly, in various rooms in the quadrangle. The topic that day was Israel – its history, culture, current economic environment – and the speaker happened to be a researcher and faculty member at my undergraduate alma mater, University of International Business and Economics (UIBE), specializing in Middle East Studies.

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What I couldn’t help noticing was the artworks throughout the space: an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese and contemporary art, labeled for sale. In the coffee room near the front, profiles and photos of investors (numbered in the order they became members) rotated on the computer screens on the wall, interspersed with those of artists and their available artworks with prices.

A few days later I saw a high school classmate, a banker-turned investor now heading an investment holding company in Shenyang which sponsors a similar space in that city.  “We have it too”, he said, when I mentioned the art presence. I asked why. “For popular atmosphere of course”. He responded matter-of-factly, without lifting his eyes from his breakfast noodles.

Such a different mentality from Silicon Valley investors.

“Creative Industry Parks”

Pace Gallery, featured earlier in Big Picture III, has a gallery in Beijing that is many times the size of its latest Palo Alto location. Pace Beijing is one of the major tenants of 798 Art District, a vast area (0.6 square kilometers) of disused factories built by the East Germans that turned into Beijing’s main concentration of contemporary art galleries, and now a popular tourist destination for those wanting to trek to the northeast corner of the city, known as Dashanzi (大山子).

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On the opposite side of the City, in Zhongguancun (中关村), is a lessor known cluster with a similar name. 768 is one of the Creative Industry Parks in Beijing and major cities in the country, which blend creativity with real economy industries.

It is no coincidence that 768 and 798 are similarly named. They are brothers – both were subsidiaries of the same parent company, the state-owned North China Wireless Joint Equipment Factory – in their former life; and both continuing their 1950’s era coded names. The modern day 798 emerged organically as an art district after the factory became obsolete, when artists and art organizations were attracted to its giant and simple-design Bauhaus architecture, ideal for multimedia installations and other ambitious projects.

768, on the other hand, was a planned transformation. Inspired by 798’s success, the holding company management thought about the best ways to repurpose 768 for changed economic realities. Wisely they decided against a high-rise shopping mall or office buildings, in favor of targeting creative types who like working in open, airy, low-density spaces. This allowed the factory, designed by Soviet architects, to maintain its heritage, the original structure and park-like green spaces. With several universities nearby, including the ones leading the country in architecture, industrial design, and garden and park designs, 768 developed a cluster of tenants in those niches. They expanded or contracted echoing real estate cycles over the years, and currently account for about half of the 130+ occupying tenants, while the other half are made up of Internet companies.

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Yet another creative industry park is Laijin (莱锦) in Central Business District (CBD), even bigger in size (1.3 billion square meters) with 46 low-density studios of 300-5000 square meters each, surrounded by gardens.  Laijin’s previous life was Beijing No. 2 Textile Factory. With CCTV only 3 km away, this experimental park sits along the “media and entertainment belt”, and many of its 170+ companies are production studios. Annual production from the Park exceeds 10 billion yuan RMB (approximately US$1.5 billion). Unique Beijing-style buildings are similarly preserved here, while a renowned local architect re-designed the entrance and some of the park layout for its new purpose.

Non-government museums

It took me a combination of a long subway ride to the end of its line and a taxi extension on dirt road to get to Hegezhuang (何各庄), a village of 300+ households way out on Beijing’s northeastern outskirts.

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One doesn’t usually find an art museum in wide open village fields surrounded by trees, vegetables and cherry farms, where horses and donkeys feel well at home. That is precisely the point of Red Brick, a different kind of museum merging fine art with purposely-designed parks and gardens, transitioning naturally into its surrounding environments.

A young museum completed in December 2012 and officially opened in May 2014 after test operations, Red Brick Museum is the brainchild of an entrepreneur and collector couple, Mr. Yan Shijie and Ms. Cao Mei, created in collaboration with Prof. Dong Yugan, a renowned architect at Beijing University’s Center of Architectural Research. The museum and garden complex is built primarily with red bricks (along with some gray ones), which serve both as building material as well as an aesthetic element. Half of the 20000 square meter space is for art exhibitions, which is roughly 75% of the interior gallery space of the new SFMOMA, but between only two storeys. The nine exhibition halls are massive. Only large-scale installations are appropriate; otherwise they would be easily swallowed up in the space.

The scale may be characteristically Chinese grandiose, but Red Brick  is definitely not a vanity project aiming for the biggest size of “hardware” with negligible “software”; nor is it an opportunistic investment expecting a quick return. The husband and wife co-founders are both artists themselves. Struggling to make ends meet as an artist, Yan had to abandon art-making in his early career, turning to art magazine editor jobs and interior design projects, and eventually becoming a successful real estate entrepreneur. Having achieved wealth as a businessman but still an artist at heart, Yan channeled his passion into the creation of a museum to respond to an inner complex, and realize his art dream later in life.

It has been 10 years in the making since the idea first germinated. The couple has diverted much of their real estate wealth to their museum “baby”, and Yan has been personally involved in curating exhibitions. The concept itself is a creative undertaking, reflecting not only a career experience that spanned art, living spaces and real estate, but also thoughtful trail-blazing in China’s nascent sector of developing museums with private rather than governmental funding. With grand ambitions for Red Brick, Yan did extensive research on museums around the world for the strategic positioning. It has to be be avant garde, to lead the country not only in art and culture but also in upgrading its art education system. It has to be be an international platform showcasing both Chinese and international top artists, with multiple functions such as collecting, research, publishing and public events, to become a world-class institution. The Chinese-style parks and gardens — itself an artform with rich cultural heritage but updated for the modern life –provides differentiation and equal footing with Western counterparts.

At the same time, Yan does not want Red Brick to be an Ivory Tower or “white box” of a traditional museum, cold and alienating for the masses. One other purpose of the architecture and gardens is to draw the community in, so that people would be able to effortlessly interact with art while playing in the open spaces, where art permeates. Although remote, Red Brick is becoming a recreational destination for residents near and far.

As unique and quirky as Red Brick sounds, it is far from an isolated phenomenon. It is only one example of the rising tide of privately-funded museums in China in recent years. In Beijing alone there are also Today Museum, Minsheng Museum (funded by Minsheng Bank with another location in Shanghai), Ullens, and so on.

Red Brick’s outlying location, Hegezhuang, is actually the site of the latest art industry development zone known as “Art Base 1”, a 445 acre planned international art cluster and multi-functional platform approved by the Chaoyang District Government, aggregating galleries, art investment companies, studios and service institutions. It already has nearly 100 such residents.

Longquan Temple and its Robot Monk


Courtesy: Reuters

I spent the last day of my last trip to China in Longquan (“Dragon Spring”) Temple.

I do have a buddhism leaning, yes; but my added motivation for the visit was the temple’s reputation as a mysterious tech R&D lab; and its youngest monk – a robot.

Rumor has it that Allen Zhang, inventor of WeChat, once briefly retreated here. WeChat was experiencing a developmental setback at the time, and Zhang was stuck in a few technical challenges. Frustrated, he tore up his notes one day. To his surprise, a monk on cleaning duty quietly glued the pieces back together, and wrote him a few suggestions. It turned out that the monk had been an IT expert before joining the monastery; and the suggestions helped unravel Zhang’s puzzles. A year later, WeChat was born.

It is unclear how factual the story is; but it is true that Longquan Temple has been attracting big brains seeking spiritual enlightenment, since Abbot Xue Cheng took it over in 2004, bringing with him eight disciples, four of whom educated in Tsinghua University and Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Here is a partial roster of Longquan monks, with their educational pedigree:

  • Master Chan Xing: Ph.D. in fluid dynamics, Tsinghua University
  • Master Xian Wei: Ph.D., Biophysics Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Master Xian Qi: Ph.D. in nuclear and thermal physics, Tsinghua University
  • Master Xian Zhao: professor, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics
  • Master Xian Qing: M.A. in Philosophy, Beijing University


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In between Buddhist scriptures, meditations and communal chores of monastic life, these highly skilled monks find various projects on their own initiatives. Someone digitized the room registration system so that the volunteers can check into their rooms more smoothly and the 700+ rooms can be better managed. Someone else programmed the monastery library collections to have a system in place for classifying and indexing books and documents. The locks have become biometric recognition systems. And then, somehow, a robot monk named Xian’er (贤二) has been answering supplicants’ questions on behalf of the Abbot, with such wisecracks as:

Q: Do you have parents?

A: That’s ridiculous, how can robots have parents?


Q: What do you do when you get sleepy?

A: Does low battery count as sleepiness?


Q: My wife is driving me crazy.  What do I do?

A: Put up with her, I suppose. I can’t advise you to divorce!


Q: I can’t live on anymore! My life sucks!

A: Don’t be ridiculous. You aren’t the only one living in misery.


Q: What is romantic love?

A: It is your own obsessions not being satisfied, and the clashing of other people’s troubles with yours.


Q: What is the meaning of life?

A: My master says the meaning of life is to help more people finally leave behind bitterness and gain happiness.

Spirituality in artificial intelligence? How can I not want to find out how?!

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A friend offered to take me there. Although he was a new driver, I was willing to risk my life riding with him because he, a Tai Chi master and instructor at Beijing University, knows several monks at the monastery. After battles with Beijing traffic for 1.5 hours, including epic wrong turns, my stubbornness was rewarded by fresh air and serenity flowing through the Phoenix Ridge, underneath which ancient gingko and cypress trees tower over red-walled Longquan Temple buildings.

Unfortunately Xian’er was not available to guide me onto the right path in life that day. He was busy meeting someone more VIP – a senior official of the State Council.

My disappointment slowly dissipated, after I chatted with one of the above-mentioned monks and visited the Comic Center and Animation Studio.

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That’s right. Longquan not only has science, technology and engineering geniuses, but also artists, designers and liberal art talents. In fact, Xian’er began his life as a cute and naïve cartoon character to help communicate Buddhist teachings, created by Master Xian Fan, an artist educated in China Central Academy Of Fine Arts.

Initially an ink-drawn single character, the cartoon’s life grew in 4-frame comic stories; and his popularity helped Abbot Xue Cheng develop a large following on Weibo. The comic strips developed into a book series, the first title of which was “Troubles Are Self-Made”(烦恼都是自找的), which became a best-seller in Chinese bookstores.

Then, new monks with computer graphics background showed up in the monastery, and began making animation films.  The Comic Center turned into Animation Studio as well, producing 2D, 3D and more recently stop motion films, some of which have won awards.

Abbot Xue Cheng’s Weibo messages are broadcast in 8 languages, and the comic books and films are multi-lingual too, all translated by Longquan’s talents.

It didn’t stop there. One day a tech company “down the hill” (i.e. outside the monastery) offered to create a robot version of the super-adorable character. “Xian’er the Robot Monk” was born, and has been captivating people’s fascination both within and outside China.

Xian’er’s massive popularity reflects the cross-current of the country’s urgent pursuit of spirituality and, more recently, rapid development of artificial intelligence. It is ironic that Abbot Xue Cheng named his battery-charged little disciple Worthy Fool (“er” is a term of endearment for “foolishness” in Beijing dialect), to encourage people to stay simple, “foolish” for more contentment, when Xian’er has become a symbol of China’s leading edge. Generation II of Xian’er is in the works, now involving a dozen IT companies and expecting a lot more sophisticated capabilities (but still for spiritual teaching and public welfare, not a commercial franchise).

While the technology fascinates people’s curiosity, it is the artful design and empathetic storytelling that connect with people in their hearts.

Will robot monks really be “smart” enough to understand human feelings and ever as wise as the hermits in the mountains? That is an even taller order than AlphaGo beating humans in Go, and a question the entire humanity will be grappling with in the coming decades and century.

However, the story of Xian’er and Longquan Temple serves as a brilliant example of a multi-disciplinary innovation generator – when you put diverse talents together, something unexpected happens beyond the imagination of any of the single-area expertise in silos.

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