Much-needed makeover for Shenyang
Decades of industrial lifestyle gets checked by new-age art as culture firms sprout
Xu Bili is busy negotiating with a French curator to introduce a new art exhibition to Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province.
“I want to introduce more international arts and a modern lifestyle to Shenyang, to make the city stand out from others and be full of fun,” she said.
The Chinese-Belgian, 30, together with her husband and a partner, founded 1905 Re-creative Space in 2011 in Shenyang.
It is a commercial property that houses creative workshops, bars, cafes and such establishments alongside art exhibitions.
The space is retrofitted from a 79-year-old plant, which is preserved as a relic of, and a tribute to, the city’s glorious industrial history.
Known as the “Oriental Ruhr”, Shenyang has been the manufacturing base of China since 1930s. Here, there is never a shortage of “hard” signs such as huge factories. The city, however, lacks the “soft” touch of art exhibitions.
“The city is boring for youngsters. And I can hardly find a stylish café after 10 pm in the downtown,” Xu said.
“There is a cultural ‘gap’ in Shenyang. The old industrial civilization does not sit side by side with modernity. That’s why, I want to build a platform combining industrial culture, modern culture and arts.”
However, it’s not easy to find a clear for-profit model. Xu’s challenge is to make a clear break with the local culture as represented by Errenzhuan (a song-and-dance duet performance popular in Northeast China), and encourage local consumers to develop a new mindset.
Fortunately, she found a gold mine in the Single Lady Market site after numerous attempts. “The post-’80s and post-’90s women like literature and arts; they are our most active customers,” she said.
Over the years, Xu-led 1905 has developed open classes and workshops on various topics, ranging from painting to cooking.
The couple launched “We Are Here”, an international young artist exchange project, in 2013. In the past three years, 18 European artistshadvisited the 1905 space and created works together with local young artists.
At 2015-end, their venture’s annual income doubled from the level at the end of the first year of operations. Eighty percent of the profit came from the post-’80s and post-’90s single women.
“The 1905 space has become an icon for local arts. It can meet almost all of my needs like learning new things, art appreciation and bars. If you don’t know 1905, you are out (of fashion),” said Zang Weiwei, 25, a local single working woman.
Shao Jianbing, a professor at Liaoning University, said, “It appears single Chinese working women, especially in big cities, increasingly prefer to invest in themselves rather than in marriage. Also, consumption patterns of the younger generation have changed. They are more willing to pay for cultural and leisure things.”
Shao’s view is a throwback to economist F.T. McCarthy’s 2001 theory of “The Bridget Jones Economy” (or the single women economy), published first in The Economist magazine. According to him, single workingwomenare more likely to indulge in impulse buying. Data shows that single women’s spending on food and fashion is 2.7 times that of married women in the same age-group.
Xu said, “I hope to create a fashion lifestyle for them (single working women). Nearly all of my employees are post-’80s women who can relate well to youngsters and encourage them to develop local cultural and creative industries.”
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Two young performers enact Errenzhuan, or Bengbeng, a duet comprising song and dance, in Shenyang, China’s famous manufacturing base. For long home to age-old traditional lifestyle, it is seeking to reinvent itself by embracing modern art forms.
Consumers throng a flower and sapling art corner at the 1905 Re-creative Space in Shenyang. Zang Weiwei, 25, a local single working woman