Is Beijing a creative capital?

I think so. Read on to find out why. Get it here on the blog or the (slightly) censored version on China Daily:

Beijing gets a bad rap when it comes to creativity. While the international media lauds other world capitals as being “hip” and “quirky”, and having cool sounding things like “budding artists enclaves,” Beijing seems to appear in the press surrounded by buzz kill words like “politicos” and “business dealings.”

In defense of my beloved city, I say that this is a vibrant place where interesting people meet to do extraordinary – or simply unusual – things. I can prove my point with a rundown of strange encounters in the last couple of weeks.

On Sunday at 3pm, I was where I usually am at that hour – stretching and bending on a yoga mat.  However, I wasn’t doing yoga in a studio or at home. Instead, I was demonstrating an Eagle Pose to a crowd of snap-happy onlookers inside the cavernous main hall of a half-renovated art gallery in 798.

As a dozen or two iPhones, SLRs and video cameras flashed at me all I could think while balancing on one foot was “I hope my teacher doesn’t come crashing down on me.” That’s right, my teacher, who normally stands in front of me in class, was this time perched in a bird-like pose on a reinforced glass platform suspended over my head.

We two yogis were at the Yuanfen New Media Art Space participating in a “Living Prospectus” – more conventionally known as an “exhibit” – for the Yuanfen~Flow (YFF) project. YFF, according to the people who founded it, is “a dynamic new concept that distills the energy produced from the fusion of art, technology and business.”

Wait, that’s not all.

“[YFF] melds Yuanfen (缘分), the Taoist-Jungian synchronistic intersections of people, disciplines, events and places together with Flow, a concentrated, passion- and purpose-driven state-of-mind that drives tasks and productive activities.”

Translation: it’s so out-of-the-box you might not even get it. And it’s happening here in Beijing.

I recently got involved with YFF, which is the brainchild of David Ben Kay, gallery owner, curator and former General Counsel for Microsoft China. Before I came into the fold, the YFF group had already attracted a cult-like following of creative geniuses, computer programmers, new media artists, yogis, non-profit bleeding hearts and accomplished business people and academics, including senior current and former executives from Lenovo and Starbucks and professors at Columbia University and Parsons School.

From what I can make out, YFF seeks to combine art and technology within a self-sustainable business incubator model. The exhibit I participated in on Sunday was a live demonstration of some far-fetched sounding ideas, such as a virtual yoga platform, musical concerts delivered to remote locations via “telepresence” and 3D digital art sales. (If this piques your interest, or confuses you, go check it out for yourself at 798. The exhibit will stay open for 4 months).
The few days that I spent immersed in YFF culture, helping to write press and business documents in the “business headquarters”, in a predominantly male-populated home office affectionately called “The Troll Pit,” reinforced my belief that Beijing has an irresistible energy that draws creative people, dreamers and the adventurous.

Ever since I moved back to Beijing last year I’ve kissed goodbye to dinner conversations about promotions and year-end bonuses. In their place came dynamic discussions with brilliant people (who are sometimes a touch crazy), unafraid of changing life direction and doing something utterly different. In the last week alone at YFF I’ve met an Armenian lawyer turned filmmaker who has, just for kicks, practiced wushu on the French and Greek national teams; a Zimbabwean technology entrepreneur cum Bikram yoga instructor; a software programmer-slash-businessman-slash-accomplished speaker who has addressed audiences at Great Hall of the People, Diaoyutai and the People’s Party Consultative Conference; and an ex-US Marine, students and volunteers who have all flocked to this place, to this group, to strive for their wild goals.

I arrived at university a tad too late to have experienced first-hand the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley in the 1990’s. But, from the tales I’ve heard, I imagine that kind of daring and dreaming is what’s happening in Beijing right now. YFF people are diverse – in culture, ethnicity and age, ranging from seventeen to, I don’t know, forties and fifties? – but they have come together so intensely that they’ve adopted a lingo of their own.

“Come into the flow” and “How are things flowing?” are standard greetings in lieu of “Hello, how are you.” What they’re working on is clearly the beginning of something amazingly successful – “We’ll be millionaires in a couple of years” – or a grand experiment in abstract pie-in-the-sky stuff – “Have you heard of arcology?”

Whatever the outcome, it’s the fact that these people came together in Beijing that matters the most to me. Here, in the supposed piracy and low-end manufacturing capital of the world, original ideas are born and brought to fruition. That is what I love about Beijing.


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