Following the news that 696 Weihai Lu complex is up for sale to property development, the writers of Bound Editorial hope to commemorate the space through conducting an interview series of the more prominent members of its art community. Below, an interview with the owners of AroundSpace gallery.
I met with Ming Ming Chen and Jeff Zou, long-time partners and co-owners of AroundSpace gallery, in their 2nd floor office in building 9. The office and ad hoc terrace outside was the first space they acquired in the complex, back in 2006. The floor above us serves as an industrial white cube exhibition room while a ground floor exhibition space in building 11 has inherited elements of grandeur from its architectural origins. Now, Ming Ming and Jeff on Shanghai’s brand of urban renewal:
Let’s start with Ming Ming. What experiences led up to you and Jeff opening AroundSpace?
Ming Ming: I was born in Nanjing and graduated from Nanjing Art Institute, Graphic Design. I moved to Shanghai in 2003 and worked in English Media Companies for many years before AroundSpace.
Jeff, you were born in Nanjing, but spent your childhood in Shanghai before moving to Los Angeles for high school and college. Later you attended Central Saint Martins in London for fashion design. What brought you back to Shanghai?
Jeff: I came back for the memories. Some things remain in your mind, and they feel deep, but they aren’t clear. So one day I decided I wanted to come back and see if Shanghai was the same as the shadows in my mind. When I came back, though, I felt disoriented. Our old house had been torn down, and I couldn’t find a place to take my memories back to. All my reference points had been torn down. I was very disappointed.
But I still tried to figure out what was missing, like a puzzle I wanted to solve. Sometimes I would catch a glimpse of it in the way that people talk or the way they think. I felt there still existed something familiar here. Opening a gallery gave me a reason to stay a bit longer.
Third Floor of Building 9. The floor was completely rebuilt by Ming Ming.
How did you end up in 696?
Jeff: It’s in the middle of the city, but you still feel like you are hidden. For us, the gallery isn’t like a supermarket, but of course we also want a good location. It’s not a very commercial place, but it’s also not a very residential place. It’s in the middle. We were brought to another complex, but we didn’t like it because it was an area for migrant workers. It was cheap, but not for us. Not enough character and too stifling.
Ming Ming: In October 2006, Maleonn called us to visit his new studio. Even though the area was dark and still mostly vacant, we still thought it was really interesting, so the next day, we spoke with the management company. Initially we wanted a large space for exhibition, but the main building was already almost full, so we settled on an office space in the auxiliary building, which is where we are sitting now. Several months later, we built the 3rd floor above us and it became AroundSpace’s first exhibit space.
One of the unique pleasures of visiting Shanghai’s galleries is that you also tour the city’s architectural legacy at the same time, as many gallery spaces are housed in former industrial buildings or heritage homes. However AroundSpace has its created its own environment to showcase art. For example, the exterior walls of the second floor are half torn down. Most people might have repaired the walls.
Jeff: I didn’t want just a white box. I wanted to keep some of it open. One space is light, one is dark. One space is closed, the other is open. There is a flow in having the contrasting spaces. Actually, Ming Ming totally rebuilt the third floor herself.
Ming Ming: It was the first time in my life I ever built something. Eventually we took over the ground floor studio of Zheng Zaidong, a Taiwanese artist. At that time we collaborated with sculpture artist Shao Caozheng to start 纸语Gallery (Paper Language Gallery), dedicated to works on paper. Our first group show in the ground floor space was September 2007, the same time as the first ShContemporary, so a lot of people came. The show included big name artists like Mao Yan. The inaugural exhibit was a great success.
At that time, 696’s management company was offering three-month contracts, just like they’re doing now.
Ming Ming: Right, so even after the opening, we were still unsure about how long we could stay. Since the space was really rough and in disrepair, I had the idea of cleaning it up by covering the walls with rice paper, which also fit the concept of the gallery.
We learned how to make our own corn starch-based glue. We had to experiment with it, but finally we were happy to have used a natural, unscented solution that also saved us money. Later, we had the opportunity to acquire paper leftover from American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s visit to China in the 80’s. Part of the gallery uses the custom-made paper from that lot.
Second Floor, Building 9. Formerly the shower room of automobile factory.
Knowing that the government has five-year plans, they probably had the idea to develop this area eventually. Do you think this lack of security resulted in some reluctance on the part of tenants to fully invest their time and efforts into building long-term projects? In the three years that you’ve been here, to what extent did you feel secure investing time and money into the gallery?
Ming Ming: At the end of 2007, the tenants were offered two-year contracts by the management company. Zhang Bing of Duolun Museum had just launched the exhibition 696 Open Studio Group Show while we at 696 held our first open studio event. Duolun was supportive in trying to protect the area from demolition and arranged for TV crews to interview us. Maybe the media attention worked; I’m not sure. Perhaps the holding company simply wasn’t sure what to do with the area, so they decided to put all development projects on hold. The entire complex was rented out at that point – more than 40 studios – so at least there was stable income while they considered the next move. So they offered the tenants these two-year contracts, though at double the current rent. Since the rent at the time was less than 1rmb/sqm/day, it was still very reasonable. So 2008 and 2009 were smooth, and in 2010, we got another year’s lease with a small increase of five percent.
The complex has been dogged by rumors of impending development since you moved in. So why does it seem more real this time?
Jeff: Because this time the holding company sold the property to the Jing’an District government. Now 696 is part of the plan to develop Weihai Lu; it’s not a situation unique to our complex. A wide gap exists between the property prices of Nanjing Road and Weihai Road. The city will use the concept behind Xintiandi in Luwan district by rebuilding Jing’an Villas, the shikumen lane connecting the two roads (entrances are located at 1025 Nanjing Road and 650 Weihai Road). By using Jing’an Villa to connect the two streets, they hope to turn Weihai Lu into an extension of Nanjing Road.
The city wants to position the area as an international media district because at one end of Weihai Lu is the Shanghai Television Station, and Wenxin Publishing Group, the biggest newspaper group here, is located at the other end.
It’s not just little 696, this space is part of a big whole project.
Is it any consolation that it’s not the underground art community being targeted?
Jeff: It doesn’t feel better, but I understand. Sooner or later, they gotta do what they gotta do. It belongs to a big project.
Ming Ming: We really accept the fact, but I’m nervous about all that we need to do to move and the fact that we won’t be able to find such a nice big space downtown. It would be impossible.
Do you think raising the profile of the artists and the area as a whole would have deterred the owner from selling the property?
Ming Ming: It would at least get them paid, especially if there were more prominent artists. Five years ago, M50 faced the same situation as we are in now. The area had already been sold to a real estate company, but they didn’t redevelop the area because the artists in M50 were of good quality and the area had a high profile, so the Putuo district government thought it would benefit their district. Hongkou, Yangpu….every district wants an art and culture element, so I can’t help but think that if we were strong enough, perhaps the Jing’an government would consider us… but we’re not strong enough.
The history of 696 is tattooed on the buildings, specifically in the way the industrial and residential structures are mixed together and the annexes that were quickly built over the years. Are you familiar with the history of the complex?
Ming Ming: Of course, but the government doesn’t want to talk about this because the story behind getting the space is very bloody and ugly. 696 Weihai Road was the address for the Chen family home. The patriarch was a wealthy shipping magnate from Chaozhou. He built this house for his family in 1932. You can imagine; just one family lived in this sprawling mansion.
Jeff: All the materials were imported. The floor of our space uses Italian tiles.
Ming Ming: Some of the grandchildren remain very rich. Around 2002 or 2003, some of the Chen descendents made an attempt to buy the area back, but it cost a lot. At that time, Weihai Lu was just a back street for auto repair, car accessories, tires, etc. It was very low class. The family didn’t know what to do with it even if they were able to buy it back, so they gave up. At that time, the government may have already slated the area for development and so may have been reluctant to sell it back to the family. I’m not sure; it might be just a rumor.
Once, an old lady came to visit. She must have been 70 or 80 years old. She was one of the Chen daughters. She explained how the house used to be laid out. Now she lives just down the road on Shaanxi, but that day was the first time she’d been back to the house since she was college age.
Ground Floor of Building 11. The walls are covered in rice paper.
Jeff: She never came back, even though she’s been living so close. She only came back because some of the other family members were interested in buying back the property, so she came with them. Also, I think for her it was her way of properly saying farewell to a place that represented such powerful memories.
There are so many additional structures on the property now, it’s difficult to imagine this area was once a single mansion with a garden. Clearly this area has been repurposed. What happened since the Chens were forced out?
Jeff: It’s totally different now. Where we are now used to be a garden.
With a lot of old buildings in Shanghai, floors were added onto buildings to accommodate all the members of the army from the north who didn’t have a place to stay when they arrived during the liberation. Back then, elevators were required in buildings taller than three storeys. Shanghai at that time was a very modern city.
Ming Ming: You can see building 11 doesn’t have an elevator, which means it wasn’t originally five storeys like it is now.
High-ranking members of the Communist Party were allowed to adopt nice buildings for their own use so once the army didn’t need the space, automobile factories were added to the property. Outside our office used to be the shower room for the factory manager.
Jeff: My friend says the scars of these buildings illustrate the succession of power in this city.
Now that the city will take control of the area, they will likely develop the area into another Xintiandi. What do you think is the appeal of that brand of development?
Ming Ming: The government is trying to cater to a certain market, which is a different audience from ours. For example, the people who love 696 might hate Xintiandi, but when the government chooses to do something to attract a lot of people, they tend to take a more upscale approach. They like very clean, expensive coffee bars and Louis Vuitton. They don’t like a place where you just get a bottle of water.
What’s wrong with being “clean”?
Ming Ming: Yeah I like clean, but for clean you need a lot of money to do it. Who will pay the money, and how do you then get it back? That’s the same problem with all the creative districts in Shanghai and in all of China. In New York or Zurich there are gallery areas like M50 – old factories or something – but it’s also very clean. For example, even if each gallery put a million into our spaces, we won’t then earn two million back. Our market is very undeveloped. It’s just a seed that has yet to flower.
For people from all over the world, they’ve already seen Berlin and New York, so they can feel that this place is similar to somewhere they’ve been. We try to match that type of audience with this type of place, but the big problem is with the local market. Some Chinese come to our gallery – “Oh, you haven’t finished remodeling, you are still under construction.” And then I tell them we are finished. It’s a huge cultural gap.
Over the years, all kinds of media have come to me for interviews. The most attractive point for me is that we have a bit of an underground vibe, so that’s a conflict for the government. Yet, if we attract a lot of attention then we lose the underground vibe. If we don’t attract enough attention, then we disappear.
This is the second in a series of interviews with tenants of the 696 Weihai Lu complex. Read our interview with photographer Maleonn. For more images of AroundSpace, flip through their Look Book.