Published: 15:39, December 12, 2021 | Updated: 17:59, December 12, 2021
Art gives hutong a sense of community
By Cheng Yuezhu

Neighborhood revitalization project brings generations together in creative ways that celebrate a real feeling of belonging, Cheng Yuezhu reports.

The Very OK Shop inside the Chaoyangmen Cultural Center in Beijing features products suited to the needs of the elderly.(PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The oasis in central Beijing's Dongcheng district provides shelter from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Its name offers no clue to its traditional appeal but 27 Yard is actually a Beijing-style courtyard, with gray tile roofs, crimson doors, a tree that has witnessed passing generations taking shade, and cats lying lazily nearby soaking up what sunlight there is.

The courtyard has a vibrancy, a pulse of its own, with a variety of events taking place on a daily basis in its 10 main spaces that host a shop, a gallery, a reading area and a multimedia hall.

We chose localization. I have never worked with so many old people, so I started getting to know them.

Niu Ruixue, founder of 27 Yard, also known as the Chaoyangmen Cultural Center

Since 2016, it has been offering refreshing experiences to both nearby residents and visitors attracted by its reputation, from hobby groups and workshops to exhibitions and performances.

However, when Niu Ruixue, founder of 27 Yard, also known as the Chaoyangmen Cultural Center, first visited the courtyard in 2016, it was down at heel, with dusty, undecorated rooms and shabby facilities.

At that time, she had completed her master's degree in drama directing in France, and was interested in public art projects. She co-founded the Beijing ONE Art and Creativity Institute with her friend Yu Ge, and hosted an art festival in 2013 and more than 60 art projects in Beijing hutong throughout the following year.

The center's experimental public art project When I ... Just Like You seeks to build a platform that connects and integrates the younger generation with senior residents. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Their experience in public art drew the attention of the Chaoyangmen subdistrict office of Dongcheng district people's government, which saw the potential of Niu's team in revitalizing the local community.

"The deputy head of the office came up to me and said that the Chaoyangmen subdistrict office had two imminent duties: preservation of historical architecture and community revitalization. He said that what we did had a sense of community revitalization to it, and invited me to come and visit the courtyard," Niu says.

Despite Niu's concern about working in a local community, she finally accepted the offer. Yu quit her job, and the team has been based in the courtyard ever since.

The cultural center was opened to the public on Sept 10, 2016, and was soon named as the Chaoyangmen subvenue for that year's Beijing Design Week. With fans aware of their previous projects, the center's establishment boosted the neighborhood's cash flow.

But strangely, after a bustling first two months, the courtyard was shrouded in silence and locals became almost wary of the organization, sometimes peeping through the doors to see what's going on but hardly ever actually stepping inside. There was what modern market analysts would describe as a disconnect. Put simply, what was on offer did not appeal to the core audience.

"We started to reflect on ourselves and felt that maybe we really were not down-to-earth enough. We thought our art projects had already leaned toward the general public, but at the time, those who participated in our projects were literati, not the vast majority of the public," Niu says.

The center has hosted more than 3,100 events since its launch, including retro dance parties. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Chaoyangmen subdistrict office proposed two initiatives-the team should aim to upgrade the local public culture, and improve the sense of well-being for local residents, 60 percent of whom are senior citizens, including advocating for young people to return to the community.

"We must address the questions, including how to deal with the elderly, how to enhance their sense of well-being, what we can do that is unique, and what we can provide the elderly with. We chose localization. I have never worked with so many old people, so I started getting to know them. It's also an opportunity to expand my cognition," Niu says.

The team members then worked to make friends with the locals, letting them know that they were new members of the community, and learned from the experience of the neighborhood committee in having effective communication with the residents.

The center then started to provide cultural activities that would cater to the interests of the locals, and answer the practical needs of the residents, from solving the tiniest problems of living in a hutong, to enriching their everyday lives.

Apart from offering venues to the community's existing hobby groups, the center also aims to host innovative activities attended by both young and old people, such as retro dance parties, natural dyeing and coffee art workshops.

She says that, since its launch, the team has hosted more than 3,100 events, about 300 of which were originated by the team itself, and have been attended by more than 30,000 people each year.

In these projects, young participants usually account for around 50 percent, sometimes approaching 70 percent. While the figures prove the achievements of the team in reintroducing young people to the local community, the team aims to keep control of the demographics and maintain a balance between young and old participants.

A group photo of Niu Ruixue (fifth from left, front row) and the rest of the team from 27 Yard in Beijing. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In 2018, the center hosted the first edition of When I ... Just Like You, an experimental public art project that sought to build a platform that connects and integrates the younger generation with senior residents.

The project gathered a dozen of senior residents, aged up to 85, and a dozen young people, the youngest being 24, from all walks of life, and paired them with one another. The young people were assigned to take the elderly on a "date", that is any activity they find interesting, and the old people were told to bring to their young friends attire they wore at a younger age.

"For most people, the natural process of aging does not seem to require textbook explanations, but the indiscernible changes in our lives sometimes can be amplified and overwhelm us, and we are often flustered when dealing with issues caused by aging," a young participant of the first edition, under the pseudonym of Ujiang, wrote as she reflected on her experience.

"In fact, we need these conversations (between the young and the elderly). Once such conversation has been started, we will reshape our future and the future us."

The project then hosted its second edition in 2019. This year, to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, a special edition was held, joined by young and old Party members.

Rui Li, an elderly local resident, has been an active participant in the community cultural activities, being a member of the community dance team, and participated in the When I... Just Like You project. She says that she is very proud to be a resident here.

"Since the establishment of 27 Yard, we, the elderly who have nothing much to do after retirement, feel that our lives are becoming more meaningful and our sense of contentment has been enhanced,"Rui says.

"Many of the activities they organized were not only interesting, but also brought us inspiration, knowledge and thoughts. For example, we especially liked the art project When I ... Just Like You. It made me feel that I was young again and was able to relive my life."

Contact the writer at chengyuezhu@chinadaily.com.cn