Of Calligraphy Rats and Kung Fu Hustles: Beijing or Bust

Joy, our young Beijing local, is no professional presenter, but stick her in front of a camera, she took to it like a Peking duck to water. Joy was a ball of delight and enthusiasm from the moment we met, whether cameras were rolling or not – a real natural. She said she took her energy from the brilliant blue sky and sunshine that greeted us that day, but we suspect her bounce is actually something that she carries inside, regardless of the weather.


Joy explained that as a designer, she’s been studying the ancient Chinese art of calligraphy for years, and was keen to demonstrate her skills. Before she could do that, however, we needed to get the gear, so our first stop was the Liulichang antiquarian district for an intriguing shopping safari through her favourite calligraphy supply stores.

Liulichang is a small neighbourhood just south of Tian An Men Square, and was previously a centre for glass production, supplying fine glass to the palaces of the Forbidden City. These days, the best part to visit is a strip of elaborate traditional-style buildings within a maze of hutongs (old-style neighbourhoods with claustrophobic alleyways) with a genuine lost-world charm. Beijing locals cycled by on rusty vintage bikes, cooked or played Xiangqi (Chinese chess) in the lanes as they have done for generations, and this made for some sumptuous shots.

‘There are four essential things you must have to do good calligraphy’ says Joy as she hunts for the perfect brush, some rice paper, a bottle of ink and a stone inkwell. With hot, dusty sunbeams streaming through the window of the century-old calligraphy store, we riffle through scrolls and compare wolf bristle to goat hair to sable.

Once Joy was satisfied with her purchases, we went to find a quiet place to spread out and start writing. We came across an old traditional tea house, where counters along both sides of the ground floor were thronged with people sniffing, selecting, measuring and mixing rich fragrant tea by the pound from huge glass pots that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Upstairs, away from the bustle, we set up in a secluded corner beside the window and behind a bamboo screen.

A steaming pot arrived as Joy positioned the paper, brush, inkwell and ink. Ever keen to ensure we’re up to speed, she talked us through the intricacies of both tea drinking and calligraphy, and suddenly we’re transported back in time to ancient Beijing. We break the spell by pulling out digital cameras, a tripod and a mic, to jerk us back into 2014. Joy proceeds to skilfully demonstrate the elegant characters for Beijing, for Rat & Dragon, and for various other characters as we film.

In stark contrast, the next spot Joy wanted to show us was at the very forefront of modern Chinese contemporary art. In the outer suburbs of Beijing’s North East lies a steampunk-esque tangle of belching, churning smoke stacks, factories and electric plants. Towering chimneys reach into the sky and twisted, rusting networks of pipes snake through streets and lanes and alleys on groaning steel frames. It’s grey, urban-industrial, brick, steel and concrete.

As Joy led us deeper into the district, colours flared sporadically amid the bricks in the form of graffiti and posters. A small bronze sculpture of Vincent van Gogh hints at what lies ahead, but the next thing we saw blew our minds. Three red cages stacked one on another up to the height of the five story building beside them each contain a life-size bright red velociraptor. This is modern street sculpture on a monstrous scale. Further down the street, a steel lion with butterfly wings perches on a factory corner as an oversized child in horns looks down at two bikers as they rumble past on Harley Davidsons.

“This is the 978 Arts District” explains Joy, “The new centre of Chinese contemporary art. It’s crazy and amazing, and I don’t understand it, but I guess that’s the fun of what we call modern art.”

Fun and amazing it is. While smoke still billows from many of the chimneys, some of the factories have been converted to galleries, shops, biker bars and exhibition spaces and we enjoy the afternoon of filming, including an impromptu Kung Fu demonstration by Joys mate Woo Han which attracts quite a crowd, and then break for Beijing’s best coffee.

As night settles, Joy has one more local secret up her sleeve and takes us for a walk through student-oriented Nanlouguxiang. Back in the city centre, slightly north of the Forbidden City lay a couple of blocks of modern stores, bars and food places tucked into old hutong surrounds.

“This is where young Beijing people love to shop and people-watch. It’s also a great date spot for new couples” says Joy. Alleys lit with lanterns throb with energetic Beijing youth, out to shop for something funky. Indie fashion stores, bars and art boutiques all vie for attention here.

And finally, Joy insists that we must not leave Beijing without enjoying the all time classic Peking Duck. We settle into a restaurant and cause a bit of a fuss with the wait staff as we set cameras up on the duck trolley (great shots though) and finally wrap the day’s shooting with a cold Qingdao beer and one of the greatest meals of our lives.

Beijing is an incredible city, crammed with the old and the ultra modern. It’s busy, loud and boisterous. The Rat & Dragon crew has been enormously lucky to see the place through the bright, enthusiastic eyes of Joy, and if you visit we’d say this: Iconic sights are must-sees, that’s a given, but look beyond The Wall and dive into the local’s Beijing for it’s true flavour.